Willpower: Why You Should Do It In The Morning

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Ever notice how you can resist chocolate far more easily in the morning than at night…

I can often push myself to exercise, meditate, eat well, sit down to write and pretty much overcome most forms of resistance in the early part of the day. But, as the day progresses, especially if it’s a brain-engaging day…ugh.

I literally feel like I burn through my willpower…

And, it turns out, there’s a bit of science (beyond serotonin re-uptake) to back this feeling up. A recent study by Kathleen Martin Ginis, Associate Professor of Kinesiology at McMaster University confirms what a number of other studies have pointed to.

Self-control or willpower is a finite resource.

Like the water at the bottom of a well, you can use it up. And, once you do, you’ve got to let the well refill to give you more to draw upon.

The more you use your brain to engage in rigorous processing and other tasks that require a degree of self-control, the closer you get to the bottom of your well. The less able you are to resist the siren song of the couch, the TV and that big, fat hunk of grandma’s seven-layer chocolate cake.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. And, according to the McMaster study, with practice and planning, you can actually increase the size of the willpower reservoir, giving you more to draw upon in future bouts.

Strategies to refill your willpower well include:

  • Challenge & Build – Regularly challenge yourself to do something you don’t want to do or resist some urge. Over time, this can help increase your capacity for self-control. It’s like raising the max-fill line for the water in your well.
  • Music – According to Martin Ginis, things like listening to music help refill the willpower tank.
  • Daily Practices – And, though I haven’t found the research to back it up yet, I’d say it’s a safe bet the first two strategies from our Visionary Tactics seriesβ€”building-in space, exercise and attentional trainingβ€”help refill the well, too.

Beyond increasing your capacity for self-control or refilling your willpower well, a few other strategies can go a long way toward making sure you do the things you’d be tempted to blow off.

  • Front-load – If you know your day will demand a lot of self-control, schedule the tasks you’re trying to “not blow off” earlier in the day, before all the other activities leave your willpower reserves depleted.
  • Schedule – Schedule your workout or other higher-priority activities in advance and build other plans around them. Having that structure makes you more likely to honor the commitment, even if your willpower is waning.
  • External Willpower – Accountability partners are another great strategy.

So, I’m wondering, has anyone else noticed this effect in your daily life?

Have you experienced a change in self-control after a rigorous mental task or a series of other activities that require a degree of self-control?

Share YOUR experiences, thoughts and ideas in the comments.

And, hey, if you’ve enjoyed this post, why not share it…

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50 responses

50 responses to “Willpower: Why You Should Do It In The Morning”

  1. Hayk says:

    Jonathan,

    Brain is a muscle and willpower draws on it.

    From my experience, willpower in the sense you describe above can be filled/recharged when you switch gears, if you are for example reading a business book and you feel tired, you can switch a book to something lighter – say sci-fi – and continue reading and then switch back.

    Brain is yet another muscle and we can use it by switching to different touchpoints of seemingly the same resource.

    Another analogy. Stages of feeling hunger: slightly hungry, hungry, very hungry, starving, and then, NOT feeling hungry.
    This last stage is – i m not sure of this – a defensive action by our immune system. We stop feeling hunger when we are exposed to prolonged state of empty stomache. You function and go about things as usual, almost as usual.

    I think the similar experience is true for brain-work and ultimately for willpower. When too much draw and exhausted, you stop feeling tired or that you are at the bottom. You feel as if you have just got the “scond breath” – like in sports.

    Anyhow, just my two cents!

  2. The Heaths also write about the finite levels of willpower in Switch, so this seems to be gravitating towards generally accepted knowledge. My own experiences with willpower would seem to support this idea.

    And yet… there’s something about this idea that bothers me. If you’ve ever read The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck, he puts a lot of stock behind one simple thing that can be a great source of strength:

    Love.

    In his opinion, for a healthy person, love is the source of (self) discipline and the will to do what needs to be done.

    There are times when that feeling has helped me stay on path and do what needs doing.

    There are other times that that feeling fails to prop up my will and I still fail to do things that need doing (or I do stuff that’s less than helpful).

    I really wonder if there’s any research to back up the notion that the emotion of love can reinforce or regenerate willpower.

    Man, I wish I had a Green Lantern’s power ring…

  3. Lauren says:

    Another reason to do it in the morning – particularly on a day you know is going to be challenging – is to give yourself an “early win.” For instance, you might have have silly meetings all day at work, but if you exercise in the morning, at least you can say you did something that was important. Crossing some difficult or beneficial off your list early in the day can help to build momentum.

  4. I like your point Jonathan,

    Exercising willpower is energy consuming, and we need to do it in a strategic way. This is why I believe in picking your fights and fighting them one at a time, instead of trying to change everything at once.

  5. Each morning brings us a fresh start to a new day; therefore it only makes sense to conquer those difficult or “less favorite” tasks first thing – just as Lauren mentioned above. Exercising in the morning is an easy way to increase energy and clear your mind for those big “to-do’s”. It also boosts serotonin levels to help that good feeling last while it lowers stress! I do find myself doing many of the things I really need to tackle and put my focus on first thing and scheduling the other things that are not as high on the priority list throughout the day. Great article Johnathan!

  6. Evan says:

    If you need willpower ask yourself why you are doing what you do. If you are enjoying it the need for willpower is much reduced.

  7. Topi says:

    I definitely have a finite amount of willpower, and I seem to do my best recharging over night, so yes there’s more available in the morning. How much willpower I have leftover at the end of the day depends on the demands that have been made on it during the day. Somehow, my kids can pick when I’m low on willpower – that’s when they ask for fastfood for dinner, how is it that they know???

  8. Knowing your limits is really important when planning your day and how you’re going to accomplish your priorities. Thank you for this pivotal insight!

    I’m constantly researching methods and tips for shortcuts to reduce the usual large amount of time it takes to do menial daily tasks – so that I have more time for more important things and people! Check out these great time saving tips for parents and relish the new-found hours you’ll discover!

  9. I always knew there was something to this! I do all my major things like exercise/meditate/write early in the day from about 5-9am. You do get sluggish in the afternoon and this is why they have a Siesta in some countries. Good idea if you ask me πŸ™‚

  10. I did so well last year that I got burned out and now with the baby…I feel like Samson without his hair lol.

    My problem is I love working at night when everyone is asleep…maybe I can get the same thing by doing it in the morning, and starting off with a run.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      The problem isn’t with stuff you love doing, it’s with the stuff you’d do anything to avoid. Also, a lot of blogger and internet marketers operate on a very different schedule than the “normal” (lol) world, so take the early-in-the-day thing with a grain of salt if that’s you

  11. Tim Brownson says:

    I’m the opposite way round, I LOVE chocolate with my coffee first thing but could care less later in the day.

    I really swing back and forth on willpower. Part of me says there’s no such thing even though I know that’s not really true. But what I mean is that many people think they have little willpower when often the reality is they have little motivation to make the changes they want to make.

    A heavy smoker that has a heart attack and gets told he’ll be dead within 5 years if he doesn’t quit can then become so motivated that willpower doesn’t even come into play. It’s a done deal, a decision has been made and there’s no turning back.

    @ Mark – You’re right it was in ‘Switch’, I think it was also in either ‘The Brain That Changes Itself’ by Norman Doidge or ‘How We Decide’ by Jonah Lehrer, two excellent books.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      It’s an interesting question, kind of like how more people in the fitness world are now coming to view over-training as under-recovery. But, now matter how driven by passion or quest you are, there will always be elements of a task or project that you’d rather not do. Even if you’re insanely motivated to achieve the end. Dangling that carrot helps, but, increasingly, science is showing there’s a very real war that goes on between the prefrontal cortex and other more primal parts of the brain that’s mappable on fMRI and even capable of being stimulated and manipulated.

  12. Phyllis says:

    I find that starting things off in a good way helps me stay on track. If my morning plan works.. the rest of the day seems to go well. If things get off track with an unexpected demand or something unplanned needs my attention – I can get things done but it feels like working against vs working with the flow. Great suggestions. Appreciate the thoughtful post Jonathan.

  13. Naomi Niles says:

    Oh, definitely. It’s the main reason why I never take business phone calls after 5pm and try to schedule them all in the morning if I can. Can we say brain dead? LOL

    I agree with what you say about front loading. I often try to do the hardest task of the day first to help build momentum for the rest of the day. I find that the days I do that are usually the most productive.

    One thing I know I need to work on though, is recharging throughout the day. I can sit for several hours working intensely without getting up while coding or designing tasks where you can spend a lot of time very quickly. I’m aware that that’s not very healthy.

    Hubby often forces me to take breaks when he sees me for too long, bless him. Once he asked me, “Do you ever pee?”. LOL

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      So, now I finally know why you refuse to talk to me after 5pm! πŸ˜‰

    • Liz Pike says:

      It is unhealthy (to work and not take breaks)!! I ended up with a herniated disc and another bulging one last year after a very busy year and more time in my desk chair than ever, and without taking breaks.

      I must now work, rotating between sitting and standing at a raised desk because the surgery wasn’t 100% effective. (If only I’d pre-seen all of this last summer when I spent 22 hours in the chair at one sitting furiously trying to complete a job for a demanding client!)

      I now work on the 80/20/48/12 rule which I also wish I’d known about a very long time ago! 80% of an hour is 48 minutes. I work for 48 minutes, then take a 12 minute break (the other 20% of the hour) which must involve moving &/or getting outside. I’ve find myself much more productive, thinking clearer for a longer part of the day and having more willpower in the evenings when tempted to veg and pig-out. My work is much more focused and I have less tendency to multi-task.

      • Lisa says:

        That’s awesome advice. I’m working on a startup and doing so much of everything myself that I find myself sitting at my computer for hours on end, forgetting to eat. My right shoulder is chronically sore from what I’m calling an “over-clicking” injury. I’m going to set a timer and get up after 48 minutes and see what the result is. This fits with “Brain Rules”, a great book I have just started.

        P.S. I do run for at least 45 minutes almost every day, so I’m not a slug but I am sure that I need to move MORE. My doggies will appreciate it too.

  14. Jackie says:

    I’ve definitely noticed this. A couple of weeks ago I started getting up at 4am and doing everything I possibly could for my business before it was time to leave for work. While getting up early is not my cup of tea, I feel so much better knowing that the important things are already done.

  15. Shannon Lutz says:

    Anyone ever read the book “Eat That Frog” by Brian Tracy? This is exactly what is discussed in the book. How to be more productive and efficient at time management begins with doing the most challenging or dreaded tasks first thing in the day.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Haven’t read the book, but I think what’s cool is that now more and more science is beginning to explain why claims and suggestions like Tracy’s work

  16. Annie Stith (Gr8fulAS on Twitter) says:

    Jonathan,

    Hey, there! BTW, love your blog.

    I’ve definitely found myself regularly drained bt mid-afternoon, but sometimes a 30-45 minute “power nap” helps revive me. But I certainly appreciate the other tips to try!

    One of my “drains” is that I have pain at some level nearly every day, which takes energy from my body. It also distracts me, so I might throw in an extra meditation session to pull myself back into the fullness of the present instead of being so single-mindedly focused. I find that meditation also can help renew my willpower. Maybe that could help some of your readers, too.

    Annie

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Actually, when you look back through history, many of the greatest minds and inventors were zealous late day nappers, so there’s something to that.

      • Mike Willner says:

        I think willpower takes mental energy, so the more willpower you expend during the day and the more work you do (which also expends mental energy), the more likely it is that you will get mentally tired and have less willpower and “brain power” as the day wears on. I think you rest your brain when you meditate and take power naps, both of which give you a mental energy boost so you can keep going strong throughout the day (and into the night).

  17. caitlyn says:

    I’m in for a quick bowl of cereal – I’ve already trimmed half the hedge after the first thing dog walk. If I sit, check my email, read your blog, well, before you know it I’ve done half the crossword puzzle, eaten a piece of the leftover birthday cake (hmm, maybe I’ll freeze that now while I still have willpower to burn!) Anyway, having left all my tools in the front yard and got my body warmed up, I’m off to trim the other half of the hedge.

    You are sooo right – at least for this morning person. In the later afternoon, I won’t resist the cake, and my energy won’t return until 10-ish, just in time to get ready for bed. You know in between won’t be my best productivity or habits.

    Salut!

  18. bsgarrison says:

    I have seen this in my own life but on a much larger scale.You are talking about day to day reserves of willpower. What about when you deplete your entire reservoir? How do you prime the pump? My husband and I owned a small, successful retail business in what was to become the foreclosure capital of the USA. Articles in the New Yorker called our quaint little retirement town, the next “slum of Florida.” We were working hard, had recently expanded our business and taken on new debt and new obligations because business was soaring, when the economy very suddenly came to a screeching halt. Almost overnight our best customers abandoned the community, their houses, and of course, our business. In their place, bands of thugs roamed the shopping center like packs of wolves, waiting to pounce. It took everything we could muster to keep the company afloat until we were able to sell at much, much less than it had been worth before the crash. This experience has made us feel so much older, so worn out, emotionally and physically exhausted. Once we were very goal focused and could spend our vacations in strategic planning sessions. Now, we can’t make ourselves think beyond the day, much less set long or short term goals. Practice willpower? I wish I knew how to even begin.

  19. Satu says:

    I’m deeply disappointed that study did not reveal you can replenish your will power by eating chocolate. πŸ˜‰

    I believe that if you take Jonathan’s daily practices to mean (daily) routines or habits, it is already backed up by research (basic stuff in cognitive psychology or cognitive science). Activities that become automatic through practice and repetition require much less attention and conscious control than doing something you are not familiar with.

    Then it is just a matter of setting up the right kind of routines!

    Well, for some reason it is much easier to build a habit like “every time I do x, I eat a bar of chocolate” than it is to build constructive habits πŸ™‚

  20. I find that my willpower weakens as the day progresses for sure.

    What works for me is to front-load by getting the important things done early and first, then save the less-demanding things for later. When I don’t follow this rule and try doing brain-intensive things in the evening, such as fixing tech problems on my sites or managing finances, the results are often disappointing, if not disastrous.

    It’s time for me to try some of your refill-the-well techniques. Thanks for these.

  21. Carolyn says:

    Great article. I’ve recently been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis and I find I can do things in the morning that I would have no strength for by night time.
    And I agree that getting things done in the morning truly does set you up fo other wins during the day. It may be due to your attitude. If things aren’t going well, you talk your own efforts down, but when things are going well, you talk your efforts up.
    I certainly believe in the power of positive thinking. If I didn’t, I would be curled up and not moving now, instead of connecting with the world!

  22. Jim Vickers says:

    Something that has given me a much better understanding of this and many related “energy” matters is the book, “The Power of Full Engagement” by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz. Next to “Career Renegade”, it’s one of my favorite books. Thanks again, Jonathan.

  23. Leisa says:

    Yes, absolutely I front load mornings. For me it’s very simple – a new day, it’s all possible. It’s fresh, it’s new and I get to create who I am. There is no baggage of what I forgot, what I put off (again), or what I should have/known or done better. The day goes on…and reality creeps in. Not in a bad way, just, things happen the way they do instead of how I hoped and planned. But, every morning, I am reborn into a whole new world to go for those first few hours full speed, unencumbered.

  24. Completely agree with your post. If I accomplish something in the morning (exercise, other big fulfilling tasks etc) I find I am so much more productive during the rest of the day because the pressure’s off. I’ve already accomplished something. Therefore anything else is making that day even more of a success.

    Although, I am definitely not a morning person, so it’s hard just to build the stamina to make myself go for a run early in the day πŸ™ Music helps to re-fill the well though, now only to convince my neighbours to agree to the volume cranked at 7am in the morning…

  25. These are great tips, and agree 100%. All of best focusing time is usually in the morning (and I am a night person, go figure). I can be very effective at any point in the day, however, there seem to be many more distractions as the day wears on. One thing to note is regarding the ongoing distractions throughout the day- they are usually the result of other people, and often cannot be pushed aside (at least in my line of work). My clients have a certain schedule (9-5ers), and it often takes some of them a few hours to get warned up in the morning. By the time they start calling or emailing, I’ve worked through many of my main tasks.

    I exercise early evenings/late afternoons which give me another boost for the family time.

  26. I love to sleep quite late, but I’ve still noticed that I’m in the most effective state just after waking up, and also my brains work better then. It also makes me feel good for the rest of the day if I have achieved something right away when I wake up. Sometimes, though, the best way of getting things done is in the night, but that doesn’t happen too often. I guess the best way is to try to work as long as possible when you have the right mood and feeling, and not force yourself into it when you can’t really get anything done.

  27. Richard says:

    Interesting post
    I think i’m one of the weird ones πŸ™‚ NOT keen on mornings & tend to work better at night. My will power reserves… well i haven’t noticed a difference between morning or night, though suspect i’m better at night – i feel more alert.

    Though agree with Jonathan that will power is affected by the ‘commitments’ you’ve made – its so much easier to say no – if you have an underlying commitment to do or not to do whatever it is. Especially if the commitment takes you towards a goal. eg. going for that run because your in training for a marathon even though its persisting down outside!

    & i prefer exercise later – as for me its something to look forward to – also the BEST stress relief – relaxer!

    As for tackling the hardest tasks first thing in the morning… well I prefer to do an enjoyable task (an easy win) which gives that nice boost of momentum to start the day.

    Rich

  28. biren says:

    one thing i have experienced (that helps the ‘will’ to do)is: success and appreciation from others.
    that, i feel, could mean… ‘feeling good about one’s ability to DO’; or, simply… ‘feeling good about ourselves’…
    thanks jonathan. very helpful.

  29. Dennis Leger says:

    Just the opposite. My 40 year running habit began with late afternoon runs. About a quarter of a mile down the road the afternoon “blahs” were history.

    It might be that 33 years of firefighting, jumping up and down several times a night permanently altered my bio clock.

    Crabby old runner

  30. This is a lesson I must need to learn over and over again! Working out at the gym is very important to me. When I start my day with a workout, I feel incredible! And it sets a great tone for the rest of my day; it’s a way to set myself up for success.

    When I let “other” things seep into my morning routine and don’t make working out a priority until the afternoon…the self-limiting conversations start rolling in: “I’m comfortable in my office now; I don’t want to leave” or “I’ll just wait ’til tomorrow morning and start fresh.” That’s when the downward spiral begins!

    So yes, for me–morning workouts are essential. Thank you for the putting this in front of me again. πŸ™‚

  31. Taliassima says:

    I have Post-its stuck on various surfaces that bear the same ol’ saying: Eat a live toad first thing in the morning (after my workout). Does it help? Yes and no. Yes, because it means that I’ll confront the task knowing that it’ll be done by noon. No, because I suffer from procrastination, which actually stems from multitasking, which is one of the great maladies of the modern age… which is actually an entirely different discussion.

  32. Farnoosh says:

    Finally, I feel re-validated with my crazy habit of waking up at 4:30am. No matter how much I try, my willpower does seem to ebb and flow and the pattern does seem to jive in with what you describe but not always. I think our moods have a lot to do with it as well as the particular task at hand. We may have very low willpower for getting a promotion if we feel sour about work but high willpower to get in shape before a trip to Greece. Initial drive is set with purpose and intention for that particular goal. In general, I get up very early but prefer yoga later in the day because my body is not awake enough to enjoy it. I think it varies for me but I love the early mornings. That much I agree with totally. πŸ™‚

  33. I think we all can use some good time-management/motivational tips in our lives.

    I was very interested to read about music though; this is the second time this week I read about using music as a helping hand when trying to get things done.

    I am a bit opposite in that way though – music distracts me.

    Thanks, Jonathan!

    Ana Hoffman/YourNetBiz

  34. I’m pretty much obsessed with this post – really fabulous job.

  35. I’m glad to see it’s not just me that experiences difficulty in self-control as the day goes on!:) I find I am very productive in the morning and do well when I get all my difficult/time-consuming/cringe-worthy tasks done as soon as possible upon rising. Also, the more I have to use my brain with problem-solving, brainstorming, and analytical thinking, the quicker my willpower tank is depleted. I think I tend to reward myself with TV, a drink, or dessert after such brain activity. I need to use another form of reward, or practice reprogramming my thinking/habits. I’ll try your techniques, thanks for the post!

  36. Great post! Personally, I’ve always found daily checklists of “To Dos” and “To Not Dos” help me greatly with my willpower on anything from Twitter/Facebook to daily exercise to art, etc. etc.

    But since I barely sleep through polyphasic sleeping (2 hours a day), I personally can’t grasp the morning and night effect that all others do. But you are right about having more willpower right after you wake up.

  37. Brenda Jones says:

    Interesting post and comments.

    Morning is always the best time for me to have the willpower. Oftentimes I would wake up with ideas and I would just jump right into it before I forget or get caught up with other unexpected tasks. Beside, getting my “to do” work done in the morning, it’s a great reward knowing I can do whatever I want for rest of the day.

  38. Nani says:

    I believe in putting the big pieces in first, but I do think body clock plays into this well. The earlier I get up, the slower I move! If I slowly move toward my water exercise class, though, I do get more done right afterward.

    The mental danger here lies in the “shoulds.” For me it’s important to avoid the mental set-up of thinking that I am doomed not to generate willpower because I am not focused by 7 or 8 a.m.!

    I found Charley Gilkey’s Productive Flourishing energy heat map instructive as a way to determine my maximum energy times and aim for getting the big stuff done at my peak times. 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. are high energy times for me. Those are the times I need to avoid getting sidetracked by social media, email, etc. so I can focus on my goals.

    One commenter wrote that it’s good to question the task, saying that if you really want to be doing it, it won’t take as much willpower. But sometimes great willpower is needed to be able to do the difficult steps that lead to a desirable result. For example, for an introvert, getting out and networking can be not-so-fun, yet doing it leads to desirable opportunities to do more of the work I love to do!

  39. Mike Dewan says:

    I agree, it is easier to push myself to do things when i first get up rather than at the end of the day. Its also important to remember that if you can exercise earlier on in the day it releases endorphins which promote a better work effort and make you happier and thus benefit you further in the day.

    Again great article and i will be looking through the following blog articles and things on this site.