Nopes. Turns out the world doesn’t work like that.
Trying to change on willpower alone is like trying to lift a car with your bare hands. It might work if you’re Superman but for a regular Joe like me, well, let’s just say it didn’t work an leave out all the embarrassing details.
The reason it didn’t work is to be found in a now classic study by Roy F. Baumeister, published in 1998. Baumeister took a bunch of volunteers and put them, one by one, in a room with a bowl of freshly baked chocolate-chop cookies.
“We’re going to do a taste memory test today,” the test leader told them. “Here’s a bowl of radishes. Please eat at least two radishes. Oh, and don’t touch the cookies while I’m gone.”
And then the test leader left.
What happened? The subjects longed for the cookies, looking at them, even going so far as picking up and sniffing them, but none the cookies. All the test subjects ate the radishes they had been assigned. Then the test leader came back.
“Good, you’ve eaten your radishes,” she said. “Now we have to wait while your taste memory fades. Would you please complete this test task for an upcoming study on problem solving while we wait? Please ring the bell when you’re done.” And she handed them a rather complicated task to solve.
Primed to Fail
Except that the task was unsolvable. No matter what they did they would fail.
Here’s the kicker: the people who’d been told not to eat the chocolate cookies kept trying for an average of 8,5 minutes. The people in the control group, who weren’t presented with any cookies, kept trying for more than 20 minutes.
Baumeister concluded that the don’t-eat-the-cookie subjects had suffered what he called Ego Depletion. In short, their willpower had run dry.
See, willpower is like a muscle. You can work out your willpower to strengthen it. You can wear it down. You can even snap it. What you can’t do is believe that it will last forever.
Our will gets tired. After a while we’re not able to resist.
Muffin on the Counter
You can try this yourself. Bake some muffins. Put them on your desk, table or kitchen counter, somewhere where you’ll see them a lot. Decide to leave them for a while. Write down the time. Then write down the time when you ate your first muffin.
Now wait a day and do the exact same thing, but put the muffins somewhere where you don’t see them, don’t smell them and are liable to forget them, like the garage or in a plastic bag in a cupboard. Check how long time you can go without eating one now.
Yeah, it’s a poor way to conduct psychology experiments. But I’ll wager that you’ll get a lot more done day two. Day one, when your willpower is being drained by not eating those delicious muffins, you will have less left over for work stuff.
So what does this mean?
Create Willpower Support Systems
It means that no matter how hard you try, how much you want it, you won’t change on willpower alone. You’ll need systems.
I use a variant of Getting Things Done to help me through the day. I use Habitica to make it fun to complete tasks. I set up my day so that I’ve got as few distractions as possible and that I can get absorbed in something that won’t require me to use my willpower.
And it works. Someday I’ll post a complete breakdown of my day so you can follow along. For now I’ll just say that it keeps me productive, that I manage to accomplish quite a lot more today than I did five years ago.
Not because I’m more skilled. Not because I’m better, or more motivated or have more deadlines.
It’s because I’ve created systems that support my willpower. Things that let me work in a better, more focused, less will-dependent way.
Try it, it’s worked wonders for me.