When we are creating new habits, and trying to make the best choices for ourselves throughout the day, it also helps to understand how our willpower works.
Willpower is actually a finite energy.
We start off every day with a full tank, and as we go through our days it steadily becomes depleted by each decision and act of willpower that we need to make.
Willpower is drained by illness, effort, stress and any activity which tires us out. Automatic actions, like habits, take less energy.
As our willpower drains away, we enter a state of ego depletion. Researchers have linked this state to reduced brain function. And you find yourself doing worse in tests, your performance is reduced overall, and you tend to be more likely to give in to demands, make rash decisions and also to give in to your own impulsive feelings. You have a harder time controlling your reactions. You are able to give in to habits, but it takes a lot of effort to resist an existing habit—which is why, as the day wears on, and your energy decreases, it becomes harder to stick to a new diet, or to write that extra page, or to exercise.
Willpower, a Study
This is a well-known situation, and in some professions actively used. Professor Jonathan Levav at Columbia University conducted a study on this, and found that prisoners were more likely to be granted parole earlier in the day, and also again right after lunch. Lawyers wanting a good outcome on their court cases will try to have their tough cases heard earlier in the day, when the judge is fresher and more likely to not make rushed decisions.
So, when planning your writing schedule, think about how complex the writing task will be, how likely it is that you would skip it for some other activity, and how intense a session you wish to have. If the answer is yes, it will take more effort, schedule it for earlier in the day if you can. That is when you will have the most willpower and energy for it. Or set it up and prepare for it earlier in the day so the decision is made and you have less to think about at the time.
Things which can restore willpower during the day include rest, food, and a mental break. But normally, a night’s sleep is the best way to do this.
Try to make your harder decisions earlier in the day as well, for the reasons stated.
Or, make the more complex tasks you know are coming up later, easier. You can do this by planning, making lists, preparing the task ahead, or deciding what it is you must do while you still feel strong and fresh, and setting it up in a way that it is harder to avoid or skip.
The type of person we are also has some bearing on our willpower. The marshmallow test is a famous psychological experiment conducted with children. They were put in a room, one by one, and a marshmallow was placed in front of them. They were told they could eat it now if they wanted, but if they waited five minutes they could have more marshmallows. Some children could wait, but not others.
This was put down to personality, and the ability to wait for rewards.
I do not fall into the second group, and it is hard for me to wait for my rewards, even when logic tells me they will be larger. If you know you are a more of an instant-gratification type of person, the more systems you put in place to support yourself, the better. That is, if you want to get this writing habit really going.
This blog post article has been an excerpt from my book How to Become a More Productive Writer.