Those who use willpower wisely don’t use it to fight temptation, they use willpower to avoid temptation. Instead of willpower defense, they play willpower offense.(1)
When I stepped on the scale and it hit 265, I decided it was time to do something about my weight. So I joined Weight Watchers.
The Wednesday evening sessions I attended had two leaders, Paul and Marlon, both of whom had successfully lost many pounds. Both were engaging and funny. And they both understood the ups and downs of weight loss. Marlon once told about going on a cruise and gaining 15 pounds in one week. And he was a Weight Watcher leader at the time!
One of the best tips about weight control came from Marlon. He said that if you find it hard to resist cookies, then don’t bring cookies home. If you can’t keep yourself from eating candy or cake or ice cream or potato chips, don’t bring those things home. If you have them in the house, you must choose many times during the day not to eat these treats. Instead, make the choice once – at the store.
This is the best way to use willpower – playing willpower offense instead of defense.
Martin Seligman and Chris Peterson led the team that produced the 24 Character Strengths and Virtues. Seligman and Peterson declared self-regulation, or willpower, one of the most important strengths to develop. [Miller] Indeed, developing the other strengths often depends on having the ability to practice them when we don’t really want to — in other words, using willpower.
Another psychologist, Roy Baumeister, the leading researcher in the psychology of willpower, has shown that willpower is like a muscle. As you use it during the day, your willpower “muscle” weakens and becomes depleted. The good news is that, like other muscles, willpower can be strengthened through exercise. [Baumeister]
However, here is a dilemma. You exercise your willpower to make it stronger. At the same time, as you use it, it is diminished. How can you resolve this complication?
One method is to play offense. Be smart about your use of willpower. Think about Marlon’s advice to make an important choice once rather than having to make the same decision over and over. That is a smart way to use willpower. Let’s look at some others.
Playing Willpower Offense
In order to play willpower offense, it is helpful to know (1) what uses willpower, (2) how to conserve willpower, and (3) how to build willpower.
What uses willpower?
Research has identified a number of activities that require you to exert your willpower. You deplete your “muscle” a little each time you engage in any of these.
- Making decisions. As we’ve already discussed, every time you make a choice, some of your willpower stores are consumed.
- Suppressing normal urges. It requires willpower to restrain a natural but perhaps inappropriate desire, such as laughing during a serious discussion. [Miller]
- Trying not to think about something. You expend some willpower when you try to focus on one thing, but have another pressing issue on your mind. For example, you need to concentrate on a project at work while you have an important personal issue to deal with. [Miller]
- Having conflicting goals. When you must choose between two actions that you want to do, such as passing up a plate of cookies for a healthier snack, you use up some of your willpower. [Achor]
How To Conserve Willpower
In playing willpower offense, you develop behaviors and adopt tactics to help conserve willpower, so you have more of it to rely on when needed. Here are some ways to save willpower.
- Decide who you want to be. Recall the T-BEAR model (Thoughts -> Behavior -> Emotions -> Actions -> Results). Your identity, how you see yourself, is a primary influence on your thoughts. Deciding who you want to be — “I don’t eat junk food.” “I am a healthy nonsmoker.”– allows you to precisely choose your thoughts which ultimately decide your behaviors, feelings, actions and results.
- Create habits. This is one of the most effective ways to use willpower. When you create a positive habit, you use willpower to create the habit and then the behavior becomes automatic – no willpower required. For more on this, see the post “Small Simple Daily Disciplines“.
- “Pre-make” decisions. This is the wisdom Marlon shared about choosing once at the store. There are many decisions you can make one time and operate thereafter from that decision. For example, see “Why I Wear A Uniform“.
- Bright lines. The “bright line” concept comes from the legal profession. According to Wikipedia, a bright line is “a clearly defined rule or standard . . . which leaves little or no room for varying interpretation.” [Wikipedia] For our purposes, a bright line is another way to pre-make decisions. If there is a behavior you are struggling with, set a bright line rule for yourself: “I don’t _____.” Or make it a positive: “I always _____.”
- Implementation intentions. Peter Gollwitzer, a research psychologist working at the University of Konstanz in Germany, found that using environmental primes — things in your environment that influence your thoughts and behaviors — could cue you to take a specific action toward a goal. [Miller] Gollwitzer called these primes “implementation intentions”. They take the form of “If – then” statements: “If X occurs, then I will do Y.” [Gollwitzer] Have your environment cue you to perform a certain action, reducing or removing the need to use willpower.
How To Build Willpower
Strengthening your willpower “muscle” is another aspect of playing willpower offense. Here are some ways to build your willpower.
- Take tiny actions. “Be faithful in small things,” said Mother Teresa, “because it is in them that your strength lies.” Research shows that when you practice using willpower wisely in one area, it builds up your willpower in all areas. You don’t have to use great chunks of willpower to be effective. In fact, that may be counter-productive. Practice in small things and see your willpower get stronger.
- Tidy up. Working in a cluttered, untidy environment uses up some of your willpower stores. Removing clutter from your environment has been shown to boost willpower. To build your willpower, take some time to clean and organize your desk and other work areas. By the way, these findings applied to disorganized and messy websites as well. Think about that when you are on a web page covered with ads and click bait links. You may want to consider spending less time on those sites.
- Close “open loops”. This is David Allen’s “getting things done (GTD)” lingo for dealing with all the stuff you have to do. The problem with having many open loops, as Roy Baumeister explains in Willpower, is due to the “Ziegarnik effect“.
As Baumeister explains, the issue isn’t that your subconsicious mind wants your conscious mind to deal with the open loop, the subconcious wants your conscious mind to develop a plan to deal with it. By deciding what you will do, you close the loop.
Stay The Course
Let’s look at an example of how you can put these ideas into action.
Suppose you look at your calendar and see that you have a number of meetings today. Additionally, you need to make a decision on hiring a new employee. You and your spouse want to decide where to go on vacation this summer so you can start making plans, but you don’t want to think about that right now. All of this chips away at your willpower.
Thinking ahead, how could you avoid having to use willpower when you know your resources are going to be low? Let’s say you are endeavoring to stick to a healthy diet. How can you be sure at the end of the day you don’t end up blowing your diet on a fast food dinner?
Since you know you’re going to be facing a tough day, decide in advance what you will have for dinner, healthy food that is in line with your diet plans. If you have it prepared and ready when you reach home, and your willpower is at a low point, you won’t have to rely on it to choose. It’s already taken care of. That is playing willpower offense.
Play Willpower Offense
Willpower is one of the most important strengths to develop. We’ve seen that willpower is like a muscle and can be strengthened with use. It is also depleted with use. Therefore the best approach is to use willpower wisely — to choose actions that help us to conserve willpower and to practice activities that strengthen the willpower “muscle”. That is playing willpower offense. And that is embracing the Excelerated Life!
Excelerated willpower — becoming highly self-regulated — is one step in creating your Excelerated Life, a life of flourishing, of well-being, meaning, and purpose.
(1) The concept of playing offense instead of defense with willpower, that is, using your limited willpower resources to avoid temptation rather than trying to resist temptation, comes from Roy Baumeister, one of the leading experts in the field and who literally wrote the book Willpower — see Resources. I give credit to Brian Johnson, philosopher extraordinare, https://www.optimize.me/ for sharing this idea from Baumeister.
Baumeister, Roy F. and John Tierney. Willpower – Rediscovering The Greatest Human Strength. New York: The Penguin Press, 2011
“Bright-line Rule.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 12 December 2017. Web. 30 January 2019.
Gollwitzer, Peter M. and John A. Bargh. Psychology of Action: Linking Cognition and Motivation to Behavior. New York: The Guilford Press, 1996
Miller, MAPP, Caroline Adams and Michael B. Frisch. Creating Your Best Life. New York: Sterling, 2009
“Zeigarnik Effect.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 23 October 2018. Web. 30 January 2019.