I read the book. I know I usually read a bunch of articles about the book and call it good enough, but this time I actually read the whole darned thing. And I loved it. So many clever experiments, so many interesting conclusions.
One of the things that struck me was that willpower and decision-making appear to come from the same pool. If you’ve been exercising willpower, your decision making capacity may be impared. If you’ve been making a lot of decisions, your willpower is likewise depleted. So if you’ve been working on your posture all day, and now you have an important decision to make at the end of the day, maybe you should fill up your decision making tank with a good night’s rest and some glucose, and figure that out in the morning.
Most people instinctively know that their willpower is depleted throughout the day so that they feel most vulnerable at night. If you haven’t ever broken your diet at night after a full day of saintliness, or yelled at your kids at bedtime, or started biting your nails watching latenight TV, or skipped an 8pm workout, then you’re a big fat liar because you HAVE. We all know the feeling of coming to the very bottom of our patience and self-mastery tank at the end of a long trial.
What may be less obvious is how deficient your decision making becomes after a full day of making decisions or using willpower. I palpably felt the decision making fatigue set in after making several dozen selections at the design center when I was planning my house. This is why I cut the process up into chunks and did it a bit at a time at home from my pictures. But often the depletion of decision making power is more subtle. Maybe if I hadn’t waited until the end of long and willpower-depleting days to shop online for my living room window treatments, I would not be in my current position of waiting for my THIRD set of curtains to arrive via UPS. Hopefully when this order comes, it will not be as much of a stinker as the first two.
Here are some of the things the book suggests for expanding and replenishing your willpower/decision-making capacity.
1. Automate. Once a behavior becomes a habit, it requires far less willpower than it used to. Getting your butt to the gym remains an enormous drain on your willpower if you only do it sporadically, but if you make a habit of going to the gym at a certain time on certain days, it gets to the point (more quickly than you might imagine) that going to the gym costs you almost no willpower. In fact, it may cost you to not go.
2. Pick one thing at a time. Every change you try to make in your life requires willpower. If you have several resolutions, they are all drawing from the same well and will compete with each other for your precious willpower resources. This realization has made me slow down my house decorating decisions. Rather than racing to meet some unrealistic personal goal, I’m going deliberately from room to room not rushing too many decisions at once. There is a delicate balance between trying not to maximize things to death and giving myself time to make good decisions.
3. Start small to strengthen your willpower muscles. The exciting thing is that when you deliberately choose one doable thing to focus your willpower on, you end up strengthening your willpower muscles, expanding your willpower pool and often doing better in other categories as well. This is crazy counterintuitive. Didn’t the book just say don’t try to tackle 5 big habits at once? That’s right. Focus on one small, attainable goal, and watch the benefits of succeeding and strengthening your willpower spill over into other areas. Folks who were told to work on their posture just by straightening up every time they found themselves slouching started being more productive and healthy in a variety of ways as their willpower increased. In order to strengthen your willpower, the book suggest tackling something like eliminating “like” from your vocabulary, or cursing.
4. Eat. Glucose replenishes willpower. In the lab, researchers often use milkshakes or M&M’s to immediately boost subjects willpower. In the real world, you should probably use vegetables and protein, but yeah. Eat. Don’t starve yourself until you end up binge shopping, binge eating, or binge watching The Real Housewives. It ain’t worth it.
5. Sleep. Sleeping on a decision is a great idea. Not because the answer will come to you in a powerfully lucid dream–though it may–but because your decision-making tank refills overnight. For the same reason, the old “If you’re hungry, go to bed” advice may actually be sound logic. If you can hear your brain slurping its straw along the dry bottom of your willpower tank at 10pm, maybe go to bed before you have a giant relapse into whatever bad habit it is you’re trying to break.
6. Eliminate trivial decision making. I’ve talked about this before. If you want to reserve your superpowers for the most important changes or decisions you are making, try to streamline the rest of the decisions in your day. It will cost you less overall if you decide what to have for dinner (and lunch, and breakfast) each day of the week in one weekly session rather than making that decision from scratch every day. This is especially true when you are in charge of feeding a family. A couple of my friends and I have even developed a sort of daily uniform to wear even though our jobs don’t require them. I enjoy fashion, but I also need to have a lot of it automated every day. Same goes for my daughter’s clothes. I like to line up her whole closet and then barring a wild weather event, she just wears the next thing in the line each morning. Maximizing is draining as well, so only consider the first 3 or 4 restaurants that spring to mind or the first 3 movies that interest you. That kind of decision is likely to cost less willpower/decision making mojo if you impose such constraints on it and don’t spend a lot of time stewing over it.
7. Remove temptation. This should be obvious, but it’s useful to read the experimental data that show just how much more willpower it takes out of your tank to resist a bowl of M&M’s right next to you than one hidden in a cupboard across the room. Temptation is like gravity, the closer you are to it, the stronger its force is upon you and the more willpower you have to burn to keep from falling into its vortex. If you’re trying to watch less TV, take the batteries out of the remote or cancel cable. If you’re trying to surf the web less, set a shut off timer on your iPad and computer that locks you out at a certain hour.
8. Commit early. If you think through the possible roadblocks on your willpower path and make a pre-commitment to a certain course of action, when you hit one of those roadblocks, it costs you less willpower to follow your pre-commitment than to make a decision in the moment. So if you’re trying to go to the gym 5 days a week, but you know some days you may have to work late or something, you can pre-commit to doing 20 minutes at the gym or going for a 20 minute walk at home instead of completely skipping the workout on those days.
I recommended the book to my bookclub and we are reading it in May, so I will report any new and exciting findings in June. Again, I really enjoyed the book except for the way-too-long part about the African explorer. And even though it had some bleak things to say about dieting and willpower (like how depriving yourself of glucose shoots you in the willpower foot and how willpower is highly correlated with a crazy number of measures of success and health, but NOT with BMI), I felt empowered on the whole by the information in it.