Friends, I have a secret shame to admit to you. I have a slight problem. With potato chips.
If there is a bag of potato chips in the house, it will be eaten to completion before anything else is even touched.
I'll be sitting there hungry, and think to myself, "Hmm, what should I eat?" I could eat some fish, some salad, a banana. OH HOW ABOUT these chips?
This has been an issue for a long time. I once wrote an angry blog post rant about how much I hate chips because I can't seem to resist the scientifically optimized and also irresistible taste of Doritos TM brand cheese triangles. Or the Chilli Cheese flavored goodness of Fritos TM brand corn strips. What do?
Have you read this book - The Personal MBA by Josh Kaufman?
The Personal MBA is the best summary of how to business that I've ever read. But the funny thing about this book is how much space is dedicated to "how to operate your dang body." You know, personal development stuff. How to get enough sleep. How to exercise. How to be focused and disciplined. And also how to eat healthy. But what I really like about Kaufman's approach is that his answer to "how do I stop eating chips" is not "Just Try Harder."
I'd never heard Josh's metaphor before but it makes complete sense to me:
You are a horse.
Well, metaphorically speaking.
Your body/brain are a horse and you are it's rider. When you ride a horse, you can't directly brain link with the horse and force it to move in exactly the way you want. You can only guide the horse, reassure the horse, give it carrots, and generally it will go where you want. But if the horse gets spooked, or is really tired, or hasn't been properly trained, you are going to have a hard time making that horse do much of anything you want it to do.
And instead of whipping and spurring our tired and haggard horse selves in a desperate attempt to force it to do something it doesn't want to do, Josh advocates using our limited willpower to set up our lives so that the horse's easiest path is doing what we want it to do.
It's a mindset shift from "I am my body" to "I am piloting a body." And if you've ever not been able to force yourself to do something even though you wanted to do it, this mindset shift may be helpful to you also.
It's a bad idea to assume you'll have as much willpower when you are excited and awake as you will when you are tired and hungry. Sit me in front of two piles of food of differing health value after an exhausting and stressful day and I don't think there's a question over which one I'd pick.
But with the self = horse mindset, running out of willpower is not a moral failing but simply a miscalculation of your horse's energy levels. It's a reason to be kind to yourself. You wouldn't beat an actual horse when it gets spooked or makes a mistake when it's tired. You'd let the horse go rest and try not to let it get so tired in the first place.
So how can we structure life to require as little willpower as possible? Some ideas:
I used to be bad at flossing because I'd wait until right before bed to floss. By then I was too tired to care and sometimes didn't. Everything changed when I made the switch to those plastic floss pick things. This reduced the number of reasons not to floss, including "it sort of hurts my fingers to wrap the floss around them" and "it's kind of gross because I get spit on my fingers," which are both serious problems when I'm falling asleep. I then proceeded to sprinkle them liberally around my pillow, so finding one was really easy. I could do it even when really tired. My flossing success rate skyrocketed.
Eating healthy seems to be primarily a problem of availability. If there is healthy food sitting in front of me, I'll eat it. Simply removing all chips from the apartment dramatically reduced the amount eaten. The only danger is when I go to the grocery store. But by the same principle, if I go when full, I'm much less likely to buy chips in the first place. If I go hungry, it takes a lot more willpower to resist buying the bad stuff.
Why do the dishes until there are no clean ones left? My cool internet writer friend Rosie explored similar ideas in her essay "How to stay productive when you're demotivated and don't want to get out of bed". She found that when she moved into an apartment with only one sink, the dishes had to be washed before tooth brushing could happen. And so no motivation was needed to do the dishes.
But, not everything works for everyone - if putting dishes in your bathroom sink would just make you not brush your teeth, that's probably not a good strategy. Some creativity may be needed to find a system that works for you, but I've found the time spent to be very worthwhile. Try things!
In general, removing friction from the things you want to do more, and adding friction to the things you want to do less dramatically reduces the amount of willpower required and the horse just does what's easiest.