Willpower and Apps


One of the biggest mistakes you can make is thinking you’ve got 24 hours in a day in a day to get things done.

Yup, I know this way of thinking has been around since the 14th century, but it doesn’t apply to 21st century life. Instead, I want you to think of your day as being comprised of Apps, not hours.

Your brain is like your smartphone and the apps are all the things you have going on in your life. And I mean everything: from your drive to work, to washing your hair, to planning a night out, to what to eat for dinner. And, just like your smartphone, these apps are all draining the battery: draining you and your willpower. 

When I say “Apps” I'm talking about your willpower. Your willpower is the mental energy your brain uses to think things through, make any decision, worry, and strategize. Some apps don’t use much of your battery, or your willpower. But all of the things that aren’t automatic, that stress you out, cause you anxiety, or make you think:  these are all bigger apps that are draining your battery. God forbid you’ve got really tough issues like cancer, a kid in drug rehab, debt, or you’re afraid you’re going to lose your job; because those are some seriously big Apps and they’re really going to drain your smartphone (and what I really mean is: your brain).

A lot of times, we think we’ve closed Apps but they’re really just running in the background. You know that root canal surgery you’ve been putting off?  That’s an App that’s open in the background and you don’t even realize it’s weighing on you and draining your battery. You know that To Do list you keep writing and re-writing?  That’s also Apps, or mental energy, being used in the background, draining your battery. You drain your willpower constantly and then wonder why you don't have energy to stick to your diet, get to the gym, be nice to your partner, save money or stop yelling at your kids.

Everyone has a certain amount of Apps, or willpower, they can use over the course of a day. Let’s say, for the purposes of this discussion, that you have 100 Apps or 100 units of willpower you can use in a day. 

Now, there are some things in your life you don’t need to think much about. These are your autopilot items that don't cause you stress. They’re still Apps that use up your willpower, but they only use a small amount and you’re able to “quit” them and not leaving them running in the background. For example, showering isn’t something that’s usually mentally taxing or that you even have to think much about. So, this might be equal to only three of your 100 daily-allotted Apps. 

However, many of your life’s activities are NOT like this. For example, let’s say you’re asked to take on a small project at work. The project is “only” going to take a couple hours to complete. You think, “I’ve got a couple hours this week, I can do this.”  

However, this is NOT a simple hour to App ratio, because of all the thinking and psychic energy that will go into this project. First of all, you now have something new on your plate and that immediately adds stress (and uses more of your willpower). You need to remember to get the project done by Tuesday and coordinate resources and manage your time. You also have your mother calling and asking to speak with you about “something important,” you need to make that doctor’s appointment you’ve been putting off, and it’s your kid’s first piano recital this week and you need to make sure he’s practicing and prepared. 

All of this takes up quite a bit of mental space, so the two hours you might have expended in clock time for this “small work project,” is really equivalent to maybe 50 Apps of mental energy and stress for taking on something new that you’ve never done before and adding it to your already full plate. 

Now, add on to this your commute to work, your regular day of getting dressed, feeding yourself (and maybe your family), worrying about that gray hair you found this morning, making your bed, and the (literally) thousands of small decisions you need to make every day and you realize that those 100 Apps get eaten up VERY quickly. In fact, you might find yourself at home at 7:00pm working on an App-deficit. 

Are you still wondering why it’s so hard to get yourself to the gym, choose fruit instead of ice-cream after dinner, and have the energy for rock-star sex with your partner? All those hours you had to “get everything done” are the wrong way to look at your life. Instead, notice how many Apps you have open and how much mental energy you’re expending day to day. Your willpower is an exhaustible resource and you use it all day long with every, single decision you make (no matter how small). You use more of your willpower for the harder things, and less for the smaller things, but it’s all willpower nonetheless.

If you think of your day in Apps, not hours, you’ll start saying “no” more often. It’s not, “Sure I can volunteer at my kid’s school, it’s only going to take another hour a week.” Instead, you need to think, “Darn, I’ve got so much going on, I don’t have any more Apps to expend.” When we operate in App-deficit we have symptoms such as depression, anxiety, rage, apathy, or general discontent with our lives. When we operate in App-deficit, or at our absolute App-limit every day, we end up with a drained battery. You can’t expect to have exceptional relationships, with yourself or anyone else on a drained battery. 

So, starting today, count your Apps, not your hours.

Abby Medcalf