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Gaming Willpower

22 Aug 2017

Watching my daily lifestyle evolve over the last two years, I’ve recently developed an amateur interest in human habits and willpower.

Habits are routines we go through without consciously thinking about because we’re used to doing them successfully for a long time. Willpower is fuel that we can use to drive involuntary routines to completion. Habit is what drives us towards another cup of sugar drink against our meal plan’s wishes, willpower is what helps prevents it.

Habits are formed through a repetitive anticipation trigger → routine → satisfaction cycle. A Starbucks builds the anticipation of good coffee, and we’re programmed to walk towards it and grab a cuppa, scoring familiar satisfaction.

Strong willpower is often needed for routines whose results and success rates are not clear or instant. It’s easier to form the habit of using a toothpaste every day, because we anticipate the cool-fresh feeling within minutes. It is difficult to form the habit of doing an intensive workout everyday at 6pm, because the anticipation is of pain and the result (weight loss, sexy legs, abs) is far away, making it less attractive and harder to visualise.

Stanford University psychologist Kelly McGonigal wrote an entire book on this topic. I read parts of it, and the key takeaway for me was that just like physical power:

  • Willpower has a daily cap. Within a willpower day, we gotta budget what we spend it on. Otherwise, we will lose our willpower to trivial things, and lose focus on what’s most important
  • Willpower can be trained and the cap can be increased. Much like regularly working out at the gym, if we consciously work on gaming our willpower allocation, we get better at it, and more of the activities that demanded higher willpower will inch towards becoming habits
  • Willpower days can be short - they don’t necessarily have to be as long as human days - naps and small victories can help replenish willpower and restart the cycle

After observing my own behaviour for 6 months, I discovered that there are willpower peaks on waking up and on successfully completing a chunk of work.

Naturally, I wanted to take advantage of willpower peaks to get difficult things done. I also wanted to discover ways to boost my willpower when it was dropping. Through some reading and subsequent experimentation, what I found to work well for me is to list down which activities in my day consume more willpower than others, and to organise them around observed peaks. Ironically, willpower is also needed to follow this organised plan, because there is usually inertia that prevents one from frequently changing what they’re currently doing. Here are some example activities (classifications can wary from person to person):

  • Habit activities (no willpower needed) - brushing teeth, replying to instant messages, calling a loved one to deliver good news, eating easily accessible food when a little hungry
  • Low willpower activities - catching the bus to work, cleaning up after cooking, making your bed before leaving for work, gorging on food that’s not easily accessible
  • High willpower productive activities - waking up, working out, solving a difficult math problem, writing a blogpost 😉
  • High willpower chores - this is a special category comprising tasks that need high willpower, but which I’d rather not do now, in the interest of spending time on other important things - groceries, paying bills, booking flights or hotels. However not doing them sufficiently sooner makes them expensive in the near future, and with time they often pile up and become urgent. The bright side about chores is that they’re often small victories.

So a good plan could start as follows:

  1. Wake up (only if you know you’ve slept enough) - this usually consumes substantial willpower. To make up, we need to achieve a small victory now: maybe lay out clothes for office, make the bed, get the laundry started
  2. Follow it up with a few habit activities - brush teeth, breakfast (kept within easy reach). This period also allows time for forming a list of what are some unique high willpower activities for the day (leftover difficult work from yesterday etc)
  3. Time for a high willpower activity! Get cracking on JIRA-615 😉 Hopefully it works out and serves as a small victory. Small victories will usually elevate willpower levels again
  4. In the event of a high willpower activity not working out, that’s when we have to be careful - small failures can be pretty dangerous for the mood. Therefore, a suitable thing to do now is a chore that doesn’t involve decision making. e.g making a known bill payment, making a pre-decided lunch (more on this later). As we already know by now, a brainless chore will provide a small victory, and elevate willpower levels

Recently, I’m trying to get better at keeping an inventory of brainless chores. When I experience a small failure and willpower is low, I pick one of the chores and strike them off to unlock a small victory.

Making weekly decisions in bulk during high willpower period is helpful. For example, recently I’ve been trying to plan in advance what meals I’m going to prepare through the week, and shop for ingredients with a defined shopping list at a time when I’m seeking a small victory. This saves me a few food decisions during the work week, keeps me well fed, and I get a free weekly brainless chore to exchange for small victory.

Call me crazy, but now I also go one level further by distributing breakfast and dinner ingredients in the home refrigerator and lunch in the office one. This allows for easy access when I need them, which means low willpower towards preparing meals. This in turn means I avoid skipping meals. This one habit has allowed me to not skip a single meal in the last one week (usually I always skip at least breakfast or lunch or both).

If you’re feeling like giving the willpower gaming a try, here are the two key takeaways from this post:

  1. Plan your day around your personal willpower peaks for maximum productivity. When willpower is high, do high willpower tasks. When willpower is low, aim for brainless tasks that lead to small victories
  2. Always aim to move towards making habits. Habits follow an anticipation trigger → routine → satisfaction cycle. By making triggers easily visible, and satisfaction better defined, you convert high willpower activities to lower willpower ones. Through practice, you can make the routine brainless - voila you just made a habit