Willpower Awareness

I recently completed listening to the audio book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg which opened up my eyes to just how influenced everybody is by habits. One concept from the book stood out to me more than the rest, strongly relating to my situation and changed the way I’ve been planning my days since. What is this concept? Quite simply, the fact that our willpower isn’t limitless and can be depleted.

For a very long time, I’ve always believed that the ability to get stuff done was only a matter of determination and effort. I thought that there is no limit to how much you can work given you are physically able. This way of thinking caused me to plan my days full of work with little time for rest or entertainment.

Surprisingly this strategy actually worked quite well, only on occasion would I crack and go binge drink with my friends at a club. Recently though this plan stopped working almost altogether. What caused it? Working my way to getting a summer body.

As discussed in a previous blog I recently implemented a strict diet and training program into my daily routine. At the start, I simply added a couple more cardio exercise sessions to my weekly plan and put a meal plan into place. Everything else was kept the same, I assumed that I’d be able to get the exact same amount of work done every week, minus the extra time I’d be spending in the gym or cooking.

I was very surprised to find that after a week or so I wasn’t able to finish even half of the work I used to be able to. The tasks that used to be a breeze now seemed like huge obstacles and sustaining focus for long enough to complete them seemed almost impossible.

I rationalized that I’m not determined enough and that I need to work harder but no matter how hard I tried I simply was not able to do nearly as much as before. Then one day, while walking on a stair machine at the gym listening to The Power of Habit the author began talking about how willpower is limited. The studies used to prove this theory involved examining how people performed and reacted to certain activities after already exerting willpower versus people who hadn’t.

It turned out that the people who had exerted willpower performed worse in later mentally straining activities than those who hadn’t. People who exerted willpower became more frustrated and weren’t able to persevere through failures.

This is when I realized that my own willpower is also limited and that by introducing a meal plan and exercise the remaining parts of my day were affected. Saying no to junk food all throughout the day, or jogging for 30 minutes will make it far more difficult to write a blog post or read a chapter of a software book.

Several things began to make sense at this point, like for example why I would cheat on my diet if I put in a lot of effort into doing work in the morning. As a result, I began taking the limitations of my willpower into account when planning my day, setting just enough “tasks” such that all of them could be done without me snapping and going on an eating spree.

After only a couple of days of toning it down, things began to fall into place. I was able to complete whatever work I planned far more effectively, and with a lot more joy. I began to have more energy throughout the day, and actually had time to sit back and watch a movie or two. My diet fell into place as well, with ice cream binges happening nowhere near as often. The lesson I learned is that mental energy has to be treated as a previous resource and invested into what is important now.


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Karol Zdebel

Recent Computer Science graduate, and current Android developer.

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