Willpower, habits, and empty gas tanks.
The 2 things we need to keep our willpower high and our burnout low.
We can all relate to those moments when we know we should work out. Or put our heads down on that work project. Or complete that task that's been staring back at us for days or weeks.
But sometimes the will to do it just isn't there.
We're drained. We're exhausted. And our will doesn't outweigh our intellectual understanding of what we should be doing. Many people experience this on a daily basis, and I've been there many times myself.
Willpower - that ability to just suck it up and get the work done - is like a gas tank that starts out full in the morning and slowly drains with every decision we have to make that requires our willpower. And once it's gone, it's gone. Or at least, it's gone until we get some good sleep.
So what should we do if we feel stuck in a perpetual state of an empty gas tank?
There's 2 things that have reliably worked in my own life:
Lowering the bar.
Lowering the bar might seem antithetical in a high performance newsletter. But it's actually the crux of habits. If you've ever read James Clear's book Atomic Habits, you know that the science of habits shows that we should be taking the smallest possible improvement we can make in an area and committing to that small improvement.
Because that small change requires the least amount of willpower.
I row every single morning. But my commitment isn't to rowing for 30 minutes or having a great workout every single time. My commitment is quite literally to sit my ass in the seat, and if I can only muster 5 minutes of mindless rowing, then so be it. That's all I've asked of myself, and I know that I'll likely have a great row the next morning. It's also the reason I never miss a morning.
The habits that stick are the ones that are a minimally viable improvement, but that we can commit to. The habits that don't stick are the ones that are an enormous change from where we're currently at, and require immense amounts of willpower to do them. All it takes is that one day when our willpower is drained, and we find ourselves with another failed habit.
Habit replacement is another way to reduce the amount of willpower we need to use in our daily lives. The idea is simple - when there's an area of life we're wanting to improve, the path of least resistance is to take an existing habit and replace it with a better one.
There are many weeks where I prefer to not drink during the week. It butchers my sleep and the downstream implications are significant. If I were to simply say "no alcohol" during the week, it's going to require my willpower every single night when that ritual desire to grab a wine glass hits. Instead, on weeks when I don't want to drink, I buy non-alcoholic beer. That way when the tug towards the wine glass hits, I just reach for an n/a beer in the fridge instead. This decision requires virtually zero willpower, but gives me the same desired outcome.
Many people have been in a persistent state of burn out the past few years, and it can feel isolating and depressing when we don't know what to do about it.
High performance is a marathon that most of us weren't given a training program for.
Start by lowering the bar, committing to that bar, and staying conscious about the areas of our lives where we're exerting a lot of willpower and have an opportunity to minimize that willpower required.