3 steps to building willpower and becoming a force of nature

Updated to Business, Habits, Productivity on January 2, 2023.

I was in a car the other day with a radiologist and a neurosurgeon talking about hypertension. 

This conversation is actually not as unusual as it might sound. I volunteer for a local society that does trail clearing in a popular hiking and mountain bike park and many of the volunteers happen to be recently retired doctors. 

Back in the car, one of the doctors happened to mention that recently his medical partner, who is in his early 60’s, had a mild stroke. As we wound our way further up the dirt road to our work site my education continued. 

I learned that strokes are the second biggest cause of mortality worldwide and the third most common cause of disability. The scary statistics get worse. As you age your chance of a stroke doubles every 10 years after 55

There’s a checklist of health conditions that make you more susceptible to a stroke, like obesity, high cholesterol, and diabetes. But the biggest culprit – six times out of ten – is hypertension or high blood pressure. In my books, that’s worth paying attention to.

What’s interesting is that stress, in itself, is not the direct cause of high blood pressure. It’s what we do when under stress that leads to nasty results. We eat too much, drink too much, and move too little. Basically, we deal with stress by making unhealthy choices.

For me, stress starts with worry.

Ngoc Son Temple, Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

I’ve had a lot of worries

There is a world of problems you can worry about – take your pick. You can worry that Ukraine will be pummeled into a tiny province of rubble, or that we’ve passed the tipping point with global warming, or the tiny spot on your chin is cancer. 

Or not.

“I’ve had a lot of worries,” quipped Mark Twain “most of which never happened.” Our mind loves a good worry. Like a dog chewing a bone, we want to turn our worry around, looking from all angles, poking and prodding until it swells up into something bigger than it really is.

I used to worry incessantly before every keynote speech. I’d worry I’d miss my flight or wasn’t prepared enough, or I would be greeted by the “audience from hell.” Trust me, when you have 60 minutes to educate, entertain, inspire, motivate, and get laughs from an audience you’ve never met before, any sane person would invent a long list of worries.

It was at one of those events when a fellow speaker opened an exit door for my worries. He suggested that audiences don’t want you to fail – in fact, they want you to succeed. “They want to see you having fun—enjoying yourself. That way,” he explained, “they can enjoy the ride with you.”

When I accepted the long list of what I could never control – my flights, the audience, the speaker before me going overtime – I was free to focus on what I could control.

Enjoying the moment. 

What your life will have been

In her book, Comfortable with Uncertainty, Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön tells the story of delighting in the preciousness of every single moment.

A woman is running from lions. She runs and she runs, and the lions are getting closer. She comes to the edge of a cliff. She sees a vine there, so she climbs down and holds onto it. Then she looks down and sees that there are lions below her as well. At the same time, she notices a little mouse gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries emerging from a nearby clump of grass. She looks up, she looks down, and she looks a the mouse. Then she picks a strawberry, pops it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly.

Learning what to focus on, and what to ignore, seems to be the ultimate secret to living a healthy, stress-free life. “Whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment,” writes Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks (a must-read for anyone over 50), “is simply what your life will have been.”

So, what are you focussing on?

What to focus on

You can learn a lot when you’re the dumbest one in a car full of doctors. I learned that strokes are a silent pandemic. And that hypertension is the leading cause of that pandemic. And I learned the leading cause of hypertension is stress. 

I was also reminded that stress is a choice.

We all have lions and tigers in our life. Maybe even a mouse or two gnawing away at something we value. Meanwhile, we have the moment.

Choosing what to focus on (and what not to) might just be the healthiest choice you can make.

Got this far? You might also like these posts:

Photo of eggs by Nik on Unsplash
Photo of Ngoc Son Temple by author
Photo of tigers by author

In a dusty laboratory, tucked away in the bowels of Florida State University, sat a plate full of freshly baked cookies. They were chocolate chip.

Beside them, on a separate plate, were a half-dozen radishes.

This odd (and slightly cruel) experiment was being conducted by Roy Baumeister, professor of psychology, who would later be recognized as a world leader in the science of willpower.

But, for now – back to the cookies and radishes.

Two groups were brought into the laboratory with the purpose of completing a short list of extremely difficult math problems. The kind of problems that immediately induce head-scratching and might even be unsolvable.

Before launching into the exercise, one group was invited to enjoy some cookies. And they did. The other group was informed the cookies were off-bounds. Instead, they were invited to enjoy some lovely radishes. Yum.

This forced snacking continued for some 15 minutes – one group happily munching cookies, the other having to resist the cookies.

Willpower is a muscle

What Baumeister wanted to prove was that something as simple as resisting the temptation to reach across a table and grab a cookie wears down your willpower.

Just like a muscle – you start the day with 100% reserves. But as you go through the day your willpower naturally wanes through fatigue, but also because of decisions you have to make. More decisions, less willpower.

In fact, that’s exactly what happened. The cookie-fearing, radish-eating group quit on the math problems far sooner than their cookie-munching compatriots.

Now, think about your typical day: how many decisions are you making even before sitting down to do the “real work” of the day?

Similar experiments about eating, exercise, shopping, and getting dressed have proven the same thing – willpower is a finite resource and excessive decision-making wears it down.

I also wrote about willpower in this post: How drinking tea can make you rich (and build willpower).

Why Willpower matters

If you breathe, willpower matters—“it’s the ability to do what you really want to do when part of you really doesn’t want to do it” (Kelly McGonigal, The Power of Willpower).  Baumeister goes one further and says “Willpower is the secret to all success and well-being”

Maybe these examples of willpower in action sound familiar:

— I often don’t feel like writing this blog (shocking!), but I do.

— When it’s cold and blowing I’d rather skip my run, but I go.

— If I have to sort out an issue with a client I hesitate before calling, but I still call them.

— And when I’m frustrated or angry with someone my instinct is to walk away. But I don’t (usually).

The good news is, you can conserve willpower and build more of it – if you know how.

Conserve willpower

Little decisions like brown shoes or black (why do you think Steve Jobs wore the same clothes every day?), exercise or don’t, or Soy or 2% in your Americano burns willpower. Started with 100% – you’re now down to 88% and you haven’t read your first email yet.

Why do you think Steve Jobs wore the same clothes every day?

That’s why I’m a huge advocate of systems, like my morning routine. I want the best results with the least effort and to always avoid wasted effort debating what to do next.

Read about my morning routine in the post “Why I joined the Morning Club”.

Create small wins

If willpower is like a muscle then you strengthen it with small wins. Make your bed in the morning – that’s a small win. Keep your promise of leaving 15 minutes early for work – another small win. Make those 3 phones calls to clients before 10:30 – another small win and you’re on a roll.

Each small win builds your confidence and your reserves of willpower.

Have more Willpower

In this blog I’ve written about habits, systems, public speaking, procrastination, even making money. And if I was to choose one topic that underpins all of my achievement-focused posts, it’s this one.

Willpower is the one (somewhat) controllable resource you can protect – even build, through the day. Your job is to take this seriously.

Every morning your willpower is restored – whatever happened yesterday is done, the tank is topped up – now it’s up to you how to use it.

Making lists won’t ever be enough to make you rich, thin, smart, or influential. You need willpower.

Here’s how to get started.

  1. Start with small changes in your routines.
  • Resolve to remove wasteful decision-making from your life – like when to go to bed, what to eat for breakfast, or what to wear to work.
  • Create a morning routine and stick to it (bonus points for exercise).
  • Make your bed and create other small wins every day (especially in the morning).
  • Avoid places designed to suck your willpower, like malls, big box stores, and busy restaurants. Retail experts intentionally design in distractions (why do you think big box stores are so noisy?) into your shopping experience to weaken willpower and make you buy the 24 pack of fudge bars.
  • Keep promises, however small, like staying off email for an hour while you work on that overdue project, or leaving work at 4:30.
  • Put just a little more effort into removing clutter from your life (you know what I’m talking about). Unfinished work (like putting things away) constantly pulls at your To-Do synapses and burns willpower – eventually you’re empty.
  1. Notice how little changes affect how you feel and respond to daily demands.
  2. Become a student of willpower – dig deeper and learn how to protect, build and employ willpower in your life.

If you’re ready to dig deeper, these are 4 of the best books I’ve enjoyed on willpower:

The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D

Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, Roy Baumeister, Ph.D

The Now Habit: A Strategic Program for Overcoming Procrastination and Enjoying Guilt-Free Play Neil Fiore

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We do in Life and Business Charles Duhigg

You are a force of nature

You are a force of nature. I know this to be true.

The world conspires to wear you down and strip you of your cape. It’s your job to put it firmly on every morning and resolve to keep it there.

Make it happen!