Willpower as a Limited Resource

I remember reading that President Obama has a daily "uniform" so that he has one less decision to make on a daily basis. Apparently it's not only our ability to decide that's limited but also our willpower.

I bought The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan based on a recommendation. At first I thought that the book was revisiting similar concepts I had read (and written) about earlier, but it actually covers new ground as well.

Not only is it important to keep cutting your to-do lists down to the one most important thing, but you need to get to this one thing early on in the day when your willpower is strongest.

Willpower is finite. We start off with a full "battery" (hopefully) and as we go through the day, it slowly depletes. Every time we don't give in to temptation, whether it's a food or telling someone off; every time we are forced to do something we don't like; and every time we are implementing something new or filtering out distractions, we are using up this finite resource. Given how many times we cannot say what we think and are dealing with distractions, is it any wonder we have little willpower left by afternoon? 

So if you do the one most important thing when fresh, you'll have enough willpower to truly focus on it and tune out the rest of the world. 

What this also made me realize is that a bad job is not only bad for your emotional health, but also for your mental health and bandwidth. If every moment is spent unhappy, forced to do things that are not a good fit or forced to keep in all the unhappiness caused by a bad culture or boss, what willpower is left for anything else?

The book mentions a study where two groups were given math problems to solve and had both healthy and unhealthy snacks nearby. The group with the harder problems chose the unhealthy snacks since they had used up more willpower focusing on the problems.

The implications of this are astounding. What can you reschedule to take advantage of greater willpower?


Karina is VP of Operations and HR at 24/7 Teach.

A version of this was originally posted on Business Common Sense blog.

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