It’s 3 pm and my energy starts to dip.
I head outside to grab an espresso and pass a bakery promoting a two-for-one donut special. Faced with an array of glazed treats, my willpower starts to wane.
My brain is consumed with a single question:
To donut or not to donut?
Each day, we all face tough decisions that test our willpower — and some decisions have a greater impact than others.
Whether or not we believe willpower is a myth, it remains a continual challenge, especially when facing distractions or temptations.
Menial tasks, cat videos, and Internet wormholes not only misdirect our attention, but also increase cognitive switching costs.
For example, research shows that it can take anywhere between 10–18 minutes to get back on task after a distraction, which explains why many of us leave work wondering why we didn’t accomplish as much as we had planned.
Minimizing distractions can be tough. But learning how to effectively harness willpower and approaching it with a balanced mindset has helped me to stay focused and productive during the 12 years since I launched JotForm.
Let me explain.
Avoidant culture and an obsession with 30 days
Society often has a pretty skewed perception of willpower.
The over-hyped version often appears through the lens of self-control — a term that connotes restriction and avoidance in the form of detoxes, diets, or New Year’s resolutions that never seem to work.
While avoiding certain behaviors for 30 days at a time can build short-term results, the habits they create are rarely sustainable in the long term.
We can’t focus on what we want to accomplish if we’re constantly focusing on what we want to avoid.
Our divided attention
Many individuals and organizations succumb to the temptation of building multiple products or taking on several big projects at once.
However, neuroscientists agree that “our tendency to divide our attention, rather than focus, is hampering our ability to perform even simple tasks,” and negatively affects attentiveness, learning, and mindfulness.
So, we might as well discard the idea that multitasking is a desirable trait. It actually decreases our productivity in the long run.
In the early stages of building JotForm, it took daily effort to stay focused. But with habits, routines, and a slow-growth approach, I’ve been fortunate to create a company that now serves 4.2 million users.
Focusing consistently on one product or task, and developing it over time, creates sustainability. And through repeated, consistent actions, self-discipline becomes second nature.
Pursuing our goals in small, daily increments will not only help us to achieve them, but can also transform our willpower into a more sustainable resource.
At the same time, it’s important to remember that willpower is a finite resource. We don’t have an endless supply.
Willpower: use responsibly
As Spiderman’s Uncle Ben would say: with great power comes great responsibility.
It’s up to each of us to choose how and where we apply our limited willpower. Over long stretches of time, overworking our willpower can be detrimental.
Contestants from The Biggest Loser TV series experienced this reality firsthand after competing to see who could lose the highest percentage of body weight in just seven months.
Pursuing a desired outcome (rapid weight loss) while avoiding certain behaviors (unhealthy eating patterns and sedentary lifestyles) eventually led them back to their starting weights — highlighting why willpower is both a mental and physiological phenomenon.
When we over-exert our willpower, energy is expended, blood glucose levels plummet, and willpower is weakened.
According to a 2007 study by Florida State University researchers, “controlling attention, regulating emotions, quitting smoking, coping with stress, resisting impulsivity, and refraining from criminal and aggressive behavior” can all be affected when we overwork our willpower.
As Charles Duhigg writes in The Power of Habit:
“Willpower isn’t just a skill. It’s a muscle, like the muscles in your arms or legs, and it gets tired as it works harder, so there’s less power left over for other things.”
A balanced way to boost your willpower
When willpower seems not to work, it’s important to consider it as a separate entity from either avoidant or motivation-driven behaviors. And the more we study our own willpower, the better we’re able to harness it effectively.
1) Give yourself a real break
Working harder, better, faster, and stronger won’t necessarily ensure long-term results.
Many successful leaders, like Elon Musk, have built thriving businesses by working on overdrive, but they’ve also burned the candle at both ends — and that relentless pace is almost never sustainable.
That’s why scheduling time off should be a priority. I do this every year to give my brain some much-needed downtime.
And sometimes the best option is to do nothing at all.
Taking regular, restorative breaks is necessary also when stepping away from our devices throughout the day. Do your best to schedule breaks, just as you would book important meetings.
I try to take regular walks, enjoy my morning coffee with a coworker, and I rarely eat lunch at my desk. A break could even lead to your next great idea, and can help to keep your brain well-rested and happy.
2) Create daily habits
As I wrote in Why setting big goals can make you miserable, goals set direction, while systems build progress. There’s significant long-term value in establishing everyday rituals.
Identifying certain cues, aligning them with healthy habits and routines, and enjoying a reward are the steps we need to learn good habits.
Think about brushing your teeth: your cue is the toothbrush, your habit is brushing your teeth, and the reward is a clean mouth and fresh breath. Applying the cue-habit-reward philosophy to create new routines or strengthen old ones can help to boost willpower, simply through repetition.
3) Meditate in your own way
Meditation doesn’t have to mean sitting on a pillow in the lotus position, surrounded by candles and incense. You can mediate more actively by journaling, going for a run, or taking long, deep breaths.
Practicing daily mindfulness also enhances self-regulation, which decreases emotional reactivity (snapping at the parking officer or bursting into tears) and encourages us to view our own emotions more positively.
Integrating mindfulness techniques into each day can help us all to prevent willpower burnout before it becomes a problem.
While multi-tasking was once considered a desired skill, there’s increasing evidence that doing more than one task at a time can increase errors, encourage goal shifting (“I want to do this now instead of that,”) and cut productivity by up to 40%.
Splitting your focus also diffuses your ability to work on multiple activities. Focus more deliberately, do one thing at a time, and channel your willpower into the zone of deep work to get things done.
Work out your willpower just as you would a muscle. Engage and challenge it regularly, reinforce positive behaviors, and give it some rest days. And use it to pursue what you truly want to achieve.
But sometimes giving in is the best way to reset yourself.
So every once in a while, go ahead and eat that donut.