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We all make bad decisions sometimes. Maybe we skip a workout after a long day at work. We snap and yell at the client that doesn’t agree with our pitch. We make a late-night purchase that we regret in the morning.

Unfortunately, most people rely on the unreliable “skill” of willpower to make choices, and many people make bad choices because they lack the discipline to make the right ones.

According to the American Psychological Association, willpower is a finite resource. We run out of willpower if we use too much of it throughout the day. Think of it like a gas tank that goes empty the more you use it.

Running out of willpower makes it difficult to develop good habits and make good decisions, especially as our day goes on and we’re faced with more choices. Dealing with stress and choices leads to decision fatigue, expending our willpower reserves.

Figuring out a way.

Two approaches to making sure you have the discipline or will to make choices when they count. First is to strengthen willpower, the second is to conserve it.

Strengthening willpower or developing grit is a process, and a simple (not easy) trick to being more disciplined is to make decisions ahead of time for difficult situations.

Be proactive by front-loading tough decisions.

Be proactive, not reactive.

Being proactive is the foundation of discipline. If you decide how to act before faced with difficult circumstances, you don’t leave your actions to instinct or emotion.

Steven Covey explains the thought process in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People:

“Within the freedom to choose are those endowments that make us uniquely human. In addition to self-awareness, we have imagination–the ability to create in our minds beyond our present reality. We have conscience–a deep inner awareness of right and wrong, of the principles that govern our behavior[…] And we have independent will–the ability to act based on our self-awareness, free of all other influences.”

Essentially, as humans, we have all the tools necessary to control our actions and imagine how we are going to act ahead of time.

Get started by thinking of difficult circumstances as a set of “if / then” expressions.

  • “If my boss yells at me, then I will accept it calmly with dignity.”
  • “If I’m running late for a meeting, then I will immediately call and tell people who need to know, apologizing for the delay.”
  • “If I’m tired when I make it home from work, then I will still do at least 10 push-ups, 5 pull-ups and 20 sit-ups.”

If a difficult circumstance arises, then you will act in a pre-defined way that is appropriate.

Actively imagine difficult circumstances and develop your response ahead of time. This exercise eliminates difficult decisions, resulting in more “willpower reserve” for later in the day.

Eliminate small decisions, too.

There are other choices you can drop, too – like what you eat for breakfast or dinner, what you wear, the drive you take to work, etc.

By embracing routines that simplify your life in small ways, you can focus your decision-making energies toward larger, creative goals.

Start by refining your morning routine – if you can build a great one, you’ll be set for the rest of your day.

How many decisions can you cut in your mornings? You’d be surprised. By slimming down your wardrobe to a few outfits, you can just pick one based on the weather instead of trying to match your hat to your shoes.

If you have a favorite breakfast meal, maybe make that your everyday breakfast so you don’t have to choose what to eat.

And never check your email first thing in the morning. Avoid that pit of digital vipers or you’ll run out of willpower before you walk out your front door.

Harness willpower for the important choices.

Use your extra willpower for creative endeavors or difficult choices. We all have plenty of those.

Maybe you can work on a side business. Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg conserved as much of their decision-making power for their creative (and wildly successful) businesses as they possibly could.

“I really want to clear my life to make it so that I have to make as few decisions as possible about anything except how to best serve this community”

-Mark Zuckerberg

You might try using your extra energy to learn something with your kids. I love having the mental clarity to spend time with my son, learning with him, teaching him, etc. I always make sure there’s some willpower left in the tank for my family.

Building discipline and eliminating minor decisions helps you tackle the hundreds of “other choices” that will hit you every day. Saving that energy allows for creativity and flexibility when it really matters.

Focus on finding balance between a rigid routine that eliminates choice and the flexibility to make the choices that count.

How about you?

How do you think you could become more disciplined and reserve more willpower? Do you have any “programs” that you run in difficult situations? Let me know in the comments.

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