Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Stop Relying on Willpower

Willpower is finite. Some people have more, some less, it can be increased and decreased slightly by what we do, but in any case, willpower is finite. Every time a decision is made, no matter how small, willpower is used.

I have no idea what willpower would be measured in, but say it has units of "decisionites" [D]. Let me also say for argument's sake that I have 10 D at the start of the day. It takes 0.2D to make the decision as to whether or not I press snooze to give myself five more minutes in bed. I press snooze twice most mornings, so I have used 0.4D to get out of bed. Picking what to have for breakfast might take another 0.1D to account for a few variables I might encounter in the kitchen. Deciding whether or not to watch the news or check emails in the morning whilst eating breakfast might take another 0.1D, or it actually might take 0.2D, because whilst I find responding to emails and such more productive, it is also more likely to make me tarry and get to training late. Add in another few decisions (such as whether or not I pack to stay at university after swimming or intend to come home) and I may have expended a reasonably large percentage of my decisionites before I even leave the house for the first time. Add to that consideration the fact that I have pretty routine mornings anyway and it becomes clear that the variation from everything that comes after swimming training will be much more draining.

Willpower is also kind of like limited internet plans: once the 10 GB (or whatever figure it is) of data is gone, you can still surf the internet, it is just incredibly slow. Decisions can be made with no willpower left, the only problem is that they will favour instant gratification over the pursuit of longer term goals (the things that, at the end of the day, we actually want to have accomplished).You can get by but it is far from ideal.

This matters because there are a myriad of variables that come into play to be an excellent swimmer: nutrition, strength training, technique, aerobic training, recovery, anaerobic training, flexibility, and so on, and so on. They all require consistent behaviour patterns that are far from easy to maintain. Waking up before the sun rises gets easier, but I do not find it easy. Eating the right foods (in the right amounts!) is a little bit harder than it is to eat junk or convenience food. Getting to dryland sessions on time, well fueled, in the right mind set and ready to push yourself out of comfort and into straining positions for an hour or so - not the most pleasant thing to do with my time. And so on, and so on.

There are such an enormity of small and big decisions that go into making the most of the day for the purpose of swimming excellence that it must take someone with an iron will of hundreds of decisionites a day to shine in the pool. But it does not. Nobody who seems to have such a steadfast will is actually relying on willpower and literally making the decision to go to training every day, two or three times a day; they are not deciding whether or not to eat well every time they see food. They are not weighing up alternatives in pushing themselves hard in the gym or in the pool. They just do it.

The key to conserving willpower is to stop making decisions. Just do it. Go back to my hypothetical decision making process in the morning: I may have expended energy on what to eat for breakfast but I never had to decide whether or not to eat breakfast. I simply do. I have to make decisions about things that are not part of my routine, things that are not habits. Any time I have to jump off autopilot, I begin relying on willpower to make the best decision. And when it runs out, I make poor decisions.

The secret, then, to consistently making the right decision is to create a habit of making the right decision. If you struggle to wake up early in the morning, just wake up early in the morning regardless of circumstance. That way there is no decision as to whether or not you get up when the alarm goes off: you do, and that is all. You will soon learn what it is that makes it difficult to get up - maybe you go to bed too late, and maybe you go to bed too late because scrolling through a Facebook feed seems fascinating at midnight and it's almost wake up time when you get to bed. Change that habit too.

To rely on willpower, on motivation or inspiration is a recipe for failure. Rely instead on good habits to make the right decision by default.


  1. I believe willpower is measured in spoons :P

    1. Any idea how many spoons it takes to pick breakfast?