How to Preserve Our Most Valuable Habit Building Asset – Willpower

July 20, 2017

In previous posts, I've described the strength model for willpower depletion (otherwise known as ego depletion).  In short:-

  1. Our willpower is like a muscle: Using it comes at a cost by temporarily lowering our willpower reserves. 
  2. If we rely too heavily on it, we'll burn out and lose self-control
  3. Willpower can be built up over time if the right amount of stress is applied (do things that use willpower, without overdoing it)
  4. We have a limited global supply of it (no matter what nature of task we do, we seem to draw from the same supply of willpower)

Here's the thing: If we run out of willpower while in the middle of building a new habit, we will fail.  Our self control will fall by the wayside and we'll default back to our old ways...

Therefore we must think carefully about how we can make sure we don't unnecessarily pull from our willpower reserves.

We should preserve it at all costs.  And that's what this post is about.

The Cause of Willpower Depletion:-
What 83 Ego Depletion Studies Tells Us

In 2010, an interesting meta analysis of 83 ego depletion studies was done to try and figure out what the most prominent causes of ego depletion are.

Significant effects were found for ego depletion on effort, perceived difficulty, negative affect, subjective fatigue and blood glucose.  

In other words, a cocktail for severe willpower depletion would be doing something hard that takes a lot of effort while you're tired, in a bad mood (while you're under stress) and having not eaten anything for a long time.

Important point:- what matters is the exertion not the outcome. If you struggle with temptation and then still give in, you're still depleted.

There are four main categories of willpower depletion:-

  1. Control of emotions (holding back anger, not telling your boss to get stuffed)
  2. Control of thoughts (making decisions, strategizing, mindfulness, limiting negative thinking, meditation)
  3. Impulse control (not eating those cookies that are next to you, not going on an all out bender after the first beer)
  4. Performance control (deep work, doing the next set of squats at the gym, doing hard things)

Enough of the theory, let's get practical.

What do we do to preserve willpower in our lives?

A System for Preserving Willpower

Just like the habits system, this is also a work in progress.  The two go hand in hand and there is a certain amount of overlap between the two.  They complement each other nicely.

First thing's first:-

A lot of the ideas and research in this system has come from studying a fantastic book called: Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney.  

If you're interested in willpower and habit building then just buy it.

I also want to be clear about something before we begin - this post is simply about preserving willpower rather than building motivation.  It may seem like I'm splitting hairs, but the two are really quite different, although they have a strong relationship with each other.  

Things like tracking your progress and rewarding yourself are motivation strategies rather than willpower preservation strategies.  I talk more about some useful motivation strategies in this post.

Here are some steps for preserving your willpower:

  1. Do a Decision cleanse
  2. Close open loops
  3. Execute cleanly
  4. Remove temptation
  5. Be specific
  6. Pick your battles
  7. Never say never
  8. Take Care of Basics
  9. Avoid Procrastination

1. Do a Decision Cleanse

In a packed mall, shoppers were randomly stopped and were asked questions to understand how many items they'd purchased...

They were then asked to do some simple arithmetic puzzles.  They were politely asked to do as many as they could but told that they could stop at anytime.

The results?

Those that had shopped the hardest and bought the most items gave up sooner.

Why is this?  Scientists call it decision fatigue.  

The shoppers that had deliberated over many purchases during their marathon shopping trip had reduced willpower.  

Simply: when we make decisions, it depletes our willpower.

No decision comes without a cost, although the cost varies depending on the size and potential consequences for us (studies show that our willpower isn't depleted as much when deciding for others!)

This effect has been shown again and again in many different contexts - from students choosing courses to judges deciding whether to release prisoners on parole.

Decision fatigue doesn't just consume willpower, but it also reduces our ability to make good decisions.  When in this state, we suffer from a reduced ability to make compromises and tend to avoid making decisions, preferring to go with the default or recommended option.

Given this evidence, a high point of leverage for willpower conservation is doing what I call a decision cleanse.

Are you making unnecessary decisions on a daily basis?  

If so, remove them - they are hurting you.

Here are some ideas to get you started:-

  • Have your clothes already laid out from the night before or follow The Mark Zuckerberg strategy - wear the same thing every day
  • Eat the same things each week.  Or every day, if you're hardcore enough.
  • Where possible, create routines that you follow every day (ermm... habits!)
  • Have your personal trainer design you a training schedule to follow
  • Have your lunch delivered to you through a service like this
  • Have a morning routine that you do everyday so that it becomes automatic
  • Hire a personal assistant to manage less important decisions
  • Automate your finances so that bills are paid and money is moved to where it needs to go
  • ... for that matter, automate everything else that's possible to automate.  
  • Schedule necessities: e.g "On Saturday I do my clothes washing and on Sunday I phone my mother" (in other words:- alleviate the burden of deciding when things should happen)
  • If you work remotely, like me, then commit to staying somewhere for longer periods of time (at least 3 months, for example)

The idea is to streamline your life as much as possible.

Find areas of your life that are inconsequential to you and remove as many decisions as possible.  Instead of spending your valuable cognitive resources on things that don't really matter, you can redirect that investment elsewhere for a better return.  

2. Close Open Loops

Have you ever had that niggling feeling in the back of your mind because of something that you know you have to do, but haven't got a plan of handling it?

It turns out that this *thing* actually has a name.  It's called the Zeigarnik effect.

Blume Zeigarnik noticed, at a restaurant in Berlin, that the waiters had an incredible ability to remember customer orders up until the point they were delivered...  

After this point, the waiters couldn't remember the orders, claiming "I remember each order only until it is served".

The original hypothesis was that the human mind hates unfinished tasks.  But this hypothesis has proven to be not quite accurate.  

A bunch of studies and research followed and the Zeigarnik effect was defined:-

  • When we have stuff that we need to do, but haven't got a plan for doing it, our subconscious mind continually nags our conscious brain to sort it out.
  • Once the plan is formed, the unconscious mind stops the nagging

How does this relate to willpower?  

The Zeigernik effect causes stress, anxiety, takes up valuable mindshare and has been shown to cause willpower depletion.

Each time you leave tasks without a plan or system for getting it done, your willpower takes a beating

What does this translate to in practical terms?

  • Put in place a system for handling tasks that are thrown at you at work or in your business.  Read this book for a proven system that's pretty easy to implement (the whole book is based on setting up systems to avoid the Zeigarnik effect)
  • Got bills or debts that you need to pay but are not sure how you're going to pay them?  Come up with an action plan by yourself or sit down with a financial advisor
  • Got a deadline that you're not sure how you're going to meet?  Plan backwards and try to come up with a daily schedule to follow as your action plan.
  • Keep putting off going to the doctor/dentist/any kind of health appointment. Stop putting it off and prioritise it
  • Consider making a to don't list of things that you don't have to worry about once you write them down.  This is the one place where you record things that need to be actioned.

So, if you've got something that keeps bothering you and popping up in your mind, then take some time to figure out a plan for solving it.  Your willpower will thank you for it.

3. Execute Cleanly

As we've already noted, decisions are draining and cause willpower depletion...

Hard decisions that require a lot of effort cost a lot more willpower than the simple day-to-day "what shall I wear" type decisions.  

The problem is that oftentimes we stack these hard decisions before starting a task that is willpower depleting by itself creating a "double willpower whammy" effect.  

Consider these examples:-

  • A blog post writer that sits down to write without a plan of what the topic is going to be about.  
  • A video presenter that needs to record a video, but first has to decide the topic and the script
  • A dieter who enters the kitchen to cook a healthy meal, but first needs to decide what meal to cook

In all of these examples, we are trying to do a hard thing that requires willpower immediately after making hard decisions that also require willpower.

So, in essence, writing a blog post, recording a video and cooking a meal just became twice as hard.

By comparison, here is how these things would be executed cleanly:-

  • A blog post writer sits down and already has a title and topic decided in advance
  • A video presenter gets in front of the camera and uses a script that's already been prepared
  • A dieter who enters the kitchen knows what she's cooking and already has the ingredients waiting

By breaking up your willpower depleting tasks you increase your chances of seeing things through.

Executing cleanly:- When it comes time to do something difficult that requires willpower, you simply execute.  All the specifics, strategies, what's and how's have been decided upon beforehand.

Simple rule: When trying to make yourself do something difficult, execute cleanly.

4. Remove Temptation

This is a big one.

Many of the willpower depletion studies have participants sit next to something delicious, like a cookie or some chocolate, and ask them to resist eating it for a period time...

The participants then undergo some kind of test.  Sometimes it's a geometry test, other times the ability to hold onto a hand gripper for an extended period of time is measured.

In all of these studies participants that resist temptation do so at the expense of willpower.  They always perform worse on the test that follows over a control group.

In short: Resisting temptation is hard.  And it consumes willpower.

We can ignore temptations when they're not immediately available but once they're right in front of us it takes a lot more willpower to keep perspective and retain the vision of our distant goals.

So, what can we do about this?  

We can proactively and consciously change our environment such that we aren't constantly tempted.

Here are some examples of how we can do this:-

  • If you're on a diet, make sure you don't have tempting treats in the house and don't go to the grocery store when you're hungry
  • If you're trying to replace a coffee habit with sparkling water, take a route from the office that doesn't go past Starbucks
  • If you want to stop watching television, throw your TV out (my business partner did this and didn't regret it)
  • If you want to drink less alcohol, don't go to a place that sells alcoholic drinks
  • Hang out with people that are already doing what you want to do
  • Spending too much on social media sites?  Block them using browser apps
  • Spending too much time on your phone while in the office?  Leave your phone in the car while at work

Avoiding temptation is easier than self control.  Protect your limited willpower reservoirs by removing as many temptations as possible from your environment.

In short: "out of sight, out of mind" is a great way of thinking about temptations and willpower preservation.  Take some time to design your environment so that you're not constantly having to turn down tempting offers.  

In short: design a temptation free life.

5. Be Specific with Implementation Intentions

How do you increase your chances of doing something like exercise?

One answer is that instead of making generic plans ("I will exercise three times per week"), you create specific plans ("On Monday at 10am I will go to the gym").

These are called implementation intentions and are in the format of:-

On [day] at [time] I will [activity] in [location]

Some further examples are:-

  • On Friday at 7am I will jog for 20 minutes in the park
  • On Saturday at 8am I will do 10 minutes of meditation in my living room
  • On Wednesday when I get home from work I will record a video in my recording studio

In a recent study by the British Journal of Healthy Psychology it was shown that just by writing implementation intentions increased the chances of someone doing at least one bout of exercise per week increased from 38% to 91%.

Not only do implementation intentions help you to follow through on the goals that you set for yourself, but they have also been shown to reduce the willpower that's required for you to do so.

It sounds like a bit of a fad, but there have been over 100 studies to back up the effectiveness of this technique.  At this point, it's pretty conclusive: Implementation Intentions are highly effective.

In Willpower, the authors talk about another variation of implementation intentions.  It's called the: "if x happens then I will do y" approach.  

The if/then variation is useful to help negotiate tricky situations/temptations when they crop up in our lives.  They can help us make the right decisions in times where we are vulnerable to temptation.

For example, if you're on a diet, it's quite common to be in situations where you have to turn down food that you enjoy, like tasty cakes or pizza, in order to stick to your plan. You can use implementation intentions like a battle plan to help you negotiate these tricky moments.


  • If they serve chips, I will refuse them all
  • If there is a buffet, then I will only eat vegetables and meat
  • If my friends decide to party tonight, I will go home

Research suggests that this approach is also highly effective. 

One particular study was done with the stroop test.  

The stroop test is when the names of colours appear on your screen (for example, red), but the actual colour is different.  So, for example:- red

Two groups of participants were asked to do the test and then follow it up with a test designed to measure their willpower.  

One group did the test as normal, but the other group were given specific if... then instructions.  For example:- "If I see a word, I will ignore its meaning and look only at hte second letter and the color of the ink"

And the results?  

Well, you guessed it...The group that used implementation intentions demonstrated greater willpower in the follow up exercise.  

In other words, the "if...then" approach reduced willpower fatigue.

"Goals or resolutions stand a better chance of being realized when they are furnished with implementation intentions that link anticipated suitable opportunities to intended goal directed behaviors"

[pdf] - Implementation Intentions - Strong Effects of Simple Plans

There are two key takeaways from this:  When trying to create a change in our lives, such as going to the gym, that is going go to be a challenge for you:-

  1. Write down what day, what time and where this is going to take place
  2. Write down a battleplan of if/then scenarios and corresponding actions to do should these events occur

Not only will you increase your chances of following through, but you'll reduce the amount of willpower required to do so.

6. Pick Your Battles

You want to make big changes to your life.  Get in shape, read more, build a business, instill a writing habit...

You have a hit of motivation and excitement as you dream of all the amazing life-changing benefits that these changes will bring you and you make this grand plan of how you're going to start building all these habits starting TOMORROW.

I've been there before - it's so tempting to do this.  But it's really not going the best approach for the long term.  Why?  Because while you may succeed for a while by drawing on reserves to power through like a hero, it will just leave you more depleted and more prone to serious mistakes later.

Huge and quick transformations will fail if they seem impossible.  In short: you'll completely drain your willpower, you'll quit and you'll be back to square 1.

A better approach:-

  1. Make changes during calmness when you're not in a chaotic willpower depleting phrase of your life
  2. Nail one thing at a time.  Once you've worked on that one thing, you can start habit stacking.

In much the same way that you can't get up and run a marathon right now, you can't become a habit warrior overnight.

Relax.  Take a more strategic approach.  

Budget your willpower like you budget your money.  Choose to invest in a few important things at a time, rather than trying to do everything at once.

In the world of habits, the tortoise always beats the hare.

7. Never Say Never

It's Sunday, you're at the local cafe and you've been on a diet for the last three weeks. Everything is going really well...

But then the waiter wheels over the dessert cart, packed with glorious cakes and other sweet delights.  

Usually you'd avoid the temptation altogether (see point 4), but it's too late for that now.  Those cakes are staring right at you.

So, what's the best willpower preserving way of handling this?

Research says that rather than flatout denying the cakes, you should tell yourself "not now, but later".

A study was done in this very scenario. People that had told themselves "not now, but later" were less troubled with visions of chocolate cake than the other two groups - both the ones who had imagined eating and the ones who had flatly denied themselves the pleasure.

It takes willpower to turn down dessert, but apparently it's less stressful on the mind to say later rather than never.  In the long run, you end up wanting less and also consuming less.

In short: in tempting situations that you cannot avoid, simply tell yourself you'll have the reward, but at a later time.

8. Take Care of Basics

I know...this stuff is boring, right?

But if you don't have all the stuff I'm about to mention in check, then fixing this is definitely your highest point of leverage and you should treat it as a priority:

  • Eat well - There is a strong and well researched link between glucose and willpower.  Your brain requires glucose to operate healthily and if you're not supplying the necessary nutrients, then your willpower will suffer (studies have shown this time and time again).  

    Simply, you can preserve willpower with regular and healthy meals.  If you have an important meeting, or a vital project, don't take it on without glucose.
  • Rest well - if you've had a hard willpower depleting day then one of the best ways to replenish that willpower reservoir is to have a good night's sleep.  If you don't have a good routine for sleeping then your self-control inevitably pays the price.
  • Be Neat - messy environments are subtly cue your brain and your behavior, making it ultimately more of a strain to maintain self-discipline.  The opposite is true.  A clean desk or a made bed subtly reinforces discipline.

    I've personally experienced the effects of this before.  With a messy desk, my chances of getting into a state of deep work are greatly reduced.  

    In short: keep things clear and organised where possible.
  • Exercise regularly - there are a number of willpower related studies to show that exercise actually helps self-control to spill over into other areas of your life.

9. Avoid Procrastination

Procrastination is a big willpower killer by draining a lot of our mental resources.

I've discussed in previous posts how procrastination is essentially a manifestation of your brain being in conflict with itself.  

In the same way that the Zeigarnik effect eats up mindshare, procrastination does too. Having a constant battle to get a task done exacerbates willpower depletion.

Of course, procrastination is a complex topic that I will be covering shortly on this site.

In Summary

The way I look at willpower preservation can be summed up with the following:-

Design your life such that you use as little mental processing power as possible to do the things that you should be doing and as little mental processing power to not do the things that you shouldn't be doing.

While we love the idea of just battling through like some kind of hero, it just isn't a smart approach.  

We're not infallible or indestructible...if we push too hard, we'll burn out hard. That's an undeniable fact of being human that nobody is exempt from.

Useful Resources on Willpower

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