Self-Discipline: Willpower

The difference between a successful person and others is not a lack of strength, not a lack of knowledge, but rather a lack of will.
– Vince Lombardi

Willpower — such a dirty word these days. How many commercials have you seen that attempt to position their products as a substitute for willpower? They begin by telling you that willpower doesn’t work and then attempt to sell you something “fast and easy” like a diet pill or some wacky exercise equipment. Often they’ll even guarantee impossible results in a dramatically short period of time — that’s a safe bet because people who lack willpower probably won’t take the time to return these useless products.

But guess what… willpower does work. But in order to take full advantage of it, you must learn what it can and cannot do. People who say willpower doesn’t work are trying to use it in a way that’s beyond its capabilities.

What Is Willpower?

Willpower is your ability to set a course of action and say, “Engage!”

Willpower provides an intensely powerful yet temporary boost. Think of it as a one-shot thruster. It burns out quickly, but if directed intelligently, it can provide the burst you need to overcome inertia and create momentum.

Willpower is the spearhead of self-discipline. To use a World War II analogy, willpower would be D-Day, the Normandy Invasion. It was the gigantic battle that turned the tide of the war and got things moving in a new direction, even though it took another year to reach VE Day (Victory in Europe). To make that kind of effort every day of the war would have been impossible.

Willpower is a concentration of force. You gather up all your energy and make a massive thrust forward. You attack your problems strategically at their weakest points until they crack, allowing you enough room to maneuver deeper into their territory and finish them off.

The application of willpower includes the following steps:

  1. Choose your objective
  2. Create a plan of attack
  3. Execute the plan

With willpower you may take your time implementing steps 1 and 2, but when you get to step 3, you’ve got to hit it hard and fast.

Don’t try to tackle your problems and challenges in such a way that a high level of willpower is required every day. Willpower is unsustainable. If you attempt to use it for too long, you’ll burn out. It requires a level of energy that you can maintain only for a short period of time… in most cases the fuel is spent within a matter of days.

Use Willpower to Create Self-Sustaining Momentum

So if willpower can only be used in short, powerful bursts, then what’s the best way to apply it? How do you keep from slipping back into old patterns once the temporary willpower blast is over?

The best way to use willpower is to establish a beachhead, such that further progress can be made with far less effort than is required of the initial thrust. Remember D-Day — once the Allies had established a beachhead, the road ahead was much easier for them. It was still challenging to be sure, especially with the close quarters fighting among hedge rows in France before the Rhino Tanks began plowing through them, but it was a lot easier than trying to maintain the focus, energy, and coordination of a full scale beach invasion every single day for another year.

So the proper use of willpower is to establish that beachhead — to permanently change the territory itself such that it’s easier to continue moving on. Use willpower to reduce the ongoing need for such a high level of sustained force.

An Example

Let’s put all of the above together into a concrete example.

Suppose your objective is to lose 20 pounds. You attempt to go on a diet. It takes willpower, and you do OK with it the first week. But within a few weeks you’ve fallen back into old habits and gained all the weight back. You try again with different diets, but the result is still the same. You can’t sustain momentum for long enough to reach your goal weight.

That’s to be expected though because willpower is temporary. It’s for sprints, not marathons. Willpower requires conscious focus, and conscious focus is very draining — it cannot be maintained for long. Something will eventually distract you.

Here’s how to tackle that same goal with the proper application of willpower. You accept that you can only apply a short burst of willpower… maybe a few days at best. After that it’s gone. So you’d better use that willpower to alter the territory around you in such a way that maintaining momentum won’t be as hard as building it in the first place. You need to use your willpower to establish a beachhead on the shores of your goal.

So you sit down and make a plan. This doesn’t require much energy, and you can spread the work out over many days.

You identify all the various targets you’ll need to strike if you want to have a chance of success. First, all the junk food needs to leave your kitchen, including anything you have a tendency to overeat, and you need to replace it with foods that will help you lose weight, like fruits and veggies. Secondly, you know you’ll be tempted to get fast food if you come home hungry and don’t have anything ready to eat, so you decide to pre-cook a week’s worth of food in advance each weekend. That way you always have something in the refrigerator. You set aside a block of several hours each weekend to buy groceries and cook all your food for the week. Plus you get a decent cookbook of healthy recipes. Create a weight chart and post it on your bathroom wall. Get a decent scale that can measure weight and body fat %. Make a list of sample meals (5 breakfasts, 5 lunches, and 5 dinners), and post it on your refrigerator. And so on…. At this point all of this goes into the written plan.

Then you execute — hard and fast. You can probably implement the whole plan in one day. Attend your first Weight Watchers meeting and get all the materials. Purge the unhealthy food from the kitchen. Buy the new groceries, the new cookbook, and the new scale. Post the weight chart and the sample meals list. Select recipes and cook a batch of food for the week. Whew!

By the end of the day, you’ve used your willpower not to diet directly but to establish the conditions that will make your diet easier to follow. When you wake up the next morning, you’ll find your environment dramatically changed in accordance with your plan. Your fridge will be stocked with plenty of pre-cooked healthy food for you to eat. There won’t be any junkie problem foods in your home. You’ll be a member of Weight Watchers and will have weekly meetings to attend. You’ll have a regular block of time set aside for grocery shopping and food prep. It will still require some discipline to follow your diet, but you’ve already changed things so much that it won’t be nearly as difficult as it would be without these changes.

Here are some previous blog entries that will give you even more ideas for modifying your environment:

Don’t use willpower to attack your biggest problem directly. Use willpower to attack the environmental and social obstacles that perpetuate the problem. Establish a beachhead first, and then fortify your position (i.e. turn it into a habit, such as by doing a 30-Day Challenge). Habit puts action on autopilot, such that very little willpower is required for ongoing progress, allowing you to practically coast towards your goal.

This post is part three of a six-part series on self-discipline: part 1 | part 2 | part 3 | part 4 | part 5 | part 6