Why Willpower is Insufficient

If you’re trying to get work done, and but have a bad habit of checking Facebook every ten minutes, you might be tempted to think, “Oh well, I just won’t do that tomorrow.”

However, the “I just won’t do that” mindset is often ineffective because it relies solely on willpower.

Cal Newport, in his book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, describes the nature of willpower:

You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it.

Your will, in other words, is not a manifestation of your character that you can deploy without limit; it’s instead like a muscle that tires.

So willpower is not a viable long-term solution to improving our lives. So what is? The answer is: Forming habits that are conducive to our goals.

How do we do this?

Shawn Achor outlines two helpful techniques in his book, The Happiness Advantage: How a Positive Brain Fuels Success in Work and Life:

1. Put Beneficial Habits on the Path of Least Resistance

When trying to form a new habit, there is a certain amount of inertia that we have to overcome in order to get the ball rolling. Achor calls this “activation energy”  He says that in to make habits stick, we need to reduce the amount of activation energy it requires.

He provides an example from his own life. Achor wanted to practice guitar every night after work. However, after several weeks he had played only a few days.

Frustrated, Achor decided to try a new strategy, he put his guitar in the center of the living room instead of his closet. The difference was minimal, it saved him only about 20 seconds, but he found this reduction in required activation energy was enough to make him follow through with regularly playing his guitar.

Later in the chapter, he describes how he eliminated his habit of excessively watching TV.  Achor took the batteries out of his remote and put them in a drawer twenty seconds away. Sure enough, this small barrier to watching TV was enough to make him spend his leisure time in a more rewarding way.

I love these two stories because they demonstrate that improving our lives doesn’t necessarily require major changes, but rather if we can make good habits a little easier, and bad habits a little harder, our lives much better in the long run.

In my own life, I’ve installed a Chrome extension called BlockSite that blocks distracting websites. It takes under five seconds to disable it, but that is usually enough to keep me from getting distracted by YouTube.

Also, the block screen is hilarious:
block screen

2. Be Consistently Legalistic.

According to Achor, habits usually take around three weeks to form. During this period, sticking with the potential habit no matter what is essential to forming it:

At work, settings rules to reduce the volume of choice can be incredibly effective. For example, if we set rules to only check our e-mail once per hour, or to only have one coffee break per morning, we are less likley to succumb in the moment, which helps these rules to become habits we stick to by default.

After the habit is ingrained, then we can relax the legalism, but until then we should make it a rule never to deviate from the habit-setting course.

 

One thought on “Why Willpower is Insufficient

  1. For a long time, the thinking was that if I offered you a cookie, you?—?a person with a lot of self control?—?would bear the temptation until it passes and decline. Those who took the bite supposedly had insufficient willpower.

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