While we often focus on how willpower operates at the moments when we need it, there are some aspects of willpower that function best if they’re prepared beforehand. A couple of examples might demonstrate what I mean.
Running up against no-win situations
1. A business owner plans a meeting with a prospective client. Knowing that she tends to be late, she resolves to pay extra attention to being on time. On the day of the meeting, she works on her marketing plan for much of the morning before remembering that she has to complete some important work for another client before she goes. She rushes through the task, but by the time it’s done she’s running behind, and she realized belatedly that she still needs to gather some papers before she leaves. She decides she can’t afford the time to find the papers, hurries to the meeting, arrives 20 minutes late, and is very anxious during her presentation–particularly since she doesn’t have the materials she was planning on bringing.
2. A man has recently started to eat more healthily and has resolved not to eat some of the foods that he used to love because his doctor has warned him of the danger of serious heart problems. He decides late in the afternoon to take his wife to dinner and lets her pick the restaurant. At the restaurant they have many of his old favorites that he has been trying to avoid and not much else that sounds appealing. He ends up ordering something that sounds a little healthier than his usual fare but turns out to be pretty much just as bad. His recent successes with healthy foods doesn’t feel so inspiring any more.
When no-win situations can be won in advance
In both of these examples, the individual is relying completely on acting well when the key decision–to leave on time, to choose something healthy–comes. The woman doesn’t consider making special plans to ensure she won’t be late, and the man assumes that eating right means just deciding well when he gets to the restaurant. Yet when the moment of truth comes along, the woman finds she is still busy with another priority, one she can’t set aside, and the man finds he has few good options.
Both of these situations show people who are trying to change habits using a “business as usual” approach. The problem with this is that changing habits by definition means not doing what we’re used to doing. Both the businesswoman and the man who is trying to protect his health are assuming that if they “just try harder” in some indefinable way, they will succeed. “Just trying harder” doesn’t work: what works is trying differently. In these examples, trying differently means preparing.
So how might the situations come out if the people involved prepare? Let’s take a look.
Using preparation to make willpower easier
1. A business owner plans a meeting with a prospective client. Knowing that she tends to be late, she decides to schedule the time she has before the meeting to ensure that she leaves not just on time, but 10 minutes early. She calculates how much time that will leave her in the morning and reviews her obligations. This shows her that she has to complete some important work for another client before she leaves, and that therefore she’ll need to start on that important work first thing in the morning. She would also like to work on her marketing plan, and thinks she might have time to complete that too, but she makes sure she schedules it second just in case. She completes the work for the other client in the morning and sends it out an hour and a half before it’s time to go. Then she sets an alarm clock for five minutes before departure time and begins work on the marketing plan. She’s not finished with the marketing plan when the alarm goes off, but she gets up and gathers her things. She realizes she needs to get some papers to bring with her and spends ten minutes getting them, but since she had built in a small buffer, she still arrives at her meeting a few minutes early, fully prepared.
2. A man has recently started to eat more healthily and has resolved not to eat some of the foods that he used to love because his doctor has warned him of the danger of serious heart problems. He decides late in the afternoon to take his wife to dinner, but realizes that unless they go to a place with something healthy he likes to eat, he might be in danger of ordering one of his old favorites. He talks with his wife and picks a restaurant that sells a lot of deep-fried foods but that also has a salad bar he likes. On the way to pick up his wife he realizes that he should do everything he can to prevent buying something fried, so he resolves to refuse a menu and preemptively order the salad bar. At the restaurant, the waitress tries to press the menu on him just so that he can see all the options, but he insists that he would like the salad bar even before they sit down. He has the salad bar and it’s pretty good, even if it’s not as good as the chicken fried steak and cheddar cheese soup he would usually have eaten. He even chooses to have the vinaigrette instead of his usual ranch dressing. He does eat some of his wife’s french fries, but not very many.
Perfection is optional
In the examples with preparation, both the business owner and the health-minded man still made mistakes. The business owner could clearly benefit from even more planning, and the health-minded man would do better to completely ignore his wife’s food–but both of them were essentially very successful, and their success was based not on somehow summoning up powerful reserves of self-control, but on steering their own behavior through preparation, and on recognizing their limitations.
All that effective preparation requires to aid willpower is a willingness to look into the future and think about the places where we’re vulnerable to fall into bad habits. In some cases, preparation can get us out of impossible situations (like needing to finish a project before leaving but also needing not to be late), and in others it can just make good choices easier (like providing an acceptable alternative to deep-fried food).
There is no substitute for a good choice
Preparation isn’t a substitute for making good decisions, though: the business owner could have chosen to work “just a little longer” on the marketing plan and ended up late after all, and the health-minded man could have taken the menu from the waitress just to avoid seeming unpleasant, then ended up ordering something he ultimately didn’t want to be eating. Good choices here means surrendering to our own priorities, giving up on the idea of finishing the marketing plan right away and being willing to seem a little unfriendly to the waitress if those things turn out to be necessary for sticking to our goals.
What’s your greatest difficulty with willpower or self-motivation? Is there anything you could easily do ahead of time to tip those kinds of situations in your favor?
Photo by .imelda