Willpower is Overrated

Willpower is Overrated Reading Time: 4 minutes
The major challenge to learn a skill is getting yourself to practice. Most people rely on willpower and that’s why they fail. Here’s the right way to stick to a practice routine.

You’ve been there. You want to learn a skill but when is time to practice you don’t feel like it. It’s a strange thing because you know you want to learn and improve, but when you have to get out of bed early or leave the house to practice you look for any excuse not to.

Willpower is usually what helps you fight that feeling. It allows you to do what you know you need to do, but this can only take you so far. Willpower is exhaustible, it decreases as you use it, which makes it an unreliable strategy to take action.

If you tap into your willpower too much throughout the day, by night time you’ll find it harder to get you to do things -Like making that difficult phone call, working on that project you’ve been avoiding, or sticking to your diet.

Maybe you have a lot of willpower, great, but why waste it? There’s no need and no glory on painfully forcing yourself to do something. Practicing a skill is already challenging enough. The right way to getting yourself to practice -or to do anything for that matter- is to make it as easy and painless as possible.

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Let’s look at some examples. If you want to train a sport in the afternoon but find it difficult to leave the house after you get home from work then it would be a good idea to keep your training clothes in your car and go train straight from work.  

If every morning you hate getting ready to go for a run, then get all your morning routine pre-set the night before. Get your running clothes and shoes out of the closet before you go to bed the day before, that way you don’t have to look for them in the morning when you already don’t feel like running.  

The point to make here is that you should start studying your own behavior and your “pre-practice” routine. Once you find what gets the most in your way to practicing, make it easier or remove it. Finally, In the same way that you are trying to make convenient the things you are supposed to do, make inconvenient what gets in the way of doing them.  

In the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard the authors give a great example of this idea. It’s been shown that we eat mostly what’s around the house, regardless of how much or how little we like the food. Good, bad, healthy or unhealthy, we mostly eat what’s within our reach.  

Sounds simple and obvious but it has an important connotation. This fact tells us that the overweight problem in the country comes mostly from the food we buy at the supermarkets to bring home, not the food we eat at restaurants or fast food places.  

Since we eat what’s around the house regardless of what it is, then people who are overweight don’t necessarily have an eating problem, they have a purchasing problem! If they stop buying the food they are not supposed to eat and buy the one that’s good for them they would become healthier.  

Another important strategy to get you to practice and do the things you need to do is to plan and decide in advance. You need to cut the amount of decisions to a minimum because you don’t want your emotions getting in the way when it’s the time to take action. The goal is to save your willpower and avoid fighting the emotions that are trying to derail you.  

Plan the when and how you are going to do things. If you ask yourself do I feel like practicing now? Many times you will say no and then think of reasons why you shouldn’t do it. But if you schedule practice time and know exactly when you are supposed to practice, it makes it easier for you to just do it.  

In other words, you will get more done if you to plan on writing from 9am to 10am on Tuesdays and Thursdays than by doing it when you feel like it. This is specially true if you are just starting out, but even masters follow routines to work on their skill.  

Setting time aside to work on your skill is only one part of it. Ideally, you would want to plan ahead as many aspects as possible, like having everything you need at hand, deciding where and how you are going to practice, and choosing what your goal will be for the practice session.  

I.e. I’ll start writing at my desk (where) at 9am on Tuesday’s and Thursdays (when) using Scrivener (how), I’ll have water and the books I’m researching close to me before I start (avoid breaking the flow) and I’ll write for as long as necessary until I finish 5 pages (having a goal). Feel free to add as many aspects as you want.  

Keep in mind that I’m not suggesting that you be inflexible in your practice. You can change your plan at any point. The goal here is just to have a plan so you don’t have to make too many decisions when practice time comes around. “He who fails to plan is planning to fail”, “Plans are of little importance, but planning is essential” – Winston Churchill  

Remember: Making decisions, facing inconveniences, and fighting your emotions when about to do things you don’t feel like doing exhausts your willpower. Once that happens nothing can prevent you from skipping practice. Don’t rely on willpower, instead, plan your “pre-practice” so it’s easy and decision free, it will help you save your energy for what really matters, the practice itself.  

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