I recently biked the six kilometres to our local mall in the rain. The journey was a delight - speed, beautiful gardens, birdsong mingling with the Nine to Noon podcast I was listening to, the invigorating effects of exercise and being outdoors. I had as much fun as I always do when I go by bike. Yet, I very nearly didn’t. Twice that morning I decided to take the car. It took a ridiculous amount of self talk to convince myself to bike. It’s not that I like driving especially. It’s just that driving is easier.
I don’t know why we are disinclined to do an activity, even though we know from past experience we will be glad we did, if the activity requires effort. I do know, for me it helps to have routines and rules, and not to let myself rethink them in the moment. Our immediate comfort pulls us to reconsider our intentions constantly: stay in bed just a little longer, eat a muffin instead of a salad, go by car instead of by bike.
Roy Baumeister and John Tierney explain in their book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, that willpower can be strengthened with practice but is also, paradoxically, depleted by use. Deliberating on decisions diminishes our willpower through sapping our mental energy, leaving us less and less capable of withstanding temptation as the day progresses.
To restore our willpower, we must replenish our energy reserves either with sleep or with glucose to the bloodstream (preferably from eating unrefined carbohydrates with proteins and healthy fats so that the glucose doesn’t spike and dip but enters the bloodstream gradually).
And we can conserve our willpower by avoiding mulling over decisions. As soon as I entertained the possibility of taking the car instead of my bike, I made it harder for myself to stick to my plan to go by bike. To make it easier to stick to my own good intentions, I need to catch myself revisiting a decision and I need to redirect my thinking - think about something else!
I’ve made a habit of this which helps me get up in the morning. If I catch myself wondering whether to stay in bed a little longer or get up immediately, my response is now automatic: “Don’t think about it,” I tell myself as I roll over and sit up. It doesn’t feel as if I decided to get up or made myself get up; it’s as if I avoided the decision. (I still waver occasionally - most often on cold days.)
Next time, I’ll bat away rogue thoughts about taking the car by directing my focus to something specific, like what I need to do next to get ready to go by bike.