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How to save and spend your willpower like a pro

When we use willpower to make a hard decision we tap the same barrel of mental resources that our general cognitive processing draws from. And it’s a finite barrel.

In the last two decades, dozens of neuroscience experiments have confirmed this – a finding as startling as it is intuitive.

For entrepreneurs – fighting to make each day more decisive, creative and productive than the last – this insight is a game changer. We now know beyond a shadow of doubt that we’re only good for so many decisions or mental troubleshooting sessions in a day.

Willpower is a precious resource to be husbanded and doled out carefully. Those who get it will leap ahead in profitability and success. This article will show you precisely where and how to do it.

Your willpower drains faster than you think 

Stanford professor and neuro-economics specialist Baba Shiv ran a simple experiment that is perhaps the best evidence confirming the depletion of willpower:

Grad students were asked to remember numbers – 50% were given seven random digits to retain while the other half were asked to remember a mere two digits. After completing this simple task subjects were told the experiment was over and were invited to select a snack of either chocolate cake or fruit.

Shockingly, the participants in the seven digit number group were almost 50% more likely to choose chocolate cake than the other group!

The scary thing about this result – and the subsequent experiments that confirmed it – is just how small of a cognitive demand it takes to impact our ability to use willpower. If memorizing a number for a minute or two means an unhealthy snack, what does hours spent wading through email do to your ability to make smart decisions?

The results are in and the science is solid: The neurological reservoir we draw from when we use willpower OR expend mental effort… has the ability to run dry. And it isn’t all that deep to begin with.

Smart entrepreneurs are starting to look at their workday as the strategic spending of precious willpower. Your top notch, finely honed decision making skills are only going to be available for a tiny handful of key moves today – so what moves are you going to make?

Here are three strategies some of my wise clients are using to maximize the gains of their daily willpower quota:

1. Eliminate as much “Friction” as possible

If you’re running a business, you need to be exhausting your gas tank of decision making and power-thinking ability on the highest leverage items possible. This means not agonizing over what to have for lunch for hours of your day.

Psychological “friction” happens when you experience that awkward “ugh, I don’t know what to do” feeling. It pops up when you find yourself torn between desires and priorities. Friction creates drag and slows you down.

Don’t know if you should go to the gym or finish writing that email? Ugh!

Should you last-minute-cancel that coffee date and stay in to finish that thing? Oy!

Torn between ordering a gourmet salad or something fried and delicious? Gah!

Each one of these moments of mental angst causes exhausting friction. As does every moment in your day when you have to engage in pedantic busywork that gets between you and the important stuff.

Try having preset lunchtime delivery set on Seamless.com – it’ll be well worth the surcharge for you to not think about it. Try loading your car with rolls of coins for feeding parking meters for the same reason.

Favorite friction fighting strategies amongst my clients include: 

  • Pre-schedule rejuvenating leisure (massage etc) at peak stress points during the week. Don’t think, or ask “Should I go?”. Just go.
  • Eliminate pointless and bloated planning software in favor of pen and paper.
  • Have a technical wizard contractor on hand so that if a piece of software (or whatever) becomes a problem, you can outsource the troubleshooting immediately.

Investing a few hours of creative effort up front – to identify and pre-solve problem areas where friction enters your day to day – will ensure your week runs smooth as silk.

The mental gas you used to burn figuring out meaningless details can become fuel for the big stuff – the stuff that moves you forward and makes you money.

2. Schedule creative work before all else

Long time readers of this blog will have heard this idea before. I harp on and on about it for a reason – it works like you wouldn’t believe. 

The idea is simple: There are two types of labor – the creative important kind, where you’re not accountable to anyone but yourself. Writing is a great example of this, for me at least. The second type is work where you have to show up – my client consults fit this category perfectly.

If you fill your morning up with the second type of work – the necessity driven kind – then you’ll find your cognitive reserves running dry by the afternoon. You’ll need time to rest and rejuvenate the mental juices that drive creativity.

However, if you do the creative work first, you’ll be able to get through the necessity stuff on fumes alone. Because you have to.

You’ll finish your day feeling exhausted either way, but by doing creative work first you’ll ensure you get twice as much done.

3. Plan what you’ll do well before you do it

This is the game changer. So much friction is caused in people’s life by the pursuit of productivity itself – by stressing over the question “What should I do next?”

For entrepreneurs, the challenge is tenfold. Without a boss telling you what to do, you can be doubting if you’re doing “the right thing” constantly. That’s why most business owners who are massively productive – who work smart – spend a small portion of their week deliberately thinking out priorities for the next few days.

The idea is to never allow yourself to arrive, sleepy eyed and fuzzy of head, at your desk without an obvious place to pick things up. It’s the entrepreneurial equivalent of Ernest Hemingway’s habit of finishing writing sessions mid-sentence.

By investing a few minutes in a weekly, ritualized planning session you can ensure you spend your willpower doing stuff that counts – rather than burning it by figuring out what that stuff actually IS!

Like I said, complex planning systems only increase resistance. The simplest, easiest to implement version of this ritual is to answer this question:

What three things do I need to accomplish to make this week feel like a victory? 

Then, when you sit down at your desk each morning you work on things that move those three commitments forward.

Your true number one priority

You’ve just discovered the most important work you can do as an entrepreneur.

Success is all about applying precious willpower to the highest leverage activities you can. This is perhaps the ultimate 80/20 principal and your business’s success hinges on your ability to figure it out.

So next time you catch yourself exhausting your mental reservoir on ineffectual fluff, remember: No successful business was ever built by choosing chocolate cake over fruit.

Do you know any other smart willpower preserving strategies? My list is hardly complete – share your best friction-free tips in the comments.

42 Comments

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  1. I’m disappointed chocolate cake is seen as a bad thing. Sometimes having a slice is the best decision you could make. 😉

    These are great tips, Peter, and the third is one I’m learning to love. I’d been stressing at my (overwhelming) mental to-do list and spending a LOT of energy trying to remember everything I had to do WHILE trying to prioritize and tackle what was most important. The head space this took up was phenomenal… and insidious, because you don’t realize how exhausting it can be until you actually stop doing it.

    The “what 3 things” question has been a game-changer for me, and in the past 7 days since I began implementing it (on your savvy recommendation, I might add), I’ve gotten more done than before… with half the energy expense and twice the motivation.

    I feel better about my work and the to-do list (on paper now, not in my head) is being nicely chipped away. I can also better see what to prioritize and knock off truly unimportant stuff to a “wish list for whenever” so I can forget about it.

    (Amazing how much becomes a “meh, I don’t really want this” when you don’t have to work hard at remembering what it is you thought you wanted in the first place.)

    Here’s my additional willpower tip: say no more often.

    Most of the “ugh! oy! gah!” decisions that take up my willpower energy involve things I’ve (sometimes stupidly) agreed to do… even though as I was agreeing to them, I knew I didn’t want to do them.

    Saying no has left me feeling awesome, with more energy to spend on the stuff I really DO want to do and that leaves me feeling like a champion.

    ‘Nuff said.

  2. Great post Peter! I think the last one is especially important – having a few simple yet clear IMPORTANT goals that need to be achieved really does clear your mind out

  3. I get a lot of mileage out of listening to instinct. Sometimes when faced with a decision, there’s an almost physical tension that tells me to back away.

    EVERY time I ignore that, the situation I end up in turns out to be a massive energy drain one way or another, forcing me to scramble to take care of things, and that means I’ve no energy left for actually properly writing stuff.

    Great article btw, thanks 🙂

    1. Hey Mr Stellar. Long time no see.

      Intuition is definitely important – if you’ve proven to yourself that it’s a useful tool in this context, then ignoring it will be perilous.

      1. Yes, I’ve been away for a while. Good to be back though, you’re writing great stuff as ever.

        And yes, it keeps proving itself true, in my case. Unfortunately that’s probably because I keep ignoring my instincts, but I’m working on that.

  4. Wow I did not know that willpower gets depleted when you use it! In Australia there is a tv commercial currently running which says that willpower is like a muscle, the more you use it the stronger it gets (it’s a commercial to help people quit smoking) so is this the opposite message? As soon as I read your article I felt intuitively that it makes a lot of sense – because I have experienced feelig so drained after a long creative work session that it takes me an hour to decide on what to have for dinner.

    Anyway I’ve just discovered your blog and loving it, keep up the great work can’t wait to read more!

  5. Creating as many habits as possible (that I do not have to think about it anymore) worked great for me.

    And I totally agree with the advantages of pen and paper over productivity tools.

    To add something: the management of the information we use for making the decision is critical, too.

    We – well, at least I – are always trying to make the right decision. Analyzing an researching too much is a common trap I tap into.

    When I have to do some research of ask for advice I try to limit the time or the number of people I ask. And then trust my gut 🙂

    Like Martin said, instinct wins 🙂

    1. I feel like this is not getting enough attention. Habit-building is one of the ultimate high-leverage uses of willpower. If you spend your willpower on getting one thing done once, it’s a bit like immediate consumption, whereas spending willpower on creating new patterns of future behavior (habits) is like investing.

      You might get somewhat less done in the short run by having to get inside your own head, figuring out how to fit something into your routine every day, and so on — but you will drastically reduce the amount of willpower necessary to do that task for as long as you need to do it.

      By investing willpower in habits, you are saving massive amounts future willpower. If you really want to go whole hog, you can invest willpower in habits which create more willpower (such as meditation or eating nutritious food) and get the double-whammy of not needing willpower to take action, and getting willpower back from the action itself. Pretty good deal, if you ask me.

  6. A blog post from Noah Kagan about Simplifying Decision Making hit my inbox on the same day as Peter’s post. Big topic.

    If you want to check out his post “The Power of Simplification: 10 Tactics to Simplify Decision Making” you can find it here:
    http://okdork.com/2013/08/19/how_to_simplify_decision_making/

    He announced three more posts covering that topic.
    1. Power of Frameworks
    2. How to Avoid Regret
    3. How to Justify Your Way to Any Decision

    I am especially curious about the last 2, since they are kinda looking back.

    Maybe this is helpful for you, too.

  7. Hey Peter,

    This is such a wonderful post. And I totally agree with you on two things:

    1. Doing the creative kind of work before engaging into necessity drive type of work.
    2. Having a pre-plan.

    I have personally seen a dramatic difference between the days when I start working by doing the creative work first (in my case, writing, of course) and days when I start by doing things that cry for my attention – those things that can wait and those things that I *have* to do – not very entertaining from the inside, at least 🙂

    I always make sure that my month is planned at least a couple of days before the previous month ends and also I plan my week on a Sunday evening. That pays really well!

    Cheers,
    Jane.

  8. Very very true. I am thinking about reading the rest of this blog or going to bed since its 1:30. I am always torn about what to do next and then groveling about that I should be doing something else. It is made worse by just now living on my own and single. I never know if I should push myself or not. I will read in the morning, thanks.

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  15. Nice tips Peter,

    I think the last one is really important for everyone–
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