At the beginning of this year, I realized I wanted to practice yoga more often. I subscribed to an online yoga service, and decided I’d just do fifteen- to thirty-minute routines. Since I have limited free time, I wanted to keep things simple.
Adding just one little practice shouldn’t have affected much else in my life, right? I mean, it was just fifteen minutes.
But a few weeks after I started doing yoga, I realized I had dropped something. I journaled less than I had before I started doing more yoga. About the same amount that I’d added in yoga practice.
I felt disappointed—but not really surprised. Because I have this theory. I think of it as a law of conservation of willpower.
It’s this: if you add something (an intention, new practice, resolution, or focus) to your life, you’ll subtract something else—whether you want to or not.
So if I expend willpower doing yoga, I have less energy to pray.
If I start doing more painting, I have less space to focus on other creative pursuits.
This isn’t really about scarcity. I believe we can gradually fill our lives with more joy, peace, and intention. But there’s a limit to how much we can do at once. And the limit is willpower.
Each Day, You Have Limited Willpower
I read a book a few years ago by Charles Duhigg called The Power of Habit. In it, he talks about willpower depletion. We all want more willpower in our lives to make better choices, but researchers have seen that we don’t just learn willpower. It’s also like a muscle. And if we use it too much, it gets tired.
We can definitely grow our willpower, but moment-to-moment it has limits. We have to be careful about how much we ask of our self-discipline. Overtax it all at once, and we’ll run out of steam—and start choosing poorly.
I used to see my willpower fizzle all the time when I tried to make wholesale, radical changes. I’d try, all at once, to only cook only organic food all, or pray three times a day, or radically change how much I write. Then I’d be disappointed when I lamed out on my commitments.
Which made me trust myself less. And take fewer risks.
Not a great cycle.
When I started focusing on the smallest yeses I could manage though, I chanced upon a virtuous cycle. Tiny changes lead to easier success, which creates a bit more more bravery, which leads to another tiny change.
Small Changes Need This Ingredient to Succeed
Even small changes have to have room to grow and energy to sustain them. If my life already stresses me out, overtaxes me, and runs me ragged, will I have the willpower to implement a tiny yes?
This doesn’t mean we’re stuck. But it points us in a very clear direction.
If you struggle to make even tiny changes in your life, and feel like you have no willpower whatsoever, try eliminating stress and energy-taxing activities from your life first before you add anything.
Institute a do-nothing day. Pare down your schedule. Do less shopping. Simplify your possessions. Declutter a closet. Simplify your meal planning. Practice quiet and stillness. Notice if you talk to yourself poisonously. Eliminate some media consumption.
Do whatever you can to have more space in your schedule, your mind, and your life.
Not because simplicity is a virtue in and of itself. But because nothingness, quiet, and rest are fertile grounds for good things to grow.
Image credit: Eileen Delhi