How To Improve Your Willpower Without Thinking About It

Willpower habits to help you win at life.

If I had one superpower I could wish for, I’d choose superhuman willpower.

Think about how much you could do if you had endless reserves of willpower. Think about how much you’d accomplish if you never procrastinated. Perhaps, you could get months and years back.

Alas, that’s not how it works, does it?

Willpower is limited. And we have to play by the rules.

In my own philosophy of personal development, I give enormous weight to three fundamental skillsconcentration, willpower, and magnetism.

But you don’t need me to tell you how important working on your willpower is.

So how would a life with superhuman willpower look like for you? You’d probably exercise at least thrice a week, watch less TV, read more, procrastinate less, save more money, eat little junk food, didn’t do impulse purchases, etc.

The possibilities of strong willpower are numerous. Yet, willpower is actually overrated.

Roy Baumeister is one of the leading researchers on the science of willpower. Along with his colleagues, he researched a few people who seem to have enormous reserves of willpower.

They were practically saints:

  • They ate healthily

  • Exercised regularly

  • Were well educated

  • Were successful in their field

  • Spent ample time with friends and family

  • Reported happiness and fulfillment in their lives

To see what these people did differently as compared to their weak-willed peers, researchers gave them a button to press every time they exercised their willpower.

And then, something funny happened. They hardly pressed the buttons throughout the day.

How is it that these people with strong will don’t exercise their willpower at all?

The answer was — they didn’t need to. They, unlike the rest of us, knew that willpower is a limited resource and you can’t draw on it endlessly throughout the day.

So, they set up their lives to support the actions they wanted to take.

Gradually, I’ve learned the same from my experience. Willpower rarely works when you want to establish new habits, be consistent with your work, and avoid the bad stuff.

Instead, I spend a lot of time trying to beat my natural instincts. I set my life up so I don’t have the option of doing things that I don’t want to do.

Here are some lessons I’ve learned over time that will help you skyrocket your willpower without trying.

Why I Won Every Debate After Lunch Time

As a high school kid, I used to participate in inter-school debates. Man, those were tough.

They usually had more than thirty pairs of students speaking on the same topic — one for and one against.

As you can imagine, listening to sixty speeches back-to-back and doing justice to them is difficult. I once saw the judge sleeping when I was giving my speech.

The next time, when I went for any debate, I fought to have the first, or second spot *after lunch. *Because hungry judges never hear a word you say, let alone select you for the next round.

This worked phenomenally well. Once, out of sixty students, only six were selected, and I was one of them. Sure, my material was well-researched and I spoke well, but I also struck the hammer at the right time.

The little trick I played worked well due to what’s called Decision Fatigue.

Willpower is like a muscle and the more you use it, the more fatigued it becomes. When your willpower is fading and your brain is tired of making decisions, it’s easier to deny the student to be selected for the next round.

Research by the National Academy of Sciences also confirms this — a criminal was much more likely to get a favorable response if their parole hearing was scheduled in the morning (or immediately after a food break) than if it was scheduled near the end of a long session.

Do This to Avoid Decision Fatigue

Always plan the night before.

I write down my to-do list in the order of priority and start working on it the next day.

Plus, I don’t use complicated systems — just a pencil and a piece of paper because if I have to open an app to access that information, I’m more likely to be distracted.

Thinking about what to do next is always taxing on your brain. And 80% of productivity is about deciding what to work on — other details are inconsequential.

Know this — your brain likes distraction. When you’re sitting there thinking about what to do next, it will push you to open YouTube or Netflix. And before you know it, an hour is gone.

Instead, don’t let these situations come up. By knowing what to do next, you don’t have to worry about analyzing the importance of every task — because you’ve done it the night before.

Willpower Won’t Work

Many of the individuals in the study by Roy Baumeister mentioned that if they get behind a bar stool, they’ll never leave. Others reported that they were not able to resist sweets whenever they were around.

These people experience all the cravings and temptations you do — they’re only human.

Yet, they go on the offense and ensure they don’t put themselves in compromising situations.

They proactively thought about all the situations they’d face and set themselves up for success beforehand.

Some examples include:

  • Packing your gym clothes the night before

  • Remove sweets from the house

  • Clear your desk

  • Set a coffee timer to wake up

The underlying issue is this — you always fall to the level of your systems. The better systems you have, the more consistent you’ll be. And we all know where consistent actions lead us.

So to make good decisions on autopilot, think about what systems you can put in place.

Burn the Ships

When it comes to making systems work in my life, I live by the philosophy of burning the ships — that is, eliminating options so much so that I have no choice but work on what I have to

Here are concrete examples from my life:

  • I keep all my electronic devices in a bag and lock it up in a high cupboard every night. This way, I only open them when I’m done with my morning meditation and workout. If they’re always kept in front of me, I’ll find an excuse to open them and then you know what happens.

  • I have a day job which starts around 10 am every morning. To ensure I have a writing career, I have to write every ~1000 words before that time. I do that using the Cold Turkey Writer that blocks everything on my laptop until I reach a word/time limit. I have no options left — I can either stare at the wall or write. Before this, I was often sucked into replying to comments, messages, and emails which left little time to write.

  • I use Cold Turkey Micromanager which allows me to only work on one application at a time (that I choose) for a set time limit. I use this for editing in MS Word and disable everything else on my computer to get my editing done as fast as possible.

  • I eat the same breakfast every day — a bowl of black chickpeas.

  • I’ve made my devices as distraction-free as possible. You can read about it here.

The Most Underrated Willpower Hack

Margaret Thatcher was wrong — sleep is not for the weak, at least when it comes to willpower.

When you’re sleep-deprived, your prefrontal-cortex doesn’t work as well it should. The brain is not able to absorb glucose — which it uses as fuel. This means you just lost the ‘power’ in willpower.

When this happens, you’ll crave caffeine and simple carbohydrates. The fact you rush for that afternoon snack or latte as a pick-me-up isn’t a surprise anymore, is it?

The afternoon snack gives you a high, but you know what goes up always comes down. It’s not sustainable.

There are two ways to fix this.

First, take a nap. Most people underestimate just how much energy a 20-minutes nap can give you. Companies are increasingly becoming okay with employees taking naps because they know it only adds to their productivity and creativity.

I get up around 5 am. Yet, even though I sleep for 7–8 hours every night, I get tired by noon. This is only normal. Additionally, I’ve come to love naps so much that I often take one to give me a boost even when I’m not particularly tired.

A nap isn’t only about the energy you get from it, it’s about the willpower. By napping around noon or after lunch, I have enough willpower to not make stupid decisions like eating biscuits, drinking coffee or watching Friends for two hours.

Second, if you’re getting too tired every day, there might be an issue with your sleep. Here are some quick tips to sleep better:

  • Make your room as dark as possible,

  • An eye mask is a great investment,

  • Keep it cool — around 20 C,

  • Don’t consume caffeine in any form (coffee, dark chocolate, etc) ten hours before bedtime. The caffeine half-life is surprisingly long.

  • Stop looking at screens an hour before bed. Plan your day, journal, read a book or talk to your loved ones.

  • Do a couple of breathing exercises to wind down your mind and body before bed.

  • If possible, have a sleep tracking device. Though its optional, it can give you cues as to what’s working and what you can do to fix it. I do this with a Fitbit Versa Lite.

Get Moving

You saw this coming, didn’t you?

Researchers at Macquarie University, Sydney found in a study that exercise significantly increased willpower in participants.

And what’s more important is they didn’t have to do much. The participants were complete non-exercisers, between the ages of 18 and 50. They were told to go to the gym 1x/week for the first month and 3x/week for the second month.

This is something we all can achieve. You don’t need to go to the gym every day, or for that matter, go to the gym at all.

People often ask what type of exercise should they do. But the better question to ask oneself is, “What kind of exercise am I willing to do?”

Your brain doesn’t really care that much. You get the same willpower benefits if you do a sprint or lift weights. So as long as you’re not sitting, lying down or standing still, you will see the benefits you want.

If all else, fails, go for a walk — take your calls and meetings while walking. It increases the supply of blood to the brain and thus gives you massive willpower benefits.

Again, don’t get caught in the technicalities. What you do doesn’t matter — the only thing that matters is you do it consistently.

Think About What You Put in Your Body

When it comes to willpower, it’s best to avoid high-glycemic food most of the time.

Unless you’re fasting, your brain runs on glucose which it gets from any food that has calories. Yet, as you know, not all calories are created equal. Sugary foods like chocolate will give you a quick spike of glucose but will crash as fast.

Your willpower works in tandem with your glucose levels. To ensure a steady stream of willpower reserves you need to have steady glucose in your bloodstream; not sugar/caffeine-driven highs and lows.

You can achieve this by eating enough lean proteins, nuts with omega-3 fatty acids like walnuts, and a lot of greens.

Eating healthy and having willpower is a self-serving cycle — a good one!

The more willpower you have, the healthier you eat, and the healthier you eat, the more willpower you have.

Finally, My Favorite

Meditation, my favorite, is the quickest way to train your willpower, albeit not as easy for most people, I’d assume.

The reasons meditation works so well are many.

First, it trains you to reduce mind-wandering and get back control of your mind. Most of our waking time is spent reminiscing about the past or thinking about the future. Here are some tips for you to get started with the practice.

Second, it improves your Heart Rate Variability.

HRV measures the consistency of time gaps between two heartbeats over some time. For example, if the time between your first and second heartbeat is 1 second and that between your second and third beat is 0.8 seconds, then you have heart rate variability.

This means you are being controlled by your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. Together they form the autonomic nervous system.

The sympathetic nervous system is the “fight or flight” mode. This is when your body releases hormones like cortisol, norepinephrine, and adrenaline.

The parasympathetic nervous system is exactly the opposite. It slows down your heart rate, relaxes you, and makes you more aware in general.

A high HRV means that you can switch between the two parts of your nervous system. Meaning you can adapt to high-stress situations as well as relax in times of no stress. People who have low HRV cannot respond to different situations. They are often chronically stressed, depressed, and generally unhappy.

HRV directly determines the depth of your willpower reserves.

A person with low HRV would experience negative emotions like stress, anxiety, etc. In such states, it is difficult to make logical decisions. When you’re exhausted after a fight with a friend, it is unlikely that you’ll muster the strength to hit the gym. You’d love to watch movies instead.

On the flip side, when you’re calm and have a high HRV, you’ll pause and think for a moment before giving in to any impulses. It enables us to “pause-and-plan” our response before making a decision and avoid the default “fight-or-flight” response.

Third, meditation helps you live mindfully. So much of our days go on autopilot. What you wear, eat, how you brush your teeth, the route you take to the office, etc. While that’s fine and dandy, you lose your ability to live intentionally.

This automaticity of actions hurts us when it comes to distractions and bad habits. It’s the reason behind our eating junk food, procrastinating, and watching Netflix when we clearly have more important things to do.

Getting the control back is easy. The next time you brush your teeth, why don’t you try brushing each one separately? I know it sounds crazy — but it starts with small things. Tie your shoelaces with utmost concentration. Walk as if you’re kissing the earth with your feet.

All this will make you more mindful of the temptations that make you fall into your old patterns. In fact, this is the reason why meditation works well with recovering smoking addicts — they start to feel when the temptation to smoke arises and let it pass instead of acting on it. This awareness is priceless.

The Takeaway

Here are all the things you need to know to improve your willpower today:

  • Avoid decision fatigue by planning your day the night before and simplifying your life.

  • Realize willpower won’t work. Using the mentality of burning the ships, block all distractions, and leave no choice for yourself except for working on your task.

  • Pay attention to your sleep. There’s no guilt in taking a nap if you need to.

  • Get moving — even a 20-minute walk is enough

  • Pay attention to your diet — eat low-glycemic foods like lean protein, nuts, etc.

  • Meditate to live mindfully, reduce mind-wandering, and make better decisions.

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Written on October 28, 2020