“Willpower isn’t just a skill. It’s a muscle, like the muscles in your arms or legs, and it gets tired as it works harder, so there’s less power left over for other things.” Charles Duhigg author of the Bestseller, The Power of Habit
This week’s challenge is to develop willpower. Willpower is absolutely necessary to our success. It is the one skill that allows us to develop every other skill. We all struggle with willpower, but if we are serious about growing and getting better, it needs to be a daily priority. The great news is that we can all develop it. If you don’t believe you have willpower, we will need to address that self-limiting belief because it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right” Henry Ford
First, we will dispel the notion that willpower is a character trait and not a learnable skill. Next, we will learn some strategies to cultivate willpower. Last, we will learn how to reduce our need for willpower by controlling our environment.
Willpower isn’t something you are born with, like blue eyes. Like any skill, willpower can be developed. A great measure of Starbucks’ success can be attributed to its training program that is designed to develop willpower in its baristas. Starbucks business model is based on us being willing to pay top dollar for our coffee by providing us a first-class customer experience. The challenge they faced was training their baristas to deliver on that promise consistently, despite any personal problems they may be experiencing or the rudeness of any particular customer. Dealing with rude and belligerent customers professionally requires willpower. We must resist our natural tendency to reciprocate.
Many of Starbucks employees come from dysfunctional homes where they were never taught the proper way to process emotions, make decisions, or react to stressful situations. Remember the basal ganglia, our primitive brain? It is responsible for how we learn, make decisions, and how we process emotions. As children, we learn how to act and react by watching the adults around us. In functional families, this is a blessing, but in dysfunctional families, it is a curse.
How does Starbucks teach its employees how to serve a little joy with each customer’s order, despite any personal difficulties they may be experiencing? How do they teach them how to react to a rude or belligerent customer? Starbucks provides a series of courses that begin on their first day, and continue throughout their career. The courses teach the life skills their families, communities, and schools often failed to teach. New employees receive a minimum of fifty hours of classroom instruction their first year. They are also given take-home workbook assignments and assigned a mentor.
Starbucks decided willpower, like any skill or habit, could be taught, with the expectation of a reward. Starbucks is thus teaching its employees to react to a multitude of situations in a manner consistent with the company’s goal of providing a first-rate customer experience that creates a little joy in the life of their customers. The curriculum centers on building the habit of willpower. Employees are taught the basics of how to react to specific situations they will face, like an irate customer. They are also asked to create a plan of action for each situation. Managers drill them by role-playing situations over and over until the response becomes automatic. The employees are taught to anticipate the reward, a happy customer, and a compliment from their manager.[i]
We can apply the same methodology Starbucks uses to develop our willpower. The first step is to identify situations, people, places, and things that have sabotaged our efforts to be more disciplined. The next step is to develop a plan. The third step is to rehearse our plan. And the last step is to reward ourselves for executing our plan.
We want to identify situations, people, places, and things that have caused our willpower to fail. We obviously want to shape our environment to minimize these temptations, but perhaps some of them are unavoidable. For example, you might be expected to attend a family gathering where the food options are not healthy.
If we are struggling with our weight, chances are great that our family is also overweight. As much as people like to curse their genetics if they examined their family’s food choices and attitudes toward diet and exercise they would conclude that these are huge contributing factors. Our obesity epidemic isn’t being driven by changes in our genetics, it is being driven by changes in our eating behavior.
If you are going to attend a family gathering where the food choices are going to be unhealthy, you must plan ahead. Before the gathering, eat small amounts of high protein foods and fibrous vegetables in the morning when your willpower is strongest. If you want to avoid overeating at the gathering, eat a small high protein meal just before going. High protein foods will help to keep your hunger in-check better than any other type of food.
Since your hunger will be in check, you will be less tempted to overeat the unhealthy foods. Less temptation, less willpower required. You can even keep a small snack in your car, if you become hungry you have a healthier option available. The snack could be a serving of Greek yogurt, deli meat rolled-up with a slice of low-fat cheese, a protein shake, or some beef jerky in a cooler. If people are going to be drinking at the gathering, you can bring bottles of Topo-Chico, or some other type of mineral water so you’ll have something to drink while others are popping bottles of beer. If you choose to drink, I recommend you stick with clear alcohols, like vodka.
The key is planning ahead by eating almost exclusively high protein foods and fibrous vegetables before the indulgence, tracking everything you eat, and committing to not exceeding your maintenance caloric intake by more than 250 to 350 calories. If you are trying to lose weight, tracking your food is highly recommended; especially on days where you will be eating any heavy foods. Portion control is also effective, but not as precise. A portion of protein is roughly the size of your palm, a portion of carbohydrates is what will fit in your cupped hand, a portion of fat is the size of your thumb. As long as you don’t put cheese or heavy sauces on them, you can eat a lot of fibrous vegetables without worry of weight gain.
In this scenario, it isn’t just the situation that is tempting us. It is also our family’s attitudes and behaviors. Family and friends can either be a good influence on our behavior or bad influence on our behavior. They are either discouragers of bad behavior, or they are accomplices. The more time we spend with people that lack willpower, the less willpower we will demonstrate. We are the average of the people we spend the most time with. If you want to do better, spend time with people that are better than you. It will raise your game.
Designing a reward for executing our plan should be a part of our planning process. “What gets rewarded gets repeated.” John E. Jones Your reward for sticking to your plan could be having a bowl of fruit with whip cream after the temptation has passed. This shouldn’t sabotage your diet, and it gives you something to look forward to while you are overcoming the temptation. You could also choose a non-food reward like going to the movies or purchasing a new pair of running shoes. We often neglect to acknowledge our small daily victories. A great practice to adopt is to capture these small wins in a journal each night.
I recently started the habit of beginning and ending each day journaling for 5-minutes; using a countdown timer. I capture my goals in the morning and my small wins in the evening. Reconnecting with our priorities each morning is a must, and recording our small wins helps us to sustain motivation by activating our dopamine system. Measuring and recording small wins will encourage us to achieve more wins. What gets measured gets managed. Recording an activity modifies our behavior through greater awareness. If you were to record every time you read each day by crossing out the date on a calendar, you would become more consistent at reading each day.
Our success can be sabotaged by things in our environment. Let’s say we want to be more productive. We need to exert willpower. Our plan needs to center around eliminating distractions. Technology can save us a lot of time, but it can also rob us of our focus. Apps like Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, and Instagram were designed to be addictive. Constantly looking at your phone, or checking your email will make you much less productive at work. You feel like you are productive when you are responding to emails, but you aren’t. Do not confuse activity with productivity. Being busy is not the same thing as being productive. Your activities must be impactful.
When we are working on an important project, we should close our email and ignore our phone. Every time we allow ourselves to be distracted, we lose valuable time. Every time we change our focus, our mind has to reorient itself to what we were doing before the distraction.
A useful analogy is an assembly line. If we are producing multiple products, we will finish producing the first product, before we produce any other products because we would have to retool our assembly line before we began production of the second item. Our mind has to retool itself every time we change focus. This is very inefficient and hurts our productivity, flow, and momentum.
Most time management experts recommend you limit checking email to once or twice a day to avoid its disruptive effects. The worst thing you can do each day when you get to work is to check your email, but that is what most people do. That is why I use the Delay Delivery option in Outlook to deliver my emails that require action to arrive in people’s inbox first thing in the morning. That way my email will be at the top of their inbox. They will be more likely to respond quicker than if it were at the bottom of their email inbox because I had sent it the previous evening.
Beginning our workday by tackling our most important task is a game changer. Devoting our first 90-minutes to our most important task of the day will have a huge impact on our personal productivity. We have the most willpower, and we are our most productive the first two to three hours of our day. Use this window of optimal performance to attack your most important and daunting projects. View it as a personal challenge to immediately begin working on your top priority each morning without delay. This one habit will transform your career and life.
Throw yourself into the task and let momentum take over. Do not think about it, be about it. Do not wait until you feel like doing it. That moment will never come. You will never feel like doing what is difficult. That is why willpower and discipline are so important to being successful. Some tasks can be so daunting that they cause us to hesitate; that hesitation causes our mind to begin rationalizing why it would be better to do it later. The longer you hesitate, the less likely you will be to act. You must beat your brain. You must overcome your inclination to hesitate. Distractions can also cause us to hesitate and waste some of our most productive hours.
If we want to be productive, we must eliminate all distractions. Charge our phone out of sight, and turn off any alerts. Close Outlook. We should never begin our day by checking email. When we begin our day checking our email we are programming ourselves to be reactive. Win the first hour of your day, and you’ll win the rest of your day. The days we begin by replying to emails and the demands of others, are the days in which nothing meaningful gets accomplished. Those are the days that you feel like you did a lot, but actually accomplished nothing meaningful. We want to run our days not have our days run us. If we don’t make achieving our priorities a daily thing, it will be nothing.
The habit of routinely beginning each day working on our most impactful task provides immediate and long-term benefits. Task completion gives us a sense of accomplishment, and this makes us feel awesome about ourselves. It triggers the release of endorphins and dopamine. Dopamine is the chemical most closely related to long-term happiness.
When our dopamine system is activated, we are more positive, excited and eager to go after goals.[ii] The more impactful and challenging the task completed, the better we feel about ourselves. You will begin to crave these happiness hormones. This positive addiction will grow stronger over time. Like a muscle, it will grow stronger through repetition and effort. Eventually, it will become a part of who you are. It will be ingrained in your psyche.
Every small win, every item checked off our to-do list makes us feel great. One thing that universally makes all of us happy is progress. When we are getting better, in any area of our lives, we feel great. We feel like a winner.
“Progress equals happiness. Progress is the game.” – Tony Robbins
The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work explains how progress improves the inner work life of employees and teams. Improvements in inner work life drive higher levels of performance and engagement; which in turn leads to better progress and enhanced inner work life. The author calls these reinforcing benefits, the “progress loop.” As you make progress, you rack-up small wins. These small wins make us feel great about ourselves, which stimulates the release of dopamine. When we are making progress in any area of our life, it gives us a sense of accomplishment. It gives us a sense of worth.
Each small win in which you exert willpower over your environment will provide evidence to yourself that you are a person of willpower. Each small win acts as a reference point. Beliefs are like a table top. They need something underneath them to hold them up. The more reference points you generate, the more evidence you provide yourself; the more credible the belief will be.
Willpower isn’t something you are born with, it is something you develop, like a muscle. The similarities don’t end there. Like a muscle, your willpower will fatigue as the day progresses. “According to psychological research, your willpower is like a muscle. It’s a finite resource that depletes with use. As a result, by the end of your strenuous days, your willpower muscles are exhausted, and you’re left to your naked and defenseless self – with zero control to stop the night-time munchies and time wasters.” Benjamin Hardy, Author of Willpower Doesn’t Work
We would be wise to schedule tasks that require the most willpower early in the day. If you struggle with exercising, you will increase your odds of success by working out immediately after waking up each morning. Dieting requires a lot of willpower. If you are like me, your impulse control diminishes at the end of the day. As the day progresses, my hunger increases and my willpower decreases. A useful strategy I have adopted is eating small, light meals early in the day when my willpower is strongest. I reserve my heaviest meals for the end of the day. It isn’t when we eat our calories, but how many calories we eat each day that controls whether we gain or lose weight. We need to take advantage of the times we have the strongest willpower to achieve our goals.
Author Benjamin Hardy says that if you are truly committed to your goal, you will not need to rely on willpower. You will shape your environment to support your goal. When you are committed to a goal, you will shape your environment to foster that goal.[iii] You will eliminate people, places, or things that will tempt you to stray off your chosen path. If the temptation is removed from the environment, willpower isn’t required. I wholeheartedly agree.
It is a lot easier to shape our environment than it is to exert willpower over it. If you are committed to not eating junk food, you will eliminate it from your home. If you want to read more, you will set-up an environment for reading without distraction. You’ll schedule a time to do it each day. What get’s scheduled gets done.
In high school, I remember thinking how stupid it was for a parent to place a kid that just got out of rehab back into the high school that they were attending when they got addicted. Inevitably they would start hanging out with their old accomplices, and the drug use would begin again.
“The addict only needs to change one thing…their whole damn life.” – Ben Hill, PhD
The willpower approach to achieving our goals focuses on our ability to overcome our environment when it would be so much easier to shape our environment. In our book, The Fat Loss Habit, we teach you how to shape your environment to become leaner, fitter and stronger.
We should focus our energy on shaping our environment because it is so much more effective than the willpower approach. If there is nothing to tempt us at the end of the day, when our willpower is depleted, and we are vulnerable to temptation, we have nothing to fear. This is really common sense, but how many people consciously shape their environment to foster their success? If you don’t want to shape your environment, you aren’t committed.
If you are serious about eating healthy, you’ll eliminate junk food from your home. You’ll stop going to dinner with friends whose eating, and drinking behavior will have a bad influence on you. You’ll join a weight loss group. You’ll find someone who will encourage you to workout. You’ll associate with people who have achieved the fitness goals you desire. You’ll make a financial commitment to getting in shape by signing up for personal training sessions. This will also create an additional layer of accountability.
If you don’t want to shape your environment to foster your goals, you aren’t serious. Just admit it to yourself. I don’t want to sound harsh, but sometimes we need to face up to our own bullshit and stop lying to ourselves. We need to take ownership. We need to take responsibility for everything that is within our control.
We cannot control everything in our environment, but we can control most things. If you aren’t controlling everything that is within your power, you aren’t committed. Your desire to achieve isn’t greater than your desire to continue receiving the rewards your current lifestyle is providing you. If that is your decision, that is fine. Just stop telling yourself it is because you lack willpower. It has nothing to do with willpower and everything to do with conscious choice.
I hope you’ll accept this week’s challenge to develop your willpower so you will be able to overcome the temptations that have sabotaged you in the past. I hope you will begin shaping your environment to eliminate all the unnecessary temptations that currently exist.
Willpower and discipline are crucial to your success and mine. We all struggle with willpower. We all come-up short occasionally, but we should make sure that we don’t make our journey harder than it has to be by neglecting to eliminate the temptations that are within our control.
1) Willpower is a skill: We can develop willpower. We do it by developing a plan to overcome temptation, rehearsing the plan, executing the plan, and finding ways to reward each small victory.
2) Willpower is like a muscle: Willpower can be developed through conditioning like a muscle, but like a muscle, it depletes with use. Perform tasks that require the most willpower early in the day.
3) Record small wins: Find a way to record every small win. Recording small wins makes us happy, and the act of recording positively affects our behavior by making us more conscious of it. Recording small wins works on the progress principle. Progress activates our dopamine system. It causes us to feel more positive, excited and eager to go after goals; which leads to more progress; creating a reinforcing progress loop.
4) If we are SERIOUS, we will shape our environment to eliminate the need for willpower: When we are committed to achieving a goal, we will remove every temptation in our control. We will avoid people, places, and things that will tempt us. It is much easier to shape our environment than to rely on self-restraint. No temptation, no willpower required!
Until next week, good luck!
Engineer your day and shape your environment to foster good habits. Change your habits, change your life!
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Best wishes and Best Health!
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[i] Charles, Duhigg, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Random House Trade Paperbacks (January 7, 2014) p. 129-144.
[ii] Susan S. Lang, Dopamine linked to a personality trait and happiness, Cornell Chronicle, October 24, 1996.
[iii] Benjamin P. Hardy, Willpower Doesn’t Work: Discover the Hidden Keys to Success, Hachette Books (March 6, 2018)