There are a number of common characteristics among great developers. However few virtues are as important as willpower. World class coders constantly are forced to work through complex concepts and without willpower they would give up before experiencing any kind of breakthrough. In this guide I’m going to walk through the topic of willpower limits.
This will include a practical walk through on:
- What willpower limits are.
- How you can improve your personal willpower limits.
- A plan for being intentional about managing willpower limits.
What are Willpower Limits?
For graduate school I have performed extensive research on the topic of task switching costs. While studying about task switching I came across the topic of willpower limits and how they related to performance. Essentially the study of willpower limits says that individuals have a limited amount of decision making power each day.
How Many Decisions Do You Make Each Day?
If that sounds weird to you, don’t worry, I had a hard time with the concept right away too. So let’s go through a typical day for a developer. What are some decisions that you make each day?
- Deciding to get up or press snooze on the alarm clock.
- Picking out what to eat for breakfast.
- Selecting your clothes for the day.
- Deciding if you want to go to the gym, a run, or walk around and play Pokemon Go.
- Making a decision on which route to take to work.
- And the list goes on and on.
Notice how none of those items related to development at all. And in fact those were all common decision items that you have to make each morning before you even get into work.
If you actually count the number of decisions that you have to make each day you’d discover the number is probably in the hundreds or even thousands. If you include subconscious decisions such as staying in your lane while driving the number is most likely in the millions every day!
Why is Willpower Important?
Hopefully I’ve helped you see all of the decisions that we make daily. So why do willpower limits matter when it comes to making decisions? Mainly because without willpower the quality of our decisions will suffer dramatically.
Imagine yourself without willpower for a second. With no willpower you:
- Would eat whatever you wanted, harming your overall health.
- Wouldn’t study, thus never improving as a developer.
- Would recklessly spend money on whatever popped into your mind, forcing you into debt and eventually bankruptcy.
It’s not a pretty picture! Which is why willpower is so important when it comes to making decisions. Willpower gives you the self control to make the right decision, even when it’s not the easy one.
Are Willpower Limits Real?
So with all of that in mind, is there really a limit to the amount of willpower you have each day? I recently went through the book, The Willpower Instinct, written by Dr. Kelly McGonigal (no relation to Professor McGonagall that I’m aware of). In the book Kelly presents research and countless case studies that clearly show that we do indeed have a limit to our daily willpower.
Imagine that your willpower is like a bottle of water. Each morning you start with the bottle filled to the top. And each time you make a decision or have to use willpower, such as deciding to get up instead of hitting snooze on the alarm clock, a little of the water gets poured out.
As you go throughout your day you’ll eventually pour out all of your stored up willpower.
When the Willpower Well Runs Dry
So what happens when the willpower well runs dry? Typically it leads to poor behavior, such as:
- Making bad decisions
- Poor performance
If you find yourself experiencing these types of thought patterns, it could very well be due to hitting your willpower limit too quickly.
I know from experience that I typically write my best code in the morning when I’m fresh. Whereas I find myself running into more development bugs when I work later in the evening. When I realized this pattern it made me believe even deeper in the concept of willpower limits and how they can negatively affect performance.
Saving Up Willpower
With all of this in mind, the concept of saving up our willpower reserves seems like a pretty important concept. Let’s go back to the water bottle analogy. If you were in a desert and had a limited supply of water, what would you do? I think the obvious answer is that you would only use the water when it was needed.
So if we treat our willpower like a precious resource it would make the most sense to use it on our most important tasks each day.
What’s a practical way of doing this? Let’s walk through a simple, but practical example.
One Outfit to Rule Them All
If you watch this show regularly you may have noticed something…
You get a gold star if you noticed that for the last 13 weeks (14 weeks if you include this week) I’ve worn the same shirt. Please note, it’s not the same exact shirt. When I decided to experiment with the one outfit concept I purchased eight identical shirts.
So why am I doing this? By wearing the identical outfit each day it completely removes the set of decisions that I would normally have to make each morning when I’m getting dressed. I no longer have to pick between 100+ shirt and jean combinations. And it has the added benefit that it’s quite comfortable.
Does wearing the same outfit each day really help improve my performance? I can’t scientifically say so one way or the other. Most likely it has a negligible effect. However, it has a much more powerful benefit than simply removing my morning outfit decision. Each day when I put this shirt on it reminds me that I have a limit to my willpower and that I need to use it wisely. And having that mindset does make a difference.
Being a Copycat
As a side note, the idea of wearing the same outfit is not an original idea. Steve Jobs, President Obama, and Mark Zuckerberg all have a similar ritual and that’s where I got the idea from. If some of the most successful individuals in the world make it a priority to remove any and all unnecessary decisions I thought it would be a good idea to try out.
Wearing the same outfit each day is a good idea for taking care of some low hanging decision making fruit, however it’s only beginning. To really ensure that you get the most out of your willpower each day you need to be intentional with how you use it.
For example, I’ve talked before about how I have a daily list of todo items that I follow religiously. In order to ensure that I’m getting the most out of my day I always schedule my most challenging tasks in the morning. By taking this approach I don’t risk running out of willpower while I’m working on a vital project. From there I save my lower priority todos, such as reading for the end of the day.
By following this pattern I’ve noticed a significant improvement in my work over the past several months and I also feel more relaxed at the end of the day.
I hope that this has been a helpful discussion on the topic of willpower limits and that it has given you some ideas on how to manage your own willpower.