“What you have to do and the way you have to do it is incredibly simple. Whether you are willing to do it, that’s another matter.” — Peter F. Drucker
Whether it is business, athletics, or any other aspect of life, scenarios emerge where we must overcome some type of resistance. I have found the best way to do this is with strong willpower. In an impactful paper from 1998 called “Ego Depletion: Is the Active Self a Limited Resource?” authors Roy E Baumeister, Ellen Bratslavsky, Mark Muraven, and Dianne M. Tice conclude humans have limited supply of willpower, and it decreases as it is used. Though there is now evidence challenging this theory, I remain convinced that improving willpower is essential for productivity. This essay highlights strategies to optimize willpower.
The hardest I’ve worked in my life has not been for the coaches, bosses, or even the prestige of winning, but for accountability to my teammates. Being part of a team with strong accountability is a privilege. I began to notice the impact of accountability on willpower during my college football career. To me, accountability is the difference between winning and losing. It allows us to ignore decisions that deter the mission and enforces positive action on a daily basis. In football there are monotonous tasks that make up most of the day these include: early morning workouts, practice, and film study. Thought these seem trivial, commitment to excellence in the small things leads to success in the big things. On the championship teams I have been a part of, each member had the will to be excellent on a daily basis. I think accountability was the major driver.
I have seen the positive impact of accountability in the professional world as well. In the military, there is a concept called decentralized command. This strategy advises leaders to allow subordinates to complete tasks without being directly monitored. They instead rely on training and a mission statement to guide execution. When implemented correctly it facilitates a sense of ownership and accountability. If a person feels like they own a task there will to succeed improves. Ohio State Head Football Coach Urban Meyer says: “Strength of will is not about commitment to start; it’s about commitment to continue.” Accountability improves willingness to continue.
In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg explains the importance of habits and the best ways to cultivate them. Duhigg believes habits emerge because the human brain constantly searches for ways to reserve effort and improve efficiency. Habits reduce the brain’s need to work. Duhigg cites a paper published by Duke University in 2006 which states more than 40% of the actions performed by people each day are habits. If nearly half of the things we do each day are habits, it is easy to see why forming good ones will have a positive impact on willpower. If an action occurs without thought, it will have little impact on willpower reserves.
Remove Decision Fatigue
The theory of decision fatigue states willpower reduces with the amount of decisions you make every day. This includes decisions ranging from small ones like what you have for breakfast, what you wear, or which route you take to work, to more important decisions like taking a new job or making an investment. If you spend capital on making meaningless decisions it will reduce your capacity to make important ones.
Like with accountability, I noticed the impact of lowering decision fatigue while playing college football. Almost everything is scheduled. Things like games, practices, class, weightlifting sessions, team meals, and study hall encompass about 80% of life. We also had team issued clothing and gear that removed the decision of what to wear everyday. This structure kept decision reserves focused on the most important activities like exams, projects, and actions that swung the outcomes of games.
With this being said, removing decision fatigue can be done in more ways than setting a rigid schedule. Legendary San Francisco 49ers football coach Bill Walsh created a Standard of Performance that focused his team on key principles essential to winning. In his book The Score Takes Care of Itself, Walsh explained the importance of the Standard of Performance and how it became ingrained into his organization. The Standard of Performance removed excess analysis and decision making and allowed the 49ers to focus on critical decisions needed to win football games. He attributed the Standard of Performance as the foundation to his four Super Bowl championships.
There is no clear success measure for improving willpower. It is something that must we worked on daily. The strategies above have helped me become more productive in completing critical activities. My hope is focusing on these strategies will allow you to experience the same improvements. To summarize:
- Build accountability for yourself and for your team. It will improve your will to act
- Build habits to reduce the need to exert will
- Build structures to remove meaningless decisions from your day. This will keep your reserves full for the most important ones