- The sort of actions that require a high degree of willpower are actions that are important, but also strenuous and boring
- According to the American Psychological Association, the number one reason people struggle to attain their goals in life — especially in their careers and at work — is due to a lack of willpower.
- Practicing small acts of self-control — during the workday in particular — can go a long way in improving overall willpower, even in other areas of your life.
Whether you’re trying to improve your work performance to get a raise, launching a new job search, or beginning an after-work exercise regimen, one thing becomes clear quickly: starting and retaining new positive habits is incredibly difficult.
But why? The key element in all habit formation and degradation is called willpower.
What is willpower?
Have you ever had a deadline at work that your brain reminded you of every day until the date came and you were empty-handed in front of a boss who scratched their heads in frustration at your empty-handedness? Why didn’t you do the work earlier?
One way of thinking about it is that such procrastination represents a lack of willpower — the unwillingness to do something that is important because it is unappealing.
At work, one notable example of this is cluttered emails, which have been proven to provoke anxiety because it makes it harder to access relevant emails. In many ways, the common cluttered email inbox is the digital and future of work version of being a hoarder.
Generally speaking, the sort of actions that require a high degree of willpower are actions that are salient, but also strenuous and boring — therefore, undesirable.
Sometimes though, as the cognitive scientist Daniel C. Dennett points out, these distastes are for the most part entirely arbitrary.
For example, surely some workers take pleasure in clearing out their inbox every Sunday as if they’re vacuum cleaning their house or brushing their teeth.
But for most others, minute work tasks such as email de-cluttering are so boring as to be cognitively rendered as unimportant, and thus, never get completed — generating a powerful and reflexive resistance to the task.
Struggling with willpower is the norm
Many people struggle with attaining and maintaining sufficient levels of willpower.
In fact, according to the American Psychological Association (APA), the number one reason people struggle to attain their goals in life — especially in their careers and at work — is due to a lack of willpower.
This lack of willpower is very common and very normal. See those cookies your co-worker brought in? Eat them! Reflexive responses that pan-out like this are extremely commonplace to the human condition.
And given that most people spend most of their time at work, this familiar characteristic of low willpower is bound to also be commonplace in the workplace.
To be clear, professionals agree that we all have limitations on our willpower, and the odds stacked against us with our neurological reward-seeking makeup.
By no means should anyone expect improving their willpower will be easy. Instead, they ought to expect it to be difficult, but not impossible.
How to improve and increase willpower
Improving willpower with the hope of results must involve some level of humility. Strong willpower comes from implementing changes gradually, not all at once.
Willpower is essentially the ability to implement the “pause-and-plan” method, which psychologists describe as pausing before we act, recognizing that action, and on the basis of that recognition, choosing a different course of action.
We will never perfectly implement the pause-and-plan method, and we should not aspire to. However, we can make small gains which accrue over time into greater overall willpower. To improve willpower, it is worthwhile to consider small tasks you believe yourself capable of completing regularly.
Most office workers, for example, will concede that they could have better posture. The way to turning potential good posture into actual good posture is to pause when you recognize yourself slouching, and use that as a cue to straighten your posture.
Research also shows that doing work-tasks with your non-dominant hand may also increase willpower, along with other minor activities like squeezing a handgrip during the workday.
In general, practicing small acts of self-control — during the workday in particular — can go a long way in improving overall willpower, even in other areas of your life, such as personal health and wellness.
Starting new good habits at work, such as coming into the office early or submitting projects before deadlines are a good place to start, because these efforts are likely to be quickly noticed in comparison to other settings.
Work is an environment that is primed for workers to test out new good habits, since they are likely to be rewarded and noticed.
The sort of habit development outlined above is associated with higher levels of happiness, fulfillment, productivity, salary raises, and career success. Starting small habits at work can lead to big positive changes.