Limited Willpower

When we imagine who we are going to be in the future, what we want to accomplish, and how we are going to reach our goals, we see ourselves as a super version of who we are now. We imagine that we can focus and achieve anything we set our mind to, at least if we can work hard enough. All it takes, in our vision of the bright future, is willpower to push ourselves to work harder, be smarter, and do the challenging but important work to get to the top.

 

The reality for us, however, is that this ideal version of ourselves will not simply appear with the flip of a switch. The hard work we view ourselves completing is not just hard, it is impossible to complete without focus and an ability to engage in deep work. We have to cultivate this ability if we want to see it in our lives, it is not simply a matter of willpower.

 

In the past I wrote about Dan Pink’s book When and how we move through several predictable stages throughout the day. For most people (those of us who are generally morning people – night owls are the same process in reverse), we wake up and our brains are fresh and ready to tackle the day. We can do our best focus work and complete important analytical work during the first roughly 6 hours of the day. Afterward, we fall into a trough, where our brain is tired and we are not good at being focused or doing analytical work. Later in the day we see a rebound, where we become a bit better on complex thinking work, but still find ourselves easily distracted.

 

What Pink’s research shows is that our day and our work isn’t driven so much by willpower but by the biological reality of the brain. Cal Newport’s research in his book Deep Work supports this idea. Newport presents several studies which show that our willpower only lasts so long before we give in. As he writes, “You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it.”

 

We are not superheros and don’t have superpowers. We operate with a brain that can only handle so much before it becomes tired and stops working as well as we would like. We can resist those donuts in the morning when our brain is still fresh, but as the day goes on, we are going to become weary from the tough decisions we have to make, and our ability to fight off the donut craving will likely fail. We need to remember that our willpower won’t last forever and we need to set up systems and structures to help us do our best work when our brains are at their peak. Through these structures we can avoid negative temptations when our brains are in a rut. Plan ahead reasonably, and work to take steps that align with the reality of the brain. Don’t force yourself to rely on a superhuman effort that just isn’t realistic to be successful and accomplish the important things in your life.

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