Willpower is a Finite Resource – Here’s a Simple Trick to Leverage Yours

quitting sitting willpower finite leverage yours binary decision making

You can only not eat so many cupcakes, research shows.

Did you know that exercising willpower actually burns calories and lowers your blood sugar?

Neither did we, until we came across a study showing just that. Even more, the research showed that using willpower decreases your ability to exercise willpower in the near future.

So today we’ll cover that research, let you in on a little secret to leverage your “stock” willpower, and explain exactly how you’ll turn into a willpower superhero over time.

Back to the research showing this very important point: exercise willpower once, and you’ll have less of it to exercise next time. From the study:

The present work suggests that self-control relies on glucose as a limited energy source. Laboratory tests of self-control… showed that acts of self-control reduced blood glucose levels, and initial acts of self-control impaired performance on subsequent self-control tasks.

Self-control requires a certain amount of glucose to operate unimpaired. A single act of self-control causes glucose to drop below optimal levels, thereby impairing subsequent attempts at self-control.

Why Willpower Matters

If you’re here, odds are good that you care about your health, fitness, and happiness. Unfortunately, it’s a big unhealthy world out there full of nasty unnatural stuff. So it’s critically important that you’re armed with ample self-control to make the right choices.

Without enough willpower on tap (which we learned today is likely when tests of self-control abound in modern life), you literally won’t be able to resist making bad decisions.

Since willpower is a finite resource, it’s important to highly leverage the willpower that you do have.

The Simple Trick to Leveraging Your Willpower

This tip is deceptively simple. It’s a small change to your thought process, but a huge change to your results. And that’s awesome – it’s what many would call a life hack!

Simply make your use of willpower binary.

That’s it. Told you it was a small change.

Here’s an example. When I was a personal trainer in the gym, I seriously emphasized diet. And the client results were staggeringly binary. Some of my clients achieved their goals remarkably fast, and the others hardly made any progress at all.

quitting sitting willpower finite leverage yours binary decision making

Binary willpower is why half a cupcake has effects way beyond just half a cupcake.

This big disparity in results was due to a small difference in mindset.

The successful dieters decided that they wouldn’t eat any junk food. The unsuccessful dieters decided they would eat less junk food. Seriously, that was it.

Half a cupcake shouldn’t make a huge difference. The difference is that the successful dieters made their use of willpower binary. It turns out, it’s a lot easier to not eat a cupcake at all then it is to eat half a cupcake. So the binary group had more willpower left for later decisions, while the non-binary group routinely broke down and ate whole pizzas.

How to Exercise Binary Willpower

Cupcake eating is really easy to turn into a binary decision, but the process isn’t so clear in every case.

Say you’re a bit of a time waster, and you’ve decided you don’t want to spend so many of your precious hours on earth in front of the television. A noble goal, but “watch less tv” is not binary.

So you have to make it binary with metrics for pass/fail.

Instead of “watch less tv”, use “only watch tv between 9:00 and 9:30pm”. Bam! Binarized! (Yes, that’s a word now).

See why this places less of a burden on your willpower reserves? Instead of entertaining thoughts about what’s on and how maybe you could just multitask while watching and it wouldn’t be so bad, your only thought is the simple binary rule. “Is it between 9:00 and 9:30pm? No. So tv stays off.”

It takes much less willpower to enforce this binary rule than it does to talk yourself out of just watching a few episodes while you fold laundry. Make sense?

The Willpower-Building Benefit of Binary

So you’ve leveraged your willpower by exercising it in a binary fashion. This keeps your “willpower stores” up so you’re ready to take on every challenge all day. That’s already awesome, but it gets better.

Exercising your willpower decreases your self-control in the near term (as long as your blood sugar is lowered), but it actually strengthens your willpower in the long-term (just like a muscle). From the research:

Compared with a no-exercise control group, the participants who performed the self-control exercises showed significant improvement in self-regulatory capacity.

In fact, the muscle analogy is spot-on for willpower. If you do a set of weighted chin-ups, your biceps will be weakened for the next few hours. But with ample recovery, they’ll be stronger in a few days. Just like willpower.

And exercising willpower the binary way fits perfectly with this. Since you’re leveraging your willpower more effectively, you can achieve great things with your “stock” willpower while safely testing yourself and strengthening your abilities over time.

So binary willpower doesn’t just improve your life today, over time it turns you into a veritable willpower superhero!

Wrapping Up

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It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s…a consistently good decision maker!

You don’t need to sit down today and do a thorough willpower accounting (although I’d bet a few things come to mind). Instead, pay close attention and notice when you use your willpower in everyday life. At those times, stop for a second and ask yourself how you can make that specific decision binary.

Keep it up, and soon enough, all your big willpower tests will be binary. And you’ll be well on your way to super willpower status.

Have you had success with binary willpower? Do you have any big willpower tests that you don’t know how to binarize? Let us know in the comments!

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