How Not to Piss Your Willpower Away

Are you procrastinating right now? If so, stop reading this and go do whatever you need to. Yes now. You can always read this later.

Back again, or failed to resist the urge to hit the “read more” button? What do you do when your willpower well is depleted? I know this state too well because I’m prone to head-shattering migraines. I spent years learning how to mitigate the pain, but spending all day trying not to be in pain completely drains my mental resources.

Even after I’ve taken all the pills, drunk tons of water, eaten, stretched, put on blue-blocking glasses to relieve eye-strain, gone for a walk, had a bath, and/or taken a nap. Even after I’ve beaten my migraine, it’s no more than a pyrrhic victory because now I’m too burnt out to do anything with the next few pain-free hours.

At this point I’m like some kind of expert on decision fatigue, or “spoon theory,” or whatever you like to call it. It’s all about treating your willpower like a muscle, exercising it using similar rules: do a little at first and gradually build, and let it rest as needed. Here are a few things I’ve learned. I might be repeating things I’ve covered in prior posts, but I need the reminder right now so…

Stop Being Picky

You wouldn’t believe what a relief it is when you decide to stop arranging your shirts by color as you hang them on the drying rack – where it doesn’t matter. Stopping yourself from doing some pointless thing you’ve turned into a habit takes just enough willpower to make it a worthy starting exercise.

Stop While You Still Have Energy

I know once you’re in a groove it’s tempting to keep on going until your batteries run down, but this is a swift road to feeling-like-crap town rather than having enough enthusiasm left to cheer at your accomplishments for the day. Save some energy. I know, it’s hard to justify when you rarely have enough energy to get things done, but have you every considered that this pattern of gungho->burnout contributes to that?

I’ve been parceling out my time in smaller chunks all year, and though I sometimes think I’m not making progress because things are getting done slowly, they’re actually getting done. My fallow periods have shortened to almost nothing compared to last year, where I hardly got anything done at all.

Write Out Your Plans/Make Notes

If you jot something down the moment you think of it, you can more easily go back to whatever you were doing without getting derailed. There’s nothing worse than being in the zone when your brain interrupts with, “Hey, you forgot to take out the garbage!” If you dump that thought onto paper (or your smartphone), it doesn’t need to take up space in your active memory processing unit anymore.

Also, as I wrote a couple weeks ago, when your nagging thoughts are more akin to a swarm of wasps, you have bigger problems. Maybe it’s time to sit down and work out exactly what’s eating you and what you can do about it.

Practice Exerting Your Willpower in Small Ways

Practice self-control with things that don’t matter. I’ve read about this technique a bit, for example from Simone Weil. I’ve also read about stupid willpower exerting exercises like brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand. I decided to put it in practice by doodling left-handed. The results are not yet in, but it’s worth a go.

Give In to Your Temptations in Structured Ways

Give yourself that bar of chocolate at the end of the day. Just like your muscles need fuel after a workout, so does your brain – and I’m not just talking bloodsugar. Watch a show, read a book. Don’t starve yourself of pleasure, even if you didn’t hit your target that day.

Get Some Fresh Air

Even if just to stand on your balcony/stoop and stare at the clouds for five minutes. Going for a walk is better, a hike more so. If you can’t get out at all, a hot bath maybe? It just has to be somewhere you can relax for a few minutes, that’s all. Taking time out for that is important, and never forget it.

These are just a handful of suggestions. Anything I missed?

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Sarah Dimento

The only thing interesting about me is my interest in interesting things – and sometimes I make cool shit.