* Willpower can be improved. It works like a muscle, so when you exercise it, it gets stronger. We haven’t tested the other side — that if it gets weaker if you don’t exercise it, but I imagine that that is true. That is really important news because psychology has really found just two traits that predict success across most or all walks of life: intelligence and self-control. As for intelligence, we haven’t been able to find improvement beyond a little short-term boost. So improving self-control and willpower is a crucial way to make your life better, and we find in our studies that even as adults, you can improve your willpower by regular exercise.
* If you know how it works, you can really manage it more effectively, so don’t go shopping when you have been either resisting temptationor making decisions — it turns out they use the same willpower. People don’t realize that intuitively, but if you have made a long series of choices, you will be more inclined to do things impulsively — spend too much money, yield to temptation and so forth — so a bit of knowing yourself and planning is good.
Another important point is to understand how mind and body work together. Glucose is a chemical in the bloodstream that carries energy to your brain and your muscles. We find that after acts of self-control that glucose is temporarily lowered, so if you have another challenge or if you have to go shopping or make some investment decisions or whatever, you want to replenish that glucose by maybe getting something good to eat first, and you need to allow a little time for that to get from your stomach into the bloodstream.
* You have one stock of willpower that you use for everything, so all these actions are tied together. All day long, as you drag yourself out of bed in the morning, resist a piece of cake for lunch, and make yourself laugh at somebody’s stupid joke — all these things take willpower, and they deplete your resources and make you prone to shallower, simplistic, less-effective decisions when your willpower is down.
* So to practice it, try working on habits, and my advice is to start with an easy one. Make your bed every day, or clean up the dishes after you have dinner — do something that you can easily incorporate into your routine. You make this change, and that strengthens your willpower and self-control, and then you can move on to something else. In one study, we had people work on their posture for two weeks. We told them that whenever they thought of it, just stand up straight and sit up straight. When they came back to the laboratory, not only was their posture better but they also performed better on all sorts of laboratory tests of self-control that had no relationship to posture.
* One of the easiest ways to improve your overall self-control performance is simply to get better at keeping track of whatever you are trying to change. It’s very hard to control or change something you aren’t aware of.
* The basic biological strategy of human beings is we survive and reproduce by cooperating and working together with others in these small groups, so success with them is very important. Nature doesn’t care what you think of yourself, but nature does care what other people think of you insofar as in your evolutionary history — your own survival and reproduction depended on other people having a good opinion of you. This is something I had found and studied way back from the beginnings of my career, my dissertation and all. People are much more motivated to maintain a good impression on others than to make a good impression on themselves because you can always fool yourself, but it is harder to fool other people consistently or get them to accept your rationalizations.
* The Zeigarnik Effect is that an unfulfilled task will tend to prey on your mind; if you start something and don’t finish it, you keep getting intrusive thoughts. What seems to be happening is the unconscious wants some help from the conscious mind, so it keeps saying, “Hey, we haven’t finished this.” It sort of keeps reminding you that there is something that needs to be done.
Now we found in our work that if you consciously make a plan for exactly when you are going to do that, that seems to reduce the number of intrusive thoughts. In human life we work on one thing and then we go to work on something else, and to continue to get intrusive thoughts about the previous task can interfere with doing something else. If you have a precise plan for when you are going to go back and finish the other, that seems to satisfy it to some degree.
* But for people who are planning their work — and I would assume the same thing would go with financial planning — to plan it down to the day-by-day detail might not be effective. First, it is lot of extra work. Second, it’s not all that flexible; if you miss one thing, then your whole plan is off. So I think that medium-level plans are more sustainable and more flexible and less onerous, but also can help you move towards your long-term goals.
note — need to check this site out re: household routines