Exercise and I have a vexed relationship. I don’t like to sweat and when my heart-rate rises, I’m sure it’s bad for me and I slow down immediately.

Now I’m on the wrong side of 30, my vanity is flourishing and I’ve joined the gym. Walking through it during a busy lunchtime period recently, feelings of intimidation take me back to a childhood spent being chosen second-last for all sports teams, and the anxiety that coursed through me every time a ball came into the outer field where I stood daydreaming. Balls and I do not get along.

Willpower to do things that aren’t naturally a joy, such as exercise, feels like a fight. It seems like a huge amount of push-push-push, with not a lot of grace.

So how do we exercise our willpower in business to do the things we know we need to do in order to head in the direction we know we want to head in?

Business willpower: know your limitations

Psychology Professor Roy F. Baumeister and his colleagues explored a concept called the limited strength model of self-regulation. This follows that each of us has a limited or finite amount of mental energy available to exert self-control. This finite amount of energy depletes the more we use it and is restored or reset through sleep.

Health psychologist and Stanford University Professior Kelly McGonigal backs this up in her book, The Willpower Instinct which draws together research on self-control and willpower from psychology, economics, neuroscience and medicine.

Research shows that we can keep our ability to exercise self-control optimum by eating well, sleeping well, exercising regularly and relaxing. You likely already know this. In fact, you may preach this for a living.

Yet, too often, we think we need willpower and discipline to eat well, sleep well and exercise when we’re putting the cart before the horse – doing these things regularly will actually replenish our mental faculties more effectively.

Business willpower: conserve your energy

Working with your strengths and weaknesses often involves self-binding. Self-binding is what we do when we avoid buying our favourite chocolate biscuits so that we don’t eat them. We don’t have to exercise our willpower to avoid eating them because we took away our own choice.

In your business, self-binding might look like: restricting access to social media using an app such as SelfControl; restricting our tendency to research something for hours, when we’re not yet ready or able to make a decision; or moving money out of our trading account and into our personal account to make it harder to spend money in business on things we haven’t already budgeted for.

Business willlpower: decision-making as art

In business, your ability to make good decisions is crucial. Do you pitch yourself to this conference? Submit that article to this magazine? Do you pursue this idea now or later, or say yes or no to that opportunity?

Another way to mange our energy and better exercise willpower is to minimise small decisions so that we may have more willpower and mental faculties to invest in bigger decisions with more enduring outcomes.

By making unimportant things routine, there are fewer decisions we need to make each day, so we have better faculties for making important decisions. This is one of the reasons for the popularity of famous people’s ‘morning routines’.

The internet is stuffed with articles about the morning routines of Ernest Hemingway, JK Rowling, Steve Jobs, Maya Angelou, Mark Zuckerberg, Oprah Winfrey and others. The least interesting part of these articles is the particulars of the routine – though it’s fun to try them out. The important part is the fact that productive people have routines – by waking at the same time each day, eating the same breakfast, and doing whatever else they’ve figured out makes them happy before they sit down to work, they’ve effectively reserved their mental faculties to spend this on their work.

And, they start. As Zen Habits writer, Leo Babauta notes, motivation comes after starting, not before.

Making business success routine

You’ve likely read lots of articles or heard a lot of the same advice about certain systems or routines that are good to do in business – things such as regularly monitoring your incomings and outgoings, blogging once a week and sending mass emails once a month, once a fortnight or once a week.

So apply these things in your business the same way you decide on what to eat for breakfast and stick to it. Don’t debate with yourself over and over again about the minutae of these tings – just do it. As McGonigal says in The Willpower Instinct, self-control gets tired from use but it also acts like a muscle – exercising it regularly makes your self-control stronger.

Now I’m not suggesting that we always do everything in our business the way we’ve always done it and never question anything – not at all. Reviewing, analyzing and tweaking things are all good for business owners to do. But we need to do them at certain, pre-set times such as once a month, once a quarter or once a year, not whenever the whim (and our distraction-procrastination tendency) takes us. Second-guessing each move not only wastes a lot of energy, it depletes our self-confidence.

Manage yourself by knowing yourself

In business, we need to manage ourselves the way we manage other people – and this includes our ego, fear, insecurities, emotions and particular flavor of procrastination. We need to constantly negotiate these challenges and learn how to manage and manipulate ourselves.

We need to turn decision-making into an art – so we know what we should be doing, when, and in what order. Leaving our options open will often set us back.

Working with yourself as an active participant in your business also involves taking back and maintaining control. Of course, clients are essential to business. But, with the best of intentions, it’s easy to let clients dictate the direction of our business. Without regular check-ins, it’s easy to become distracted from our vision and goals and find ourselves on a tangential path. Working with your strengths and weaknesses enables you to check in frequently with yourself, on a daily basis, to ensure that you’re doing what you’ve identified you want to be doing so that you’re leading your business in the direction you want to head in.

Quick hacks to increasing your willpower in business

  1. Know thyself. Your ego is a slippery bugger. Your intuition is not always right, nor even accurately identified. How do you know the difference between fear, ego and intuition? You must know yourself to manage yourself.

  2. Procrastination is a trickster. Sometimes it looks like work, just not very important work.

  3. Choose a morning routine and stick to it.

  4. Minimise the number of small decisions you need to make in a day. Systematise as much as possible.

  5. Start. Motivation comes after starting, not before.

  6. Practice self-binding by removing those temptations that commonly trip you up.

  7. Set up your business routines and put these in the diary.

  8. Everything is pointless with commitment. The best, most optimised routine in the world won’t work if you don’t commit to it.
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