Today, I’m touching base on a topic that is misunderstood by many: willpower. In particular, how it relates to home organizing. Every January, thousands, if not millions, of people make the decision to create resolutions. They start off strong. They believe wholeheartedly that they will make it to the end of the year, successfully completing their resolution each day. They will it to happen. Yet, inevitably by February, few resolutionists (I googled, it’s in the Oxford Dictionary!) are still following through. Dieting. Decluttering. Working out. Home organizing. Daily meditation. Purging items. Spending more time engaged with friends (rather than on phones). Whatever the resolution, ultimately, it ends in failure. So, does that mean that WE are failures? Are we to blame because we didn’t account for … travel, celebrations, favorite TV shows, lack of willpower, etc.?
In the end, most people shrug it off, accept that their willpower wasn’t strong enough to carry through their resolutions, call it failure, and then move on to a February resolution. It’s a never-ending cycle.
But what if I told you it wasn’t your fault? It’s not your willpower or self-control that failed. The reason you failed was because you relied too much on willpower and not enough on planning.
Let’s introduce into the conversation psychologist Roy Baumeister. He coauthored a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology titled, “Ego Depletion: Is the Active Self a Limited Resource?”. His main focus was on willpower, or ego depletion. You can buy the paper here if that’s your interest, but I’ll do my best to summarize it for you!
They completed what is known as the Radish Experiment, where they performed various experiments that first made a person exert willpower, then tested their self-control. Participants were told to fast overnight and arrive hungry. When they arrived, they were asked to complete a 15 minute questionnaire. To test their willpower (without their knowledge of being tested), a bowl of radishes and a plate of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies was sitting on the table. The first group was told that they could eat the radishes, but were not allowed to eat any of the cookies (can you imagine the struggle and willpower this would require?). The second group was told they could eat the cookies. The third group did not have any food in the room.
After eating either the radishes or cookies or neither, participants were moved to a different room and asked to complete a difficult (meaning impossible to solve) geometric puzzle in 30 minutes. Those who were forced to resist the delicious smelling cookies quit after an average of 8 minutes. Those who were allowed to eat and enjoy the cookies as well as those who were not given food, thus not exerting any willpower, lasted nearly 19 minutes, on average.
In another study by Baumeister, he gave participants beepers, then paged them seven times each day at random intervals to ask them if they were resisting some kind of desire or craving. He discovered that people, on average, spend four hours a day resisting some kind of desire or craving. Sleep, leisure, sex, checking Facebook were in the top. Can you guess the #1 resisted topic? Food. Another scientist, Brian Wansink calculated that we make an average of 221 food-related decisions each day. Just food. Can you imagine the total number of decisions made every day?
Now, let’s connect home organizing and willpower. You browse Pinterest constantly, follow organizers on Instagram, subscribe to Real Simple. You have the best of intentions, yet your house still becomes cluttered and overwhelms you. Based on Baumeister’s research, it’s not your fault. Typically, by the end of the day, the prime time for people to put away the mail, store their shoes, wash the dishes, everyone’s willpower has depleted. Which means no more self-control. So, things pile up. You rush off to work in the morning, saying you’ll complete it later. But again, no more willpower.
So, how do we counter the loss of willpower? We design a system that doesn’t utilize willpower. I’m sorry, what? Create a system where the decisions are already made for you. You do this by assigning every item in your house, car, purse, garage, etc. a home. By assigning a home, you won’t have to make a decision about where to store each item. You’ll know exactly where to place your shoes, mail, dishes, etc.. You’ll have an assigned spot and with a few repetitions, will start to complete each task without thinking. To go one step further, use organizing tools as well. For silverware, buy a tray that separates the spoons, forks, knives. For the bathroom, buy bins or totes that separate the hair and face products as well as medicine, shower, etc. The goal is to contain and then maintain.
It will be slightly daunting to set up the systems, but just go through it one area at a time. First, choose a small task that’ll be quick to set up. Perhaps a bookshelf in the office or the stack of mail by the front door. Then go through it, tossing/donating what you no longer want/need and assign a home for everything that remains. Once the first task is complete, select another one, steadily increasing the size of the job. This will build up your confidence and hopefully keep up your momentum.
Keep in mind that sometimes you won’t place an item in its home. That’s okay. Life happens. Go easy on yourself. View willpower and self-control as a muscle. When you overuse it, your muscle needs time to repair and heal. Same with willpower. However, if this happens to you frequently, you need to create a system to reset. So, every Sunday, reset the home to place everything back in it’s assigned place. This will prevent the “pile-up”.
Next time you fail and blame a lack of willpower, ask yourself how you could have succeeded by taking willpower out of the equation.
(In an interesting twist of self-control, my body forced me to take a break from writing this article. My lack of willpower caused me to walk over to my bed, lay down, and nap for 60 minutes. Even though I wanted to finish writing…i just…couldn’t.).
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