February 22, 2023
min read

Is Your Battery Running Out? : Lessons In Willpower

There’s a cheap little takeout sushi place near my apartment. It’s only $5 for 16 pieces! I know what you’re thinking… no it doesn’t give me food poisoning. Bonus right?

I eat it a lot even though I really want to get into the habit of eating out less and cooking at home more. Plus, $5 a meal isn’t much but it does add up after a while.

I almost always pass it on my way home and the owners have put out a little sign about the deal in the window. It’s constantly screaming at me to just get some sushi.

Somedays I don’t even want sushi. But 30 minutes later I find myself at home watching Netflix and eating that damn box of sushi.

Somedays I wake up and my first thought is, “You are NOT gonna get that $5 sushi today even if that’s your only accomplishment for the day”.

It’s a serious battle.

I generally think of myself as pretty good with self-control. But that sushi gets me every time.

And it always gets me thinking about willpower and how to manipulate it so I don’t end up eating sushi 7 days a week.

Willpower is the ability to resist short-term temptations to meet long-term goals. Like resisting the short burst of happiness from cheap sushi so I can save money and cook more in the long-term. Or resisting that donut so you’re healthy in the long-term.

Willpower has been a hot topic in the field of psychology for the last few years. There’s tons of research out there on it. Most well-known is the research by Roy Baumeister. He introduced the radical idea of ego-depletion: the concept that willpower is a limited resource that can be depleted.

Think about your willpower like a battery. You start the day fully charged. Every time you use it (like resisting calling your colleague a *$*!@*$) you use up a little bit of juice. By the end of the day, your battery is blinking red. You’ll have no juice left to resist the tempting sushi presented to you.

So if willpower is a battery, how can we solve the problem of that flashing red light at the end of the day?

Imagine this common scenario:

“I’m trying to lose weight but when I go out for dinner with friends, I always end up ordering dessert! Then I feel guilty, which makes me eat anymore. It’s so discouraging. I really want to lose some weight and become healthier so why can’t I stop snacking on junk food?!

There are two solutions. Either we:

A) Buy a bigger battery pack (aka. increase your willpower)

There’s plenty of advice out there on how to increase the amount of willpower you have. Most of them involves some combination of getting enough sleep, exercising, meditation, and eating regularly.

This article by Fast Company does a great job of summarizing the main points up.

But what I really want to focus on is the second solution:

B) Use less battery throughout the day (aka. Avoid having to use willpower)

If we can avoid using our willpower, we’ll always have enough. It’s also much less difficult than trying to increase it. Imagine if we put in systems to prevent us from needing to use willpower. We’d free up a lot of mental time and effort to focus on better things. Fortunately, a bunch of researchers have looked into this and there are a couple of established systems that work pretty well.


Solution: Knowing that I’ll be tempted by the dessert menu, I’ll choose a restaurant that doesn’t have one.

Why this works: Our actions are largely determined by our environment. This TED talk article explains how most of the decisions we make around food depend on the size of portions, what’s available and a bunch of other factors. In short, if we change our environment, our decisions will change too. Instead of trying to use every ounce of our willpower to push the idea of dessert out of our minds, we make sure it never enters our minds in the first place.


Solution: Before going out to dinner, I tell myself, “If I’m presented with the dessert menu, then I’ll order a tea instead”.

Why this works: Our brain is made up of two systems: hot and cold. Our cool system is the one responsible for long-term thinking. It bridges our actions and our goals. Our hot system is impulsive and reactive. It sees a chocolate cake and tells us we should order one.

The If-Then system prevents our hot system from ever kicking in. By deciding how to deal with the chocolate cake, our cool system takes over. So when the time comes, you already know what to do next instead of trying to use your willpower to determine how to resist the temptation.


Solution: I tell my friends that I’m trying to lose weight and eat healthier — which means avoiding dessert tonight.

Why this works: Problems with willpower come from our preferences changing in different situations. Our preferences change because the cost-benefit scale shifts. When we’re at home looking at hot Instagram models, all we see are the benefits of losing weight. There’s no temptations, so there’s no costs. But when we’re sitting at dinner with friends, fitness is the last thing on our minds … and the chocolate cake is right there.

The Lock-Yourself-In system realigns your scale by increasing your costs — so it’s not just your health on the line but your reputation too.

Fitness is a relatively straightforward example but these systems can be applied to anything you’re trying to do or not do.

For example, if you’re trying to find time to build a new skill like learn a language, you can use:

1) An If-Then System

If I finish breakfast, then I start practicing Spanish for half an hour.

Or it can be used as a motivator too: If I practice Spanish for half an hour, then I can eat dinner.

2) A Lock-It-In System

An extreme example would be booking a trip to Spain in a few months so force yourself to hit that deadline — and give yourself an incentive.

In the comments below, share what you’re trying to achieve and the system you’ll use to make it happen!

As for the sushi… well, let’s just say I’m getting a lot more steps in each day from taking huge detours.


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