How to Build Willpower for the Weak

The second in a series of columns on failing your way to success, by the creator of "Dilbert"

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Researchers say we humans have a limited supply of willpower, like a muscle that can be exhausted. If we use up our willpower resisting one temptation we will have less in reserve to resist the next. That’s a big deal because you don’t want to use up all of your willpower resisting a cupcake right before your married coworker offers you a shoulder rub in the janitor’s closet. Robbed of your willpower, you’ll go through the day like a kitten that has stumbled into a barrel of catnip.

So how do you manage your limited supply of willpower? In my experience, the best way to avoid using up your willpower is to stay away from situations in which your only options are pleasure or deprivation. Given those choices, pleasure usually wins. Let me give you an example.

Let’s say you haven’t eaten in hours and you’re starving. I put your favorite unhealthy snack in front of you. Would you have the willpower to resist?

Probably not.

(MORE: The Real Secret to More Willpower: Be Power Hungry)

Now suppose I put that same unhealthy snack in front of you, but this time I also offer a wide range of delicious and healthy alternatives. Taste-wise, you might still prefer the unhealthy snack. But now it’s fairly easy to pass it up because the healthy food tastes good too, and it’s just as convenient.

My favorite guilty pleasure is potato chips. If I open the fridge and see nothing that looks tasty, 10 seconds later I’m on the Ruffles like a dog on a preacher’s leg. It isn’t a pretty sight. But if my fridge contains, as it often does, some cucumber slices marinating in white vinegar and water, mmm-mmm. I don’t need willpower to salt those bad boys and pop ’em in my mouth.

In my experience, anything that requires a lot of willpower isn’t sustainable. That’s why I use a number of tricks to avoid situations that pit pleasure against deprivation. The cucumber trick is just one of them.

I also like to train myself away from using willpower the way Pavlov trained his pooches. After a workout at the gym, I always treat myself to a delicious protein shake and 20 minutes of unstructured chilling out in the snack bar while reading interesting tidbits on my smartphone. The combination of the cool-down, the delicious shake and the free time with my thoughts and the Internet is deliriously pleasurable. Now when I think about going to the gym, I don’t imagine the boringness of the exercise in isolation. I think of it as a package deal that includes the wonderful 20 minutes that follow.

(MORE: Q&A: Willpower Expert Roy Baumeister on Staying in Control)

I also give myself permission to work out as little as I want on any given day and to call that a success. I used to have a target of exercising three to four days per week. On workout days I would push myself to the point where I knew I would be sore for the next day or two. No pain, no gain! The problem was that when I thought about exercise, I imagined the pain and discomfort. It took a lot of willpower to exercise three to four times per week while knowing it would hurt while it happened, and hurt the next day too.

In the past year I switched to the active-every-day schedule. I’m permissive about what “active” means. Some days it means cleaning the garage. Other days it means tennis, biking or going to the gym. My new system is that I never exercise so vigorously today that I won’t want to exercise again tomorrow. Thanks to my new plan, exercise now requires zero willpower because I enjoy it. I converted one of my least favorite activities into something I look forward to. The result is that during the year I used the least amount of willpower, I saw dramatic improvements in my fitness. I had gain without pain.

Willpower reminds me of the empty space in art. It’s not something you manage directly; it’s the result of putting everything else where it belongs. If you organize your life to avoid any pleasure-vs.-deprivation choices, it will look to others as if you have loads of willpower. The reality is that you simply put everything else where it worked best.

NEXT: Scott Adams on Why ‘Passion’ at Work Is Overrated