Think of the last time you struggled to focus on a boring or difficult task. Your wandering attention probably felt like it was outside your control, as if you suddenly lost the ability to focus and didn’t know how to regain it. We all feel that way sometimes.
Even in those moments, when you feel like you’re fighting against your own instincts, you can stop procrastinating and get focused. You just need to recharge your willpower.
The following strategies will help you hold your ground—no matter what temptations are luring you in the opposite direction.
1. Only work on one goal at a time. If you only take one idea from this post, let it be this: only work on one goal or habit at a time. Because your willpower is a finite resource, when you spend your willpower on one thing, you have less it available for other things. Thus when you try to change multiple habits at the same time, what you’re doing is allocating just one sliver of your willpower pie to each goal. The result is not surprising: failure in most, if not all of them.
Instead, you want to funnel as much of your willpower fuel towards one thing as you can. Changing any habit is like driving an auto up a very steep mountain—the engine on your willpower-mobile needs as much power as possible to get to the top and over the other side without puttering out and sliding back.
2. Make changes during periods of calm. If your willpower is a finite resource, then you don’t want to attempt big goals and habit changes when you’ve got a lot on your plate. These stressors will suck away your willpower, leaving you without enough of it to reach your big goal.
3. Make your goal as clear and specific as possible. While some cynics scoff at those who make New Year’s resolutions, the resolvers get the last laugh; people who make formal New Year’s resolutions are ten times more likely to reach their goals than those with the same aims and motivation, but who never clearly articulate their aims.
Hoping to reach a goal without clearly defining it is like trying to find a place by simply driving around; you’re not sure exactly where you’re headed and thus fruitlessly burn up your fuel—or willpower.
4. Don’t make big decisions on an empty stomach. The glucose in your bloodstream is part of what fuels the energy source of willpower, and it comes from any food you eat that contains carbohydrates. Exercising self-control depletes relatively large amounts of this glucose, and when glucose goes down, so does your willpower. No food=no glucose=no willpower=risk aversion and poor decisions.
This is why you should never go into anything important—a meeting, an interview, a test–on an empty stomach. And why you shouldn’t schedule say, a pitch meeting, right before lunch if you want to increase your chances of getting a yes.
5. Make to-do lists. Once you finish a task, your brain largely forgets about it. But unfinished tasks have been shown to stick in your head and jangle around. Your brain hates loose ends and will keep nudging you to do something about them.
The problem with these loose ends camping on your cranium is that they’re subtly eating up your willpower. They’re like so-called “vampire appliances,” appliances that are plugged in all the time and suck up a little bit of electricity even when you’re not actually using them.
6. Create routines.
If you have a set schedule for the day and a regular routine, you don’t have to dither about what you should be doing at any given moment. “It’s 10:00 pm—time to start reading for 30 minutes before bed.”
7. Build self-awareness through monitoring.
Self-awareness simply means consciously knowing what you’re doing each day, and it’s tightly linked with self-control.
Most people are pretty good at hiding themselves…from themselves. They have only the vaguest idea of how much time they’ve wasted surfing the internet, how much food they’ve eaten, and what they’ve spent that month. But if you don’t know where you’re at in a certain pursuit, there’s no way you’ll reach your goal; you won’t know what you need to change, how far you’ve come, and how far you have to go.
8. Set up an accountability system. It’s not only helpful to monitor your own progress, but to have someone else looking over your shoulder as well. Keep yourself accountable by making a bet with a friend, setting an appointment to work out with a buddy, posting your progress publicly on a blog or on Facebook, or using a site like stickK.com.
9. Tackle the tough things first.
Throughout the day, you’re going to be exercising your self-control and making decisions, which will slowly deplete your willpower until eventide. So tackle your most important tasks as soon as you can in the morning, when your willpower tank is full and fresh. When taking a test, do the hardest problems first, and save the easy ones for later.
10. Get enough sleep and take naps. Sleep refreshes your willpower supply. So don’t skimp on getting your zzzz’s at night, and take a nap between one self-control exhausting task and the next.
11. Limit your choices. You already know that having too many choices creates restlessness. But it also saps your willpower as well. As you might remember from last time, your willpower takes the biggest hit when you lock in a decision, but it also gets burned up simply through the process of shopping around and weighing different choices.
12. Don’t try to work or make important decisions when you’re sick.
When you’re sick, your immune system uses a bunch of your body’s glucose to fight off the infection. It pulls that glucose from everywhere, including your willpower supply.
13. Surround yourself with those who have similar goals. The people you surround yourself with have a big impact on who you become. Whether it’s smoking, weight, happiness, drinking research has shown that your group of friends influences your behavior–for better or worse. If you and your friends are all working towards the same things, it’s a lot easier to stick with it. But if you’re the lone man out, always swimming upstream against what all your friends are doing, you’re going to use up more of your willpower, and be more likely to struggle and fail.