The Fierce Gentleman’s Guide to Building Willpower

Let me share a little secret with you: willpower is almost useless in behavior change.

The effects of willpower on your life is tiny.

Most people I talk to about changing their habits in lives say something like, “I know I just need to work harder at it….I just need to make it happen.” As if they just have a weak will, and if they just tried harder, then everything would fall into place.

It’s usually at this point that I stop them, and tell them the truth about willpower: most of us only have a tiny reserve sliver of willpower to use on any given day. It’s about the amount you’d need to refrain from putting an extra spoonful of sugar in your coffee. (In my non-scientific experience).

In other words — it’s not enough to get you to go to the gym, or to change one of your 300 food decisions you make on autopilot every day. It’s barely enough to change one of the 80,000 automatic thoughts you have per day from a negative thought to a positive thought.

WILLPOWER IS WEAK

Repeat after me: willpower is weak. Anyone who relies on willpower alone to do behavior change is going to fail.

I’m not saying it’s impossible. There are rare individuals who have huge reserves of willpower  — usually because they’ve been through something very challenging and rigorous in the past — but that’s not most of us. For most of us, willpower is weak, and it’s foolish to rely on it to change behavior.

Let’s take a very common example: a guy who wants to get a girlfriend. The best way to get a girlfriend is to go meet and talk to lots of girls, and get to know them, and then have your pick from a variety of women, so you can make a good decision about who is a great fit for you for the longer term.

But for most men, meeting and talking to lots of random girls is scary. In fact, for a lot of guys, it’s downright impossible. So I can say to a guy till I’m blue in the face, “Go talk to girls!” but because their willpower is so weak, and because the aversion to the potential emotional pain of embarrassment or rejection is SO GREAT, the chances that they’ll actually go do what I recommend are in the 1-5% range (generously.) 

The problem isn’t that the guy is spineless wimp. The problem is that willpower is weak, and relying on it ALONE for behavior change sucks.

In the example of meeting women, this is why the fastest and most effective technique to change is for me to personally walk with this man up to a woman, and open a conversation. Then he sees that it’s not a life-threatening emergency (even though it feels that way) and he gains a positive reference experience. His anxiety is lowered a tiny bit and he becomes a little less afraid to do it the next time.

But I can’t walk all the readers of this blog up to women personally, or walk them through whatever other behavior change they want to do personally. The majority of your behavior change is something you’ll have to do on your own.

Which is why I want to teach you how to build your own willpower.

HOW TO BUILD WILLPOWER

Building your willpower can be done. It is hard — just like lifting weights in the gym and eating in a disciplined way to pack on muscle — but it is doable.

To build willpower, you need to do two things:

  1. Remove the activities and influences in your life that drain your willpower
  2. Add new activities and influences that build your willpower

First, let’s look at what drains your willpower. Remove anything you can from this list:

WHAT DRAINS WILLPOWER

  • Anger*
  • Anxiety
  • Sleeping too little
  • Eating junk food
  • Loneliness
  • Depression
  • Bad air quality
  • Environmental toxins
  • Noise pollution
  • Chronic stress (such as from a high-pressure job or overwork)

  • Alcohol or other mood-altering drugs

  • Gambling

  • Shopping

  • Smoking

  • Internet surfing

  • Watching pornography

*Protip: according to the 2,500-year-old wisdom from the Buddhist tradition, anger also makes you ugly.

Are you starting to get the picture? Now you see why we’re so big on getting appropriate rest, eating a clean diet, and also avoiding smoking, drinking and sexual misconduct.

Okay, now we know what to get rid of in our lives — but we have to replace all that compulsive shopping and gambling with something, right? Let’s look at what to replace it with to build willpower.

WILLPOWER BUILDERS

  • Exercise*

  • Reading

  • Going for a walk

  • Listening to music

  • Getting a massage

  • Spending time with friends or family

  • Praying or attending religious services

  • Meditation

  • Yoga

  • Spending time in a rewarding hobby

*PROTIP:  When it comes to exercise, few things come close to providing the immediacy and power of its effect on willpower. Even 15 minutes on a treadmill reduce cravings. Long-term, exercise has been shown to be just as powerful an antidepressant as Prozac.

So next time you have the urge to flip on the Home Shopping Channel, go for a 15-minute walk instead. Or consider writing a 10-item list of how blessed you are — gratitude leads to happiness, which helps with in-the-moment willpower.

As weak as willpower is, it can be grown until it is very strong. All it takes is one tiny “wedge” activity — replacing a willpower drain with a willpower builder — and then you can re-invest the “willpower dividend” into changing the next willpower drain into a willpower builder, like compound interest.

As Benjamin Franklin famously aid — “An investment in yourself pays the best interest.”

THE LIFE OF A WILLPOWER BUILDER

Meet Chet. Chet started on the journey of becoming a willpower-builder over 5 years ago.

He followed the process outlined above, systematically replacing everything in his life that drained his willpower with things that gave him more willpower.

In other words, he invested in himself. He went to the mental gym to build mental toughness.

He started small, by starting to drink green tea every morning. A tiny change. But the green tea gave him just enough of a healthy caffeine lift every day to start getting up earlier and earlier every day, until he had time to do 10 minutes of quiet meditation in the morning.

The extra boost of willpower he got from 10 minutes of meditation allowed him to push it up to 20 minutes.…which boosted his willpower even more. (See what I mean about reinvestment?)

He used that dividend to get rid of all the junk food in his house and replace it (gradually!) with healthy snack food. Now Chet habitually grabs nuts, carrot sticks, yogurt, & beans or legumes instead of beer, pizza or chips. (I know — thanks a lot, Chet.)

That dietary change made a huge change in his overall energy and lead to a massive willpower windfall that allowed him to get into the gym regularly, further improving his health & willpower.

Now, five years later, Chet has become the kind of guy who:

  • Starts the day at 530am
  • Has time to get a 45-minute workout in six days a week
  • Eats a healthy breakfast every morning
  • Makes time for 20-30 minutes of spiritual practice (meditation, reflection, reading) before work
  • Arrives at the office 30 – 60 minutes before everyone else
  • Proceeds through his day unhurried and unstressed, while being highly productive
  • Takes a 20-minute walk at lunch or hits the gym during the lunch hour
  • Ends the day with a relaxing walk, a yoga class, or some focused reading for personal pleasure or professional development, instead of a beer or glass of wine and the telly
  • Is able to be relaxed, calm and Present with his family – no matter what is going on.
  • Is also able to do better at work than he ever has before, and as a result, gets raises and promotions consistently. All is well in his world.

Chet may sound like an obnoxious Boy Scout, but the truth is — he’s real, and I’ve met him many, many times. The story of how he get there is always similar.

You can be Chet — or an even better version of him. All you have to do is apply the information you’ve learned here — turn knowledge into action.

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4 Comments The Fierce Gentleman’s Guide to Building Willpower

  1. Jane

    I think these are great tips and I love the idea that you need to start with very small changes and gradually build up to a radical lifestyle overhaul. However, I don’t think pursuing an unhealthy lifestyle is simply due to a lack of will power. Surely one of the problems is that the idea of living wholesomely simply sounds boring. In a sense, it’s too perfect and it avoids the point that we all have an inclination towards excess. There is something a bit unreal about being too balanced. At least this is what I think.

    Reply
    1. Drew

      Jane – I know exactly what you mean. Sometimes, being balanced and living so wholesomely IS too boring for me, and I find myself drawn to excess. This is part of why the Buddhists call it “The Middle Path” — it sounds pretty easy, right? But it’s actually quite a hard path to walk. Thanks for the comment!

      Reply
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