Three ways to maximize your willpower (which is a finite resource)

Motivation and Willpower

You can define the idea of “getting things done,” as this article does, as the intersection of “motivation” and “willpower.” The idea of willpower is actually a finite resource — which scientists and researchers only really have known in the last decade or two — and it declines, just like our ability to focus and our energy level, as the day progresses.

Here’s a study from Columbia University: at the beginning of sessions, judges tend to make rulings that rule in favor of the prisoners. Towards the end, that drastically down-shifts:

Judges and Declining Willpower

This all speaks to the idea of “decision fatigue.” Basically, the more decisions you make in a given day, the less utility these decisions tend to have. We’re no longer following through on our motivations. 

I find motivation really conceptually interesting, if for no other reason than it’s a word that pretty much describes the ability of people to get things done — and yet no one in a managerial capacity seems to completely understand it. (And don’t even get me started on intrinsic motivation.)

If your goal is to reduce decision fatigue and thus generally be more motivated and make more functional decisions across the course of a day, here’s how it seems you should attack it:

  • Try to make more actions into habits: Habits are powerful concepts; by some measure they represent 55 percent of everything we do in a given day. If you turn certain aspects of your daily routine into habits — like selecting your clothes or breakfast or plotting your day ahead the previous evening — then that reduces the amount of decisions you need to make in a given day. Red shirt vs. blue shirt, when made habitual, frees up a bit of mental energy you can use on something more important.
  • Focus on what’s actually a priority: This is where I think things get dicey for people; it’s hard for people to understand “what actually matters,” in large part because corporate organizational culture has shifted to a place where “everything is a priority” and that confuses a normal human brain. Even if you become really good at decision-making and mastering decision fatigue, the sheer fact of the matter is: you will be more productive in the late morning than the late afternoon. That’s basically your best time of day, scientifically as relates to work; as such, you should be loading the important tasks into that period. To do that, you need to determine what’s important. There’s a balance here between hierarchy — what someone is telling you is important — and purpose what you believe to be important about the work you do. Regardless, everything can’t be a priority. There needs to be some type of focus on a few core activities each day; that’s similar to each day having a theme or the notion of “batching tasks.”
  • Say no and eliminate unnecessary elements in your schedule: I’ve worked with so many people who take every meeting or call because they believe that’s what you’re supposed to do. It’s not. It’s not actually how people are productive, or how things get done — in any sense. Be a personal gatekeeper. When someone invites you to a meeting with no clear purpose, ask them “What’s the goal of this meeting? What are we attempting to accomplish?” (It helps prevent situations where no one knows what the eff is going on.) Don’t just accept everything on face. Say no and create space for yourself. Every networking call with no agenda + pointless meeting = another potential decision you have to make (“Well, we could follow up like this…”) which saps your willpower.

So the focus is on habitpriorities, and saying no. I wish I could make a cool acronym out of that, but I don’t think I can. It’s the end of the day, and my energy and decision-making utility is sapped.

If you have any techniques that have worked for you in terms of maintaining willpower and/or motivation as a day/week progresses, feel free to leave them in the comments.

Ted Bauer