The fourth principle in my series about how to have discipline in your life states:
Don’t use willpower if you don’t have a plan!
Whenever you exert willpower, you have a goal (a True Will): you want to build muscle, lose fat, get good grades, make more money, overcome a fear, win a sports competition, or break an addiction.
Let’s say you want to stick to a new diet. If you have to use willpower every time you are confronted with food, be it in reality or in your thoughts, then you will fail with certainty. Maybe not that moment, maybe not that day, but eventually—and certainly.
What you must do in order to prevail against weakness is to make a plan (for example, a meal plan):
- Consider what you want to do and break down your True Will into simple, specific actions (for example, write down what foods you will eat each day).
- Couple these actions with daily activities like waking up, taking a break at work, coming home, going to bed, etc. (for example, write down when you will eat these foods).
Now you can focus your thoughts on taking positive action.
Now you can focus your willpower on habit creation.
If you don’t have a plan, you can’t create a habit; and if you don’t create a long-lasting habit, you will always need willpower and constant effort to stay disciplined, you will break at some point, and you will never be free because your will is constantly occupied with negative action (resisting temptation, resisting procrastination).
We must make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can. […] The more details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the higher mental power of mind will be set free for their own proper work. (The Principles of Psychology by William James)
The point here is not to never use willpower again and become lazy, rather it’s about growing stronger sustainably:
- You want to use willpower to build a long-lasting habit so that you can move on to the next willpower challenge (and maybe build additional good habits or simply focus better at your work or training).
- You want to build a habit of willpower exertion itself so that your willpower muscle gains strength and you can rise to even harder challenges.
Recent studies have found that highly disciplined people are actually worse at resisting temptation than those with less general self-discipline (e.g., Imhoff et al. 2013). This is probably because if you live a disciplined life following good habits, you don’t need to resist temptation all the time, which means that you train your willpower muscle less frequently.
Galla and Duckworth (2015) investigated this relationship between general self-control, beneficial habits, and goal achievement. Their series of six studies found that individuals with better self-control had or could develop stronger habits for
This means that people with more self-discipline rely less on effortful inhibition to follow their True Will. They rely more on stable habits, routines, and automatized behaviors.
According to Evans et al. (2015), chronically inhibiting impulses in not only exhaustive but it has also been found to:
- increase negative affect (make you depressed),
- decrease cognitive performance (make you distractible),
- increase adverse health events (make you sick), and
- lead to excessive displays of the initially inhibited behavior (for example, when hunger suppression leads to binge eating).
Whenever you want your will to march forth into battle, make sure you have a plan. Make sure you have a plan to build a habit. Otherwise you’re fighting a never-ending battle. You want to win the battle and be done with it. Don’t hesitate: Plan your victory now! (And monitor your progress.)
How will you structure your willpower efforts to build a solid habit? How does your battle plan for victory look like? Tell me in the comments below!