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Is Willpower Overrated?

We all have things we want to do and get done. Some a lot more important than others. Things like wanting to lose weight, start going to the gym more, eat healthier, stop drinking alcohol, etc. These items can be super important to our wellbeing. Frustration can set in when we aren’t taking the steps necessary to get there or we keep on failing on the path we set out on.

What are we relying on? Are we relying on pure willpower and self-control to get us there or are we trying to create systems that work for us?

I would argue the first route is a sure route to be unsuccessful. Listening to people like Jocko Willink and David Goggins might be great and supply us with a great deal of motivation and inspiration, but how long does that last? These guys are one percenters, and I would argue they are not like the rest of the population. This could get into a discussion about the science of how susceptible people really are to change, but that’s for another day. People like Jocko are great and have definitely influenced a lot of people for the better, but I argue that you don’t have to be like these guys to be great or to get things done.

We only have so much cognitive energy each day. Our brains want us to do what’s easy because it doesn’t require as much cognitive energy. We might be able to make a few demanding decisions each day, but mostly we rely on what we are used to doing because it isn’t as demanding. Which is why you see people stuck in such bad habits because it is physically easy for them to do so. Change is demanding and your brain hates it.

So how can we do the things we want to do in times when it seems like such a daunting task?

We need to set up systems where our actions become automatic. Or, cognitively easy decisions. Basically, we don’t want to have to make a decision. We want the decision to be made for us. I joke with my wife about the paradox of choice all the time. We walked into a furniture store once and there are hundreds of different couches to choose from. This is cognitively demanding and can increase stress and problematize decision making. I chose the one I liked within five minutes and made sure I didn’t deviate from that even if another couch seemed really nice. We could’ve been there all day and not have been happy with our decision.

We need to create an environment where we have to make very few choices. Where the hard choice and the hard action to take is already made for us. Set your clothes out the night before you wake up, put the water in the coffee maker the night before, do twenty push-ups in the morning before you do anything else, hire a coach for your training/nutrition, use a blender for healthy smoothies, make your spouse choose the meal for you when you go out. These are all slightly easier decisions to make and lessen the cognitive load. I’m huge into morning routines because it is when your energy levels are the highest and you can get the most productive work done. If you already made the habit of a specific routine it lets you spend more of that initial energy for the day on big things you want to get done. I think one hour of highly focused undistracted work is better than getting a bunch of work done here and there throughout the day. I’m reading Tools of Titans by Tim Ferriss right now, and one thing all the world class performers he interviews have in common is a system or routine that is in place that is responsible for most of their productivity, and they don’t deviate from it.

I try to rely on what the science tells us as much as possible and it seems like the science tells us that willpower definitely exists but is a very limited resource. I think we have to appreciate and respect the limits of our physiology and that can in turn inform us to make better decisions. Most people don’t change for the better because they don’t want to. They just haven’t yet found the right resources and environment that starts to work for them.

This isn’t the most highly motivating read and it may even seem soft. There are facts about human beings that simply aren’t that stunning. I think a as we continue to get a fuller picture of the human brain, we will continue to come in contact with truths that surprise us, and we will have to update our understanding of our place in the world.

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