Conserve willpower: make non-negotiable deals with yourself

Work in Progress

Work in Progress

January 13 · Issue #17 · View online

The newsletter about work

Hi there,
On a bright and crisp Friday, 100 people gathered not far from Amsterdam for the first annual Jaarplandag. Literally: the YearPlanDay. We had to put 50 more of you on a waiting list when we hit capacity, so I created a recap (+video) to give you a sense of how it went. You can check it out here.
Can’t wait for the next edition!

We all spend a lot of energy making choices. From simple matters like What do you want to eat for dinner? To the more involved It’s 9am Monday morning, what in the world should I tackle first? 
I recently came across a piece in The New York Times that shows how willpower – and the lack thereof – works. In short: making choices and resisting temptation takes energy. The lower your energy level, the harder it is to make the best choices.
“Good decision making is not a trait of the person, in the sense that it’s always there,” Baumeister says. “It’s a state that fluctuates.” His studies show that people with the best self-control are the ones who structure their lives so as to conserve willpower. […] They establish habits that eliminate the mental effort of making choices. […] Instead of counting on willpower to remain robust all day, they conserve it so that it’s available for emergencies and important decisions.
The key is to structure your day and your life so you rely on habit, not willpower. Save willpower for the moments you’ll really need it. 
For me, part of that structure is what I call non-negotiables. By laying down some decisions ahead of time, you don’t have to spend any energy deciding when these issues come up. And that can make a big difference.  
Here are some of my non-negotiables, in no particular order:
  • Don’t eat meat (= fewer fastfood options = healthier lifestyle) 
  • Take the stairs
  • Do what’s on my calendar
  • Don’t drink
  • Keep cell phones out of the bedroom
They are by no means universal, but I’ve found these five work for me. They help me avoid lots of pesky little decisions, and that adds up to a better life – a life where I do more of what I want. 
Do I ever deviate from these five non-negotiables? Sure. I sometimes jump on an escalator and on rare occasions, I’ll have a drink. But those exceptions are a conscious decision to break with the rule. The rule is what I normally do – reliably – without having to think about it. 
As I write this, I’m realizing I have more of these sorts of little deals I’ve made with myself, and they all make my life better. I always have a book to read in my bag (which means I have an engaging option to turn to if stuck in line or waiting for someone else to show for an appointment), I charge my laptop whenever I get the opportunity (which means I’m seldom caught off-guard by a dead battery), and I put my keys in the same place as soon as I walk in the door (which means I never get stuck looking for them frantically when I need to be somewhere). 
Maybe you’re thinking, “I can’t stand that kind of structure. I’d feel like a robot!” And I get that. 
But consider two things: One, you choose the things that make your life easier or nicer. Non-negotiables only make sense if you’re convinced they work for you. Only then can you stick to them until they become habits. 
And two, I’ve found that clear guidelines like these are ultimately freeing. Take the example of me doing what’s on my calendar. It may sound rigid, but it helps me get my work done during working hours, giving me loads more free time in the evening and on the weekend to do all kinds of other things. 
So I encourage you to find a few non-negotiables that are a good fit for you. They just might help you make better choices and save your energy for other, more important matters. 
Have a good week!
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