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How To Hack Your Willpower (And Why Willpower Doesn't Work)

Posted on Monday, December 10th 2012. Written by Michal Ugor
I am entrepreneur who occasionaly blogs on this website. I am a founder of Freddy Bayne a London based startup. You can follow my updates at @MichalUgor
Note: I really mean the title. I wrote this article with no intention to waste your time with bunch of “just do it“ advice or importance of setting up “strategic goals” topped up with motivational quote by Benjamin Franklin. I actually tried all of these “hacks” over the past year (and many others that did not work) and reflecting back on it I can state that with some great results.

Lack of willpower is perceived as one of the common reasons we procrastinate, the latest research however shows that willpower works just like muscle and what usually looks like plain laziness is often exhaustion.
Based on these studies our willpower requires a vast amount of energy and if exercised for too long we become more vulnerable to temptation. People who were given glucose ( our brain's energy resource ) performed better. And just like our muscles, our willpower can grow with exercise, but as you perhaps know our muscles don’t grow while we exercise (quite the opposite) but while we rest after the exercise.

But should we rely solely on our willpower to change our behaviour? B.J. Fogg of Stanford perceives relying on willpower as a waste of time. According to his research only 3 things can lead to long term behavioral change:

1. Epiphany (we can leave this one out)
2. Change of context
3. Taking tiny steps to form new habits.

So how could we hack our willpower and shift the work elsewhere? Here are some tips and ideas worth considering:



1. Building habits instead of pushing yourself.

Up to 95% of our daily actions are regulated by our subconscious. That includes habits, routines and other automatic behaviour; and as you might guess, automatic behaviour often excludes the use of our willpower and our emotions.

So wouldn't it be easier if you could perform new tasks such as morning workout automatically as a habit instead of pushing yourself or having feelings about it? Well obviously; and one the best approaches I found so far, is tiny habits method by B.J Fogg.

Why this works: Our mind perceives new things and anything outside our comfort zone as potential risk ( remains of our survival instincts, I assume ). So the bigger the change you aim for, the higher the resistance. But if you start with small steps you can build a routine with low or no resistance and keep building up while your mind and body slowly adapts to it and shifts part of the work to your subconscious where automatic habits are regulated.

True story: I hate mornings. For quite a while I tried to workout regularly every morning and I always made some big plans of doing x amount of push-ups, pull-ups and crunches. Then I woke up and the mere thought of it would not just scare the hell out of me but delay my wake up time too. So instead, I started with 5 push-ups - no big deal, not much to think about - in fact I felt pretty good and relieved for doing something after all. After few days I stopped thinking much about it and once I was doing my push-ups I increased the number and later added pull-ups and crunches. This is still going on now and it's as natural to my mornings as having a breakfast.


2. Developing growth mindset.

Stanford Department of Psychology professor Carol Dweck has done extensive research on what she calls "mindsets". She defined two primary types of mindset:

Fixed mindset: You believe that you either are talented or not. You see failure as proof of your inability. You perceive your abilities, intelligence, talents, are just fixed traits.

Growth mindset: You believe abilities are developed. Setbacks and criticism are only a sign that you need to improve. You can learn and grow yourself. You think long-term.

People with a growth mindset are more resilient to challenges related to their abilities and performance than those with a fixed mindset. According to Dweck’s research growth mindset can be learned.

Here are some quick personal tips, that may help:

a/ Accept there is no one-off solution - see the long term.

First thing you should do is to accept that self-improvement is a continuous, lifelong effort. There are no one-off solutions. While you move forward your situation and environment changes, you will face new challenges that you'll need to address. You won't change your personality in one week and even if you could do that it won't solve all of your current or future problems. Just accept it or write it down and read it aloud every morning for some time until it becomes your philosophy.

b/ Learn to expect procrastination.

A. Elliot and K. Sheldon who pioneered great deal of research on goal setting, define two types of goals.

Approach goals ( directed towards approaching a desirable outcome )
Avoidance goals ( directed towards avoiding an undesirable outcome )

Their research indicates that the pursuit of greater number of avoidance goals is related to less satisfaction, negative feelings about progress, decreased self-esteem and increased likelihood of procrastination.

One way you can use these findings in relation to planning your work is to simply stop expecting faultless performance ( which is quite unrealistic anyway, considering you wouldn't read this article if that was not the case ) but instead you can define some positive actions you will take when you find yourself procrastinating.

The most simple thing you can do is to print out a spreadsheet and simply track your time when you procrastinate (write down the time estimate) on daily and weekly basis. This will add both: more clarity to your habits and a bit of gamification if you try to beat your previous time by decreasing it.  ( you can set some rewards for you )

c/ Plan for setbacks.

Think about the scenario beforehand, accept that setbacks are likely to occur and define what your ideal steps should be. Mine are quite simple: 1. Analyse 2. Learn 3. Think of better approach & Try again.
( This is quite simple, but it's rather the psychological effect that works well - predefined approach helps not to waste time with emotions )


3. Change of context ( social engineering )

As already mentioned - change of context is one of the 3 things that can lead to long-term change of behaviour. Psychologists use a term "social engineering" which can be defined as altering your environment to maximize behaviour change in the desired direction. ( e.g one of the reasons why we wear seatbelts is because our cars make annoying noises if we don’t. )

According to Thomas Plante professor of Psychology with 30 years of psychotherapeutic experience ‘social engineering tends to work much better than trying to get people to significantly alter their behaviour based on impulse control and willpower alone.’

Here are some very simple examples to give you a better idea of how you can use social engineering in practice.

a/ Block distractions.

If you are vulnerable to distractions, then simply block them.
You can use web service like K9, OpenDNS or browser extensions like Stayfocused for Chrome or Leechblock for Firefox.

Keeping your desk clean as well as desktop, inbox from unopened email and browser from opened tabs "you may get back to at some point" helps your focus too.   

b/ Get other people involved:

Say you want to start attending gym but haven't got enough will to do so in the mornings. You can find a partner who already attends gym and make a commitment to meet at certain time. Shame from breaking the commitment might be more pressing than loosing the comfort of your bed alone.

You want to wake up early, so you make an agreement with a friend to email each other every morning at certain time and whoever misses the email gets a "late point". At the end of each month person with most late points pays for drinks or gives $50 to some charity.

You can do the same thing with emailing each other your to-do lists at the end of the day.

c/ Change your environment:

If you work from home, rent a desk at some busy co-working space, the environment and presence of other people who are actually busy will lift up your performance. Changing your gym to one with more agile environment works quite similar.


4. Utilize your free time.

According to study conducted by Dr. Neil Fiore at Berkeley, the only difference between  students who completed their doctoral dissertation in 2 years or less and students who took 3 to 19 years was that the first group was fully committed to their leisure time, while second group postponed their recreational activities for after they achieved their doctorate. As a result second group was more frustrated, less productive and in a bad physical shape. More details about this study here.

As stated above willpower works like muscle. The reason why it works like muscle is that willpower is governed by our brain and our brain works quite like muscle - it needs energy (glucose) to work and enough of rest to function properly. Regular short sleep and breaks can increase your mental abilities, learning and memory.

One of the reasons people have problems with procrastination is that typical procrastinators do everything at the very last moment at which point they usually blames themself for doing so. So instead of rewarding yourself and having a guilt-free rest you regret not starting sooner or feel guilty for performing in rush. This is not just a waste of energy but it actually increases your ego's resistance to completing things next time. If you rewarded yourself instead, your mind would get positively motivated to finish things sooner in future and your subconscious would pose less resistance towards the outcome.
So, every time you finish some task you should be mindful of your inner self-talk and reward yourself anyway.

If you're not working you should decide not to think of work and focus on your free-time. This surely sounds like something you've heard many times. However, I often find myself planning to do a couple of hours of work over the weekend for example, and instead of enjoying whatever I do in that moment, I think of the work I have to do later. That keeps my mind partially occupied and possibly causing a little likely overlooked stress. And in addition to that, I often give up on doing those two hours completely, so instead of recharging my brain for next week I end up with only partial relax and no work done. That is not a very good deal, so now whenever I notice that I think of some work over the Saturday, I simply give up the whole idea of working immediately and indulge in my free time, enjoying it to the most convenient extent. Statistically, this this ends up to be much better trade-off in the long term.

To sum up this part: Think of your brain as a muscle - you've done your workout and regardless of whether the workout was good or not, the only way to get something out of it, is to let your muscles rest in best possible way. That means proper sleep, enough of nutrients and no stress, because your muscles can recover and grow only if you let them. And so it is with our brain.

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