One wouldn’t think that accomplished professionals lack willpower or discipline. But shockingly, many do. My next few blogs will focus on these obstacles, and how to overcome them.

In my executive coaching practice I work with extremely intelligent individuals who have a difficult time with self-discipline. In the book, “Willpower”, by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney, it is suggested that willpower is simply another word for self-discipline. Page after page confirmed what I already knew – that willpower has less to do with geographical, political or intellectual differences and more to do with physical realities and good old human nature.  Until we learn to better manage these realities, we are destined to limit our success.

This is a difficult lesson for professionals who inherently believe that their intelligence separates them from the tendencies of human nature. It doesn’t.  It’s true that a typical lawyer, engineer, accountant or doctor is likely smarter and has had more education than the average citizen.   Yet why are so many unhappy with their situation? A 2014 Forbes study identified accountants in third place for unhappiest job. In 2013, associate lawyer came out on top for unhappiest job. In three years of the survey, no lawyer, doctor or accountant made the top ten happy list (although Engineer was 9th on the happy list in 2014).

My clients at first appear to have brilliant careers; but they become stuck – often in the areas of practice management (overcoming bad habits) or business development.   In order to overcome these deficits, it makes sense that something has to change. And therein lays the problem. They know something needs to change, and we talk about and plan for what needs to change; but too often they fail to activate that change.  Why is it that otherwise intelligent human beings who have asked for help have a hard time following through with the advice given?

Baumeister conducted a series of tests to determine when and why we lose willpower. He found that we begin each day with a limited amount of determination, which becomes depleted with use (a situation he refers to as ego depletion). Certain things can cause us to lose it faster: such as dealing with pain, or dealing with a repetitive issue. As we deplete our willpower, our brain circuitry slows down. Yet oddly, this loss doesn’t lead to our feeling sad or depressed; rather, in the short term is leads to our feeling numb. Decisions at that point are made with less emotion, and less logic. High school students well know the feeling that there might be a math quiz tomorrow, but that couch and that computer game seem to be a better choice at the moment.

Further research by Baumeister and a colleague found that on rebound from this ego depleted state, subjects reacted more strongly to things around them. A movie made them much happier or sadder, and it was much more difficult for them to resist the temptation of things that might provide them with short term intense feelings (like eating a bucket of ice-cream, playing computer games all night, or drinking heavily). They were far more likely to take emotional rather than logical action – the kind of decision making that leads in extreme cases to addiction.

Ironically, this ego depletion often occurs right when we need our A game. Research with university students leading up to exams showed that personal hygiene fell apart as exams came closer. The majority of subjects tested also stopped exercising, increased their intake of caffeine and junk food, spent more money, slept in more, and became grumpier. All of this opposite behaviour to what would serve their studies best. While it’s common to blame stress for these activities, it might be more accurate to say that stress depletes ego, which then leads to the making of lesser choices.

But there’s a way to deal with the depletion of willpower: we can hoard our willpower and use it sparingly as needed, throughout our day. Another research project tested batches of students where some were told of a series of tests and rewards; whereas others had the rules changed on them as they were tested. Those who had a better sense of what to expect carefully monitored their actions and conserved willpower energy. Those who thought they were about to finish only to be told they had another series of tests to go through tended to give up.

What does this teach us? If we face each moment of each day as it comes, we stand the chance of depleting our reservoir of willpower so that as the day progresses, we make poorer decisions. Human beings do a better job with our willpower when we have a plan. If you are in a position where you must make a lot of decisions, classify decisions by level of importance and focus on the more important ones first. Delegate the lower level decisions if you can. Don’t make important decisions on a day when you know you will be hit with a large number of less important choices.

Next time I’ll talk about some more challenges to willpower, and how to overcome them.

(Incidentally, business development executive (which is to a large degree my own position) is the 8th happiest job in North America : )