Watching my daily lifestyle evolve over the last two years, I’ve recently developed an amateur interest in human habits and willpower.
Habits are routines we go through without consciously thinking about because we’re used to doing them successfully for a long time. Willpower is fuel that we can use to drive involuntary routines to completion. Habit is what drives us towards another cup of sugar drink against our meal plan’s wishes, willpower is what helps prevents it.
Habits are formed through a repetitive anticipation trigger → routine → satisfaction cycle. A Starbucks builds the anticipation of good coffee, and we’re programmed to walk towards it and grab a cuppa, scoring familiar satisfaction.
Strong willpower is often needed for routines whose results and success rates are not clear or instant. It’s easier to form the habit of using a toothpaste every day, because we anticipate the cool-fresh feeling within minutes. It is difficult to form the habit of doing an intensive workout everyday at 6pm, because the anticipation is of pain and the result (weight loss, sexy legs, abs) is far away, making it less attractive and harder to visualise.
Stanford University psychologist Kelly McGonigal wrote an entire book on this topic. I read parts of it, and the key takeaway for me was that just like physical power:
- Willpower has a daily cap. Within a willpower day, we gotta budget what we spend it on. Otherwise, we will lose our willpower to trivial things, and lose focus on what’s most important
- Willpower can be trained and the cap can be increased. Much like regularly working out at the gym, if we consciously work on gaming our willpower allocation, we get better at it, and more of the activities that demanded higher willpower will inch towards becoming habits
- Willpower days can be short - they don’t necessarily have to be as long as human days - naps and small victories can help replenish willpower and restart the cycle
After observing my own behaviour for 6 months, I discovered that there are willpower peaks on waking up and on successfully completing a chunk of work.
Naturally, I wanted to take advantage of willpower peaks to get difficult things done. I also wanted to discover ways to boost my willpower when it was dropping. Through some reading and subsequent experimentation, what I found to work well for me is to list down which activities in my day consume more willpower than others, and to organise them around observed peaks. Ironically, willpower is also needed to follow this organised plan, because there is usually inertia that prevents one from frequently changing what they’re currently doing.
Here are some example