Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Your willpower is limited. Here's how to manage it.

Mmm. Sugar. That will boost my willpower.

You can't do a million push-ups. Your muscles can't take it. Willpower is like a muscle too, and if it gets exhausted it doesn't work as well.
Self restraint, task persistence, willpower and decision making all burn the same brain fuel, glucose. Depleting the glucose means worse performance in all those areas later in the day.
For example, dieting is difficult because your willpower is weakest when you're low on glucose. It's a catch-22 The foods you're craving are exactly what would give you the sugar your brain is looking for, but they also have the calories your figure is trying to avoid.
But you're not doomed. Eat more smaller portions to keep some glucose in your brain. Establish systems, by putting together healthy snacks in advance. Keep tempting items out of sight and out of mind. Resisting the cookies you know are in the cupboard is still a drain on the decision making and the willpower, but it's easier than resisting the cookies right in front of you.
This psychological effect has a bigger impact on people living in poverty. If you're wealthy, when you feel the need to go buy something, you simply go buy it. However, if your resources are limited, you need to evaluate the trade-offs and opportunity costs for every purchase. Buying something you need would mean not buying something else you need. Medicine or food?
This means less willpower or discipline left over for other things wealthier people might take for granted.
When willpower is weakest people tend to become impulsive, failing to think things through, or take the easy way out by not making any decision at all. Of course, if you don't make your own decisions, someone else will gladly make them for you, and they may not have your best interests at heart.
In this case, knowledge is power. What can you do to take advantage of your cycles of willpower?
Make important decisions early in in the day.
Decide what's important to you, and put systems in place to make it happen. Rely on systems rather than day-to-day willpower.
Sugar can help rebuild glucose stores in the brain. Artificial sweeteners don't.
'Sleeping on it' can help, then make your decision early the next day.
Make decisions in advance and build them into your routines. Flossing your teeth, for example, can become part of the routine, rather than something you have to decide to do. 
If you want to maintain your ability to make good decisions, avoid situations where you need to restrain yourself. Restraining yourself from impulses or making tough decisions wears you down and makes you more vulnerable in other seemingly unrelated situations.
Originally published September 17, 2011
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