Willpower Savings & Loan

I recently attended a workshop on building motivation, and while it wasn’t specifically targeted at writers (who make up a good portion of our audience here), it was so relevant, I wanted to pass on some of the wisdom I picked up.

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Studies have shown that we human types only have a given amount of willpower to spend in a certain day. Think of it like story points you’re given in an RPG — your character is allotted a certain number based on their characteristics and skills, and the GM can award you additional points for good behavior. You can then spend the points to give yourself a boost or alter the story in some way that benefits you.

Well, willpower points are a lot like that. You use your points throughout your day, making decisions big and small. Do you wear the blue shirt, or the purple one? Do you have toast for breakfast, or go to the drive-thru? Do you work hard, or do you check social media every ten minutes? What are you going to make for dinner? Every time you have to expend mental energy, you use up some of your willpower points.

On a given day, I wake up in the morning, I get dressed, I choose breakfast, I decide what to work on in the morning, how hard to work, what to have for lunch, what to work on in the afternoon, what to have for dinner, and how to spend my leisure. And that’s just big picture, not accounting for small decisions about how to do my work and whether or not to eat a granola bar in the late afternoon. It’s no wonder so many people come home, eat a frozen dinner, and then collapse on the couch to watch whatever is on TV: they simply don’t have the willpower left to do anything else.

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When you’re self-employed or trying to work as a writer after your day job, it becomes even harder, because it takes more willpower to come up with tasks and then drive yourself to do them. At work, we often have tasks assigned to us and don’t need to spend our willpower points to choose what to do. But if we don’t have a boss giving us direction, that’s one more area where we have to expend mental energy.

So how can we ration our willpower points in order to actually get stuff done when we’re exhausted from that annoying thing called LIFE?

  1. Make some decisions for yourself in advance. Choose what you’re going to wear to work the night before. Make your breakfast/lunch ahead of time, or limit your options. The fewer decisions you have to make early in the day, the more willpower points you’ll have to spend at night.
  2. Make lists. No joke. When you know what tasks you need to get done, write them down and prioritize them. Making the list won’t take many points, and it’ll reduce the need later to make decisions later, because you’ve already told yourself.
  3. Don’t try to start building multiple disciplined practices at once. Upping your word counts this month? Don’t start a diet. Building a new workout regimen? Don’t give up caffeine at the same time.
  4. Capitalize on the power of habit. Once something becomes habit, you no longer have to spend willpower points to do it, so it’s useful to do the same thing for lunch or breakfast every day, or wear the same outfits on rotation. Plus, once you build a habit, you can work on a new disciplined practice.

But if you’re like me, you’re not bad about sticking to the list above, and you’re still exhausted and completely drained of willpower at the end of the day. That’s fine: we poor humans are not wired to make a million decisions every day. Happily, there are a few ways to rebuild your willpower supply:

  1. Sleep. This should be a no-brainer, but many of us sacrifice sleep in the interest of getting stuff done, and it’s actually hugely counterproductive. The best way to completely reboot your willpower points is to get a full night’s sleep, stress-free. Try to make it happen. (But in a pinch, naps help some people get a few points back!)
  2. Take a break and do something that refreshes you. This is very personal, so it’s hard to offer specifics, but you’ll know what it means for you. On your lunch break, read a book. Look at Pinterest. Take a walk. Don’t even make this a choice: do what you WANT to do.
  3. Meditate or something. Allegedly this can help, but I suck at meditation. Your mileage may vary. You may achieve a similar effect from other activities: participating in your spiritual practice, if you have one, taking a soothing hot bath, doing yoga, or even quietly sitting on your back porch and having a beer. Let your mind detach for a little while.

These suggestions are just skimming the surface of the existing research that surrounds motivation and ways to build it and maintain it. How do you ration your willpower points? What methods of willpower regeneration work for you?

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