Before I talk about overcoming procrastination through willpower, I want to share a personal story - I have three little boys, all under 7, and if I am going to be able to play with them when they are older, I will need to look after my health.
So I set the goal to exercise.
I locked in time after work when the kids had gone to bed at 7pm to exercise. But when 7pm came, despite the best of intentions, I would slump in front of the TV, exhausted from the millions of things I had done that day.
All I had to do was click the ‘Off’ button on the remote and go for a run. It seemed so simple! But you may as well have tried to move mountains to harness the energy to exercise.
My personal example of exercise may also resonate with you at work. You have that project that you have to work on, but it is impossible to summon the energy to close your email and get to work. All you have to do is press the little X button at the top, but you may as well try to move a mountain.
Other times you have no issue with getting on with the project.
The two examples above illustrate that you had the intention; you had built a plan to get it done, but when the time came, your willpower had deserted you.
Willpower is a limited resource. Like the physical effort that a marathoner summons as they hit the 35 km mark, applying willpower after the mental effort of hundreds of micro decisions can be demanding.
This is best explained by some neat experiments conducted by Baumeister and colleagues. In one experiment, a group was asked to exercise self-control by watching a funny film while trying not to laugh. The other group were asked to simply watch the film.
Following that experience, participants in both groups were asked to solve anagrams. Again, this task involved self-control, and they were measured on that task.
The hypothesis was that the group that did not self-regulate in the first task would be better at performing the second task.
Well, because they had not exhausted their self-regulatory effort. This is precisely what happened – the group that watched the funny film and had to control their laughter did far worse than the others. It seemed all their self-control had been used up.
Baumeister consistently found that self-control is a limited resource from this and subsequent experiments. Your willpower may not always be up to doing challenging things that you find difficult, don’t like, or are tedious,
Every day, you make hundreds, if not thousands, of decisions, requiring mental effort. As it turns out, neuroscientists now inform us that this is like the physical effort to develop muscle; our willpower needs exercise to develop willpower muscle.
Here are some personal trainer tips for strengthening your willpower and overcoming procrastination.
One line of research says that the most crucial key to having willpower muscle is having a strong WHY.
This research suggests that if you clearly understand what you value and a reason that matters to you, willpower will flow from this, and you will do what needs to be done.
In the physical fitness analogy, it might be like buying a gym membership or an expensive tennis racket. Now I’ve spent the money, I had better go. On the other hand, it may be more personal, like a promise to yourself that you will not gain weight as your parents did. In terms of willpower to do other tasks, you must be clear that you are spending this effort towards an end that you care strongly about. For example, you will commit to doing long hours to complete paperwork if you know it will bring in the money to pay your hard-working staff.
Having a strong why helps to overcome procrastination. I talk more about the power of a strong why and its impact on procrastination.
Just as small regular increments of exercise can increase muscle strength - applying small amounts of self-control throughout the day can increase your self-control in other areas of your life.
So build regular self-control activities, for example, bringing your own lunch instead of buying lunch, making your bed, or going to the gym. Using your self-discipline in these ways can increase your self-discipline in other areas of your life to overcome procrastination
Challenging activities that require willpower are best scheduled in the morning. If you leave these challenging activities till the afternoon, you are setting yourself up for failure.
Because in the afternoon, you have likely made hundreds of micro decisions and applied mental effort throughout the day. This makes feats of willpower the equivalent of climbing Everest after climbing all the foothills first. And you just run out of steam.
Regulatory effort is more challenging on lower levels of sleep and poor nutrition. Look after yourself, so you have the energy to apply self-discipline.
Raise the stakes for yourself. Set mini-deadlines that are self-imposed.
Those all-nighters that allowed you to finish the project at 3 am is an extreme example of the stakes being raised.
Avoid long sessions of work which deplete your self-control and make it harder to complete the task. Doing all-nighters means that your willpower muscle is close to zero.
More than 200 studies confirm that using If-Then statements results in a 200-300% increase in goal attainment.
So when your willpower muscle is fatigue (or maybe even when it isn’t), setting if-then statements is a good idea.
To overcome procrastination and strengthen willpower, here are a few ‘if-the’ statements that I like to use:
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