Why Your Willpower Can’t Stop You From Putting Things Off

If you’re thinking about procrastinating, it’s already too late–your willpower just isn’t strong enough to force you to make moves when you really don’t want to. Luckily, there is one way to avoid the time-suck.

Why Your Willpower Can’t Stop You From Putting Things Off
[Image: Flickr user Stephan van Es]

Let’s go ahead and say it together: ugh.


Sometimes the thought of doing anything just sounds terrible: Why would you call that client when you could do it after lunch? Why work on that presentation when it’s not even due today? Why not just do it later?

Research suggests we need to carve out five hours of difficult work in a day if we’re going to do awesome things–at least that’s what the inventors, artists, and entrepreneurs tell us.

But getting those five hours in can feel impossible given the reams of email and stacks of meetings we have placed on our desk. By the time we have the occasion to be productive, we just don’t have the willpower.

Therein lies to problem: we don’t want to have anything to do with willpower.

Willpower is a muscle

You know that grumpy feeling you get after a long day? That happens because we’re making hundreds of micro-decisions every day, and every decision we make takes mental effort–which, neuroscientists will remind us, is also physical effort.


So in the same way that you can only physically run so many miles in a day, your brain can only run through so many decisions in a day. This is why President Obama always wears the same suit, and it’s why we who would rather put things off. We need to make productivity less self-determined and more automatic.

“Do yourself a favor and embrace the fact that your willpower is limited,” writes Columbia psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson at HBR, “and that it may not always be up to the challenge of getting you to do things you find difficult, tedious, or otherwise awful. Instead, use if-then planning to get the job done.”

As Halverson emphasizes, an effective if-then plan goes beyond the what of things that need to get done to the where and the when. For example:

If it is 2 p.m., then I will stop what I’m doing and start work on the report Bob asked for.

If my boss doesn’t mention my request for a raise at our meeting, then I will bring it up again before the meeting ends.

This is so effective because you’ve drastically reduced the reliance you have on your willpower. Rather than having to make the right decision when the time comes (“Hrm, maybe I do want dessert”), you already made the decision (“This week, no dessert!” you say to yourself on Monday).

As Halverson reports, the proof is in the pudding: in more than 200 studies, if-then planning has been shown to improve people’s rates of goal attainment by 200% to 300%.


structure, structure, structure

Tony Stubblebine knows a thing or two about getting things done, what with his being the CEO of Lift, the app that helps you build productive habits, day by day by day. When I asked him about his most important productivity habit, his answer was daily prioritization.

“Before I get lost in the chaos that goes on around me, when I sit down at my desk, I set priorities. I’ve trained myself that that’s the trigger for this other goal that’s not as natural, but is actually really important to me. It was a major a-ha moment when I realized that productivity is about how important the things that I get done are. I used to count how many things I crossed off my to-do list. Now, much more importantly, I actually work in the prioritized order.”

Rather than summoning the will to make prioritization a priority, he just sits down at his desk and starts prioritizing. If this, then that.

Hat tip: HBR

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.