Willpower through Words

This post originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of Time Management magazine.

Picture this: you’re hungry. You’re walking along and you spy a fast-food restaurant. You know that the food they offer is not as good for you as it should be. High numbers in the calorie, cholesterol and sodium columns to be sure. If you care about such things, then you know this food is not really right for you. But it is very hard to resist. Fast food is manufactured to taste and smell wonderful. There’s a science to all of it, right down to the choice of colours used in the branding: that wonderful shade of red that human beings look to when they are in search of something to satisfy the hunger urge – it’s there, on the signs, the posters and the cups.

The people behind the science of fast food know that urges are stronger than common sense. Instinctive desires win out. People always give in to emotion and to desire, since these things are simply stronger. Using willpower to try to stick to some better plan is a herculean task quite simply because it is not natural for a person to act consciously against one’s own urges. Urges are based on instinct. Instinct is based on survival. Ultimately pure biological life relies on listening to instinct.

So willpower doesn’t stand a chance. Or does it?

The best way to avoid succumbing to the urge to devour a calorie-laden, fat-laden fast food meal is to inoculate against the urge by feeding on logic in advance. This technique applies to other areas of life as well, of course, including time management.

Inoculating against hunger requires taking specific steps to avoid getting hungry, primarily by grazing on healthy snacks throughout the day – snacks such as raw vegetables, dried fruits, and nuts. This keeps the body and its blood sugar level pretty even, and avoids becoming ravenous. This represents willpower on the food front.

On the time management front, the most common circumstance in which willpower is required is when procrastinating on a disliked task, or when seeking to implement a new practice, such as returning email in blocks rather than individually, and hence resisting the urge to respond to them right away.

In both cases, of the procrastinated task and the new habit, tangible notes (words on paper or screen) take the place of healthy snacks, and achieve the same result. If a person is putting off a task because they fear it or simply do not like it, then plotting the task or the reason for the task on a piece of paper or Word document provides an opportunity to assess the task with fresh eyes. Can it be broken up into smaller tasks? Can some or part of it be delegated? Even if the answer is no to both of these questions, writing things out also allows the opportunity to gauge how long the task will take, and to see what’s coming up next. There is always an end to even the worst of tasks, and being able to visualize the end is a great motivator. It represents a known conquering an unknown.

The same applies to new habits being introduced to an existing lifestyle. Written, planned steps, including reminders in calendars and checklists, rids the mind of the need to remember and emotionally reassess the effort required to make a change. Many people pair this with a “turn-off time,” an end point that promises a return to the status quo if the initiative fails. This technique, also referred to as a pilot project, gives a sense of tangible comfort that can overcome fear. In other words, it is a recipe for willpower.

Willpower comes from trumping emotion with logic. It requires tangible tools – words, mostly – to be heard above the volume of an instinctive roar. By visualizing, reviewing reassessing, and re-approaching a task you balance out the powers 51-49 in favour of logic. And that’s all the odds you need to achieve victory over difficult tasks.