Willpower-picby John Coleman

Mustering willpower is a struggle for almost everyone — and it’s getting harder. We, as individuals and as a society, lack self-control at precisely the time we need it most.

Willpower is about more than resisting our bad habits. It’s the mental discipline that allows us to cultivate good habits, make better decisions, and control our own behaviors — everything from dieting effectively to powering through difficult problems at work. It’s a quality that can separate the most productive businesspeople from the least productive. And it’s a trait that many of us lack. Surveys of more than 1 million people show that self-control is the character trait modern men and women recognize least in themselves.

Our environment only exacerbates the problem. The jungle of stimuli that engulfs us each day make it difficult to exercise restraint or focus on the important habits we need to build or tasks we need to accomplish. Nicholas Carr has argued in his book, The Shallows, that the internet is destroying our ability to concentrate and read or think deeply; and as John Tierney and Roy Baumeister point out in their book, Willpower, a typical computer user checks out more than three dozen websites per day. Focusing on an important memo is hampered by the distraction of Facebook and the incessant new email notifications blinking on our smartphones. Our ability to read a book is handicapped by the impatience of our 140-character habits. Even as I write this article, I’m tempted to snack, surf Wikipedia, check Twitter, or switch to another task.

But willpower is an essential quality you’ll need for personal effectiveness at work, forcing yourself to prioritize the most important items on your to-do list, powering through an endless day of difficult decisions, or simply resisting the urge to eat that extra bag of chips in the office snack room. Want to grow your business or get that promotion at work? Cultivating willpower may be your quickest route to success.

To combat declining willpower, consider a few of the following approaches, based in part on Tierney and Baumeister’s recommendations:

  • Practice small. Did you know that by reminding yourself to sit up straight at your desk you can train the same mental muscle you need to quit smoking or sustainably shed pounds? Research has indicated (PDF) that even reminding yourself to keep good posture on a regular basis can gradually improve your ability to self-regulate, and maintaining a regular exercise routine may improve self-control. Practice small exercises in self-control, and your overall willpower will benefit.
  • Take on your greatest challenges one at a time. How long was your New Year’s resolutions list this year? How many points have you already ignored? Even my suggested list for young leaders had five separate points, but if you want to shake a particularly trying habit (or build a good one), you should only focus on one major change at a time. Start, for instance, with your resolution to check Facebook or Twitter only twice per day; then, once you’re free of that habit, move on to your new diet and exercise plan. In the short term, the amount of willpower you have is fixed, and overloading yourself with new tasks that require it may diminish your ability to accomplish any goal.
  • Monitor, monitor, monitor. Want to run a fast mile? Time every run. Want to write the next great American novel? Post the word count you’ve written every day on Facebook for all your friends to see. The more you monitor something (and ask others to help you monitor) the more likely you are to stay on task. Sites like Quantified Self offer an increasingly diverse array of ways to self-monitor, just as sites like Mint.com offer specific opportunities for self-regulation. If you’re distracted by Facebook, Twitter, or other social media at work, keep a log of every time you check those sites and force yourself to introduce small goals to reduce the number of times you visit them every day.
  • Find time to replenish. In the short term, you only have so much willpower, and once it’s depleted, your ability to exercise self-control or make sound decisions diminishes dramatically. If you’re in a stressful job, for example, your ability to make decisions is worse in the afternoon than in the morning. However, finding downtime and even eating (replenishing your body’s glucose) can help you replenish your willpower before taking on difficult decisions or tasks. Skipping or working through lunch may actually negatively impact both your ability to make decisions and your ability to work productively in the afternoon.
  • Keep it clean. A simple way to improve willpower is to operate in a neat environment. Tierney and Baumeister note that environmental cues like messy desks or unmade beds can “infect” the rest of your life and habits with disorder, whereas maintaining a neat and clean environment can help you to maintain order and self-control in the other tasks you confront. If your office or cubicle is a mess at work, make your first order of business to organize your space, and you may find your focus and productivity improving at work.

Willpower is a struggle in the modern era. Our distraction-filled lives make it innately difficult. These are just a few tips to build and maintain willpower, but starting here may help you build a critical personal discipline.

What else do you do to stay on track?