“When it comes to my writing, I just don’t have the will power I need.”
“I’m not big on discipline,” I tell them and a few look relieved. “And frankly I don’t trust will power. It has failed me too many times and always just when I need it most.” More students nod.
“That’s why I rely on writing habits; they’re easier and far more reliable.”
Decision Fatigue: Too Tired to Think Straight
It took me years of frustration and unmet goals to realize that discipline and will power weren’t going to give me what I wanted. Now I have years of experience to back my intuition that habits do what will power can’t. And I’m delighted to find research that supports my “ocular analysis.”
Recent research has identified the neurological basis of what I observed: social psychologist Roy Baumeister calls it Decision Fatigue.
Every time you make a decision, you use a tiny bit of a limited supply of cognitive ability to make decisions. Making a decision, it turns out, is like lifting a dumbbell. The first time, it seems like nothing; the fiftieth time, you feel the burn.
By the end of an average day, you’ve made at least 200 decisions just about food alone. You make thousands of decisions a day (e.g. when will I open email, should I answer this email now or later or never, what should I say and how should I phrase it, is it time for lunch, where do I want to eat, how many calories are in the sandwich versus the salad, is that guy going to swerve into my lane, should we go to the cabin this weekend, do I need to cut the grass…)
No wonder you’re mentally exhausted by the end of the day.
Why Will Power Will Fail You Every Time
“Will power” is what most people call the ability to make a decision to resist temptation.
The problem is that we face so many temptations that deplete our will power. Furthermore, most of those temptations don’t go away. You don’t just decide not to eat a doughnut once; you have to keep deciding to not eat the doughnut.
It’s no surprise that so many weight-loss efforts fail in the evening when your decision-making capability is at its lowest.
Low blood sugar makes the situation worse. Research shows that the brain’s supply of glucose remains constant despite dips in the body’s overall glucose levels. But when overall blood sugar dips, the brain uses glucose differently, activating very different areas of the brain.
As a result, your brain starts seeking immediate rewards like ice cream or walking away from a challenging task and ignores more long-term goals like losing weight or writing.
Why Habits Work When Will Power Won’t
Every time you make a decision, you deduct a tiny bit from the supply of decision-making capacity. Every time you call on your will power to resist a temptation, you weaken it.
Unlike discipline and will power, habits are strengthened every time you practice them. Every repetition insulates the neural pathway for that behavior, making that pathway more effective, which in turns makes it easier to repeat that behavior.
Habits don’t require decisions – you just do it because you do it. There’s no debate about whether you’ll write today, so you’re not relying on limited decision-making energy.
Even better, when you have a writing habit, you never ask yourself if you’ll write, so there’s no chance you’ll decide not to write.
The Catch-22 in this is that you need a certain kind of discipline and will power to build a new habit. So it’s a good strategy to do the behavior you want to become a habit first thing in the morning. You don’t have time to wonder if you’ll write, you just show up and put in your time.
Putting your writing first means you don’t have to keep deciding all day that you will write later. And you don’t have to face the temptation to put your writing off for another day when your will power is at its lowest.
Another great habit-building strategy is to enlist a partner. People who have workout buddies are far more likely to get to the gym than those who don’t. And writers who tell another writer what commitments they’re making to their writing are far more likely to honor those commitments.
By the way, we make those commitments in the Writing Habit and Around the Writer’s Block classes. Please join me in exploring the information and strategies that will help you create and sustain writing habits that will sustain the writing you want to create.
Visit the Loft or call 612-379-8999 for more information or to register.