Are you wondering how to lose weight, get organized, exercise more, or quit procrastinating? Does the thought of adding a virtuous behavior to your “to do” list make you want to give up before starting? Welcome to the club.
I recently taught a 3-week course on “New Year Intentions: One Step at a Time.” We told tales of tantalizing temptations and defeated diets. I promised participants they would not hear about their “unlimited human potential,” nor would I introduce transformational methods for managing mayhem.
I favor a practical approach, so we explored what’s most likely to help us develop greater self control, based on a growing body of research by Roy Baumeister and colleagues. There is good news on the perilous path to willpower. People can learn to make and keep more realistic promises to themselves and others. It helps to arrange your life so you have a chance to succeed.
When surprises and outside circumstances hinder progress, there’s not much we can do. However, most of us can manage a small part of our routines or schedules more wisely and set goals more mindfully. It starts with paying attention to how we allocate limited resources: time and energy.
At what time of day or week do you feel your best? When are you energetic, productive, or “in the flow?” When do you feel most drained, exhausted, or shut down? Are you strategic about your time and energy? Are you realistic about what you may accomplish and do you recognize signs of depletion? Have you allowed yourself the time and energy required to answer these questions?
This moment is an example of implementing strategy, based on knowing my limitations. I’m writing this post while standing, early in the day. I get sluggish by late afternoon, especially if I’ve been sitting too long. I knew I’d be more tired and less productive today, because I have a cold. I’ve planned a streamlined schedule so I may rest. (It’s futile to expect peak performance in the grips of a virus, but that doesn’t stop most of us from trying, showing up for a full day’s work, making mistakes, and spreading bugs to colleagues.)
Time and energy management is a lifelong journey. Willpower takes patience, practice and wisdom; there are no shortcuts. It helps to recognize obstacles and plan around them. We need to know our limits, set up our lives so we have a chance of succeeding, and keep at it, one step at a time.
Here’s an interview with willpower expert Roy Baumeister. I like the way it ends, with common sense recommendations about eating well and getting enough sleep. Time for me to have chicken soup and take a nap!