If you are feeling discouraged about not being able to get things done, or find yourself losing time on activities that are "fun" in the moment but don't fulfill any of your life's ambitions, you need to know more about the true nature of the quality called "willpower"!
We used to think we were born with a certain amount of willpower and the amount of willpower we had couldn't be changed. But now science is challenging that old assumption. It's time for a new look at what "willpower" really is, and a fresh start on beating procrastination!
What is willpower?
The quality we call "willpower" is related to what I call the "intention gap" - that gap between what we intend to get done and what we actually get done.
You can think of willpower as being like a battery with a limited amount of charge. And just as the charge on a battery goes down when we use the battery, "willpower" can be depleted when we draw on our "willpower battery"!
Although we inherit our willpower potential, we can improve our willpower with practice and we can maximize our willpower throughout the day - if we approach it strategically!
What tasks and situations drain willpower?
Well, certainly "resisting temptation" is part of what it means to have "willpower" but there's a lot more to it than that!
Our "willpower battery" is used to:
- Make Decisions
- Manage Our Emotions
- Regulate Our Behavior
Every time we make decisions, manage our emotions, or regulate our behavior, the brain’s supply of fuel goes down, and it gets harder to regulate ourselves in the way we intend to.
Making decisions zaps our brain's energy supply. Even making small decisions taps the charge on your willpower battery. What kinds of tasks involve decision making? Well basically anything that isn't a habit!
Common examples include shopping, handling email, filing, planning lists and agendas, or any kind of straightening up or organizing.
And of course choosing anything! Ordering from a menu, picking out what to wear, deciding which veggies are the freshest, and making a choice of lanes to drive in. You name it, if it involves a choice, your willpower is being depleted!
Also getting started on a new task requires decision making, and it also requires regulating behavior and in most cases, it requires some degree of managing your emotions. So starting new tasks can be very draining to your willpower battery.
Managing emotions zaps our willpower. Anytime we need to contend with negative self-talk or blame, or deal with our feelings of irritation, boredom, anger or sadness, or we are in physical pain, our willpower supply is being drained and is going to need to be recharged!
Resisting temptation and regulating behavior
Controlling what we say or do drains our willpower battery. For example, we tap into our willpower battery when we make a presentation, write a report, or follow directions. And the more precise the movements need to be, the more willpower is being drained.
Just getting your body to do something it isn't currently doing requires willpower. This makes transitions particularly draining of willpower.
Over-riding the desire to do something in the moment drains your willpower. The greater the resolve you need to exert in order to resist, the more significant the drain on your willpower.
Signs that willpower has been depleted
It's a good idea to be able to notice the signs that your willpower has been zapped out and it's time to replenish your brain's supply of fuel.
One indication is feeling hungry, and in fact, many people experience a craving for sweets! The brain doesn't actually want sweets though, it wants glucose! So you need to feed it the correct foods (more on that later)!
Another sign that your willpower has been depleted is that you feel things more intensely than normal. If things seem to bother you more than they usually do, or it sort of feels like the volume has been turned up on your life, then maybe it’s because your willpower has been depleted.
And another common sign your willpower has been exhausted is that you feel fatigued or sleepy. This is one way the brain signals to the body that it's time to recharge.
How to increase willpower
Willpower "exercises" can help you develop the parts of the brain that control decision making, prioritization, behavioral regulation, and emotional management.
Activities in which you need to override a habit - any habit - with a different behavior will flex your willpower muscles.
A few suggestions include writing with your non-dominant hand or using your non-dominant hand to do typical things such as getting items out of cabinets, turning on the lights, etc. But don't use your non-dominant hand to do anything involving knives, for goodness sake!
You can also read a book or newspaper upside down. This is a great way to work out your "willpower muscles." Start out with five minutes the first day and increase by five minutes every day until you reach one hour!
How to replenish willpower
Increasing your ability to manage your life requires adequate glucose in your brain to fuel your willpower. It also requires your prefrontal cortex to override the automatic part of the brain and get control! To do that, the brain needs the neurotransmitter, serotonin. Here are some great ways to increase the available serotonin in your brain so you increase your willpower!
Tie to values
Pause, and remember WHY you want to do…or not do…something! There is no stronger force than your personal value system. Getting in touch with the things that matter to us, the things we value, is a potent recharger of our willpower battery.
What you feed your brain determines how much blood glucose and neurotransmitters are available to you to manage your emotions, behavior and decisions. Here are two tips for getting the most willpower all day long!
Mom was right, breakfast matters!
But the ideal breakfast begins with a serotonin hack - a small amount (depending on the food, 1/4 to 1/2 cup) of low-glycemic load, non-refined carbohydrate about 5 minutes before consuming any protein.
Some good options include:
Carbs are not all created equal!
Eat slow burning carbohydrates at every meal. These include whole, unprocessed grains, legumes, vegetables, nuts and seeds. Slow burning carbs keep the brain fueled for much longer than any other kind of food. Eating slow burning carbs at every meal gives the brain what it needs to keep going.
And avoid processed flour and sugar products because they play havoc with glucose levels and take you on a rollercoaster ride that leads to greater fatigue and lower productivity.
And for at least 30% of us, consuming refined sugar and processed flour leads to cravings and mild depression. The bottom line is that refined flour and sugar products are the enemy of productivity, focus, weight control, and happiness.
Strategically plan tasks for energy management during the day
Remember that alternating "easy" and "draining" tasks isn't as straightforward as it seems! Any task (such as handling email!) that requires decision making zaps our willpower battery. So don't make the mistake of alternating answering email with writing that big report or the report will not get written!
Getting started on a new task drains willpower too, so don't shift tasks without a solid plan. And, don't split your concentration between two tasks. Every time you shift from one thing to another, you draw down from your willpower storehouse.
Meditation, gratitude, and prayer
When we get in touch with forces greater than ourselves, we not only receive strength and fortitude, we also to replenish the brain's energy supply.
Tap into your social network
Call a friend, talk with a loved one, pet your dog, in other words - connect! Connection revitalizes our brain chemistry and makes it easier to get things done. Connecting is a potent way to recharge our willpower for productivity!
Exercise, movement, stretching, and balancing
These "whole body" tactics charge-up your system. Short movement breaks - 30 seconds to 5 minutes are revitalizing. Even exercise to the point of fatigue can boost your brain's serotonin levels, promoting greater attention and ability to manage your decisions.
How to manage energy all day
Get to know your energy cycles. Learn your own rhythms and get in touch with the signs that your willpower is running low. Learn to recognize the warnings that you need to revitalize your energy! Make a plan to replenish willpower at strategic intervals during the day.
A big part of managing willpower for the long haul is to reduce the number of decisions you need to make in the moment to almost nothing. Your brain goes into power saving mode when it runs a habit which means that habits require far less willpower to perform than making decisions!
The more good decisions you can turn into supportive habits, the less drain on your willpower tank you’ll experience throughout the day. The long term effect is that it will free up more of your willpower fuel for other things and minimize the number of "temptations" you're faced with every day!
Identify a "willpower draining" task you engage in regularly. Pinpoint a task that requires lots of decision making or one that is associated with intense (usually negative) feelings. Just identifying this task gives you more power to understand how your willpower is being drained during the day.
Now, ask yourself the question, "How can I reduce the drain on my willpower for this task?" With several strategies in mind, you're now in a position to take the kind of action that will improve your productivity.
The payoff from understanding how to increase willpower is obvious - better time and task management, more confidence that you can make things happen in your life, and greater peace of mind that you're going to achieve in ways that are personally meaningful and fulfilling to you! Be strategic about how you orchestrate your tasks and breaks and you'll keep your willpower battery fueled all day long!
Want to learn more effective ways to beat procrastination and close the "intention gap"? Get started with my free e-course,
Dr. Kari Miller - ADHD & Productivity Coaching For Women and Students
Imagine finally feeling focused, confident and in control of your time and your tasks. What would it be like to release the frustration and shame and finally be able to skillfully manage your home, your career and your life! If you've tried all the "traditional" approaches to time and task management, but the pieces haven't come together for you yet, contact me - I can help!