The secret to getting sh*t done and 6 ways to get started

Updated to Habits, Productivity on December 27, 2022.

I have an apology to make.

I think in past articles I’ve given you some lousy advice about productivity.

Really lousy.

But, I’m not the only one who should be apologizing—there’s a barge load of bad advice in blogs, books, youtube and on bathroom walls.

It usually goes something like this…

  1. Write down SMART goals.
  2. Do the most important task first.
  3. Don’t stop, get interrupted or be distracted until you complete that task.
  4. Do the next most important task on your list.

That’s great if the only technology you own is a filing cabinet and you work in a bubble.

Maybe this is more what your day looks like…

Your morning is a flurry of taking care of kids, checking email, packing lunches, slugging down a smoothie, updating Facebook and then rushing through traffic or down the hall to get to your desk.

You sit down for work – no time to update your plan –  overnight, emails that plugged up your InBox and are now screaming “look at me!”, “look at me!” Papers on your desk – still there from 2 days ago – demand attention, text messages are lighting up, your phone is blinking with voice mail and you’ve already added 5 more things to your list.

Despite your best yeoman’s effort, you’re swimming in a pool of priorities where everything seems important and there’s no way to shore.

Been there, done that.

But, wait! There’s good news…

You’re designed with a super-power ingredient that changes everything. It’s not a leather-bound journal, or one more course on time management. And it’s not reaching Inbox zero or going clutter-free.

Don’t get me wrong – those are great objectives – but there’s an underlying secret sauce all high performers have in their daily meal.

It’s called willpower.

What willpower is

Willpower is like a fuel

Willpower is like a fuel – when you have it you can better overcome resistance and get stuff done.

You need willpower to complete that tough project, be nice to the irritating co-worker down the hall, and pull your shoes on to go for a run.

Willpower is what it takes to say “No” when you need to and to stay late when you have to.

Willpower is why you call that prospect back one more time and demand more of the nervous new hire who’s hiding in their InBox.

The trick is to manage your willpower reserves.

How we Lose Willpower During the Day

Decisions – like choosing what clothes to wear drains your willpower bucket.

Every day you start with a full bucket of willpower (that’s why mornings are so precious for getting stuff done). Decisions – like choosing what clothes to wear – indecision, stress, distraction, worry and the effort of the day drains your willpower bucket.

Even something as simple as resisting a plate of cookies is enough dissolve willpower and lead to, for example, lower performance on exams.

Imagine what happens to your willpower reserves as you struggle with indecision over dealing with conflict, making one more sales call or taking a break to go for a walk.

Failing to plan and getting pushed around by uncertainly guarantees your willpower reserves are drained by day’s end.

So, tonight when you reach for that cookie or tub of Ben and Jerry’s, you’ll know why—there’s no willpower left in the tank.

The good news is, just like a muscle, you can build more willpower.

How to Build more Willpower

It turns out willpower (or lack of it) is not something you simply thank (or blame) your parents for. Of course, genetics, life’s bumps, parents and friends have a huge influence.

But, you can also build more willpower. Starting now.

During the day, it helps to take frequent breaks, enjoy small healthy snacks and to try to avoid the stress that comes from constantly worrying. Easier said than done, but start by removing distractions that lead to increased anxiety.

After that, the best building block of willpower is small wins.

Invent small wins

It doesn’t seem to matter what the small win is – it all builds willpower.

A small win is any desired task you complete successfully – like making your bed in the morning or arriving early to catch the bus. It’s like a mental check mark that results in a release of dopamine and exercise for your willpower muscle.

And here’s the cool thing – it doesn’t seem to matter what the small win is. In one experiment, just writing down what you eat resulted in eating better, losing weight, exercising more often and getting more sleep even though none of those results were asked for by the researchers.

In another experiment, using your non-dominant hand (for everyday tasks like shaking hands, opening doors and brushing your teeth) resulted in smoking less, drinking less alcohol and having fewer arguments. Again, these positive changes happened not because the researchers asked for them—they happened because the willpower muscle was getting exercised and growing stronger.


It seems the willpower muscle is non-denominational, indiscriminate and cares less what the small win is – all small wins build willpower.

I hope I’ve got your attention and you’re excited about becoming a willpower power-lifter. Ready for more?

Here’s 6 ways I exercise my willpower muscle (no gym membership required).

1. Get more sleep – and live longer

Duh. There’s loads of complicated scientific evidence that getting more sleep is better for your health. Even Type-A, top executives, like Adrianne Huffington and Jeff Bezos are card-carrying enthusiasts.

And from the science world, acclaimed sleep researchers, like Daniel Kripke, claim that “people who sleep between 6.5 hr. and 7.5 hr. a night, live the longest, are happier and most productive”.

Start by changing your evening routine to wind down before getting into bed. Stop eating, get off the screens, read a book, write in your journal, stand on your head – whatever you need to signal to your monkey-mind it’s shut-eye time.

My favourite routine is to read in the hot tub until 10:00, drink a glass of water and then hit the sack for 7 hours.

2. Stick to your plan – train yourself to focus

Single-tasking has become the new holy grail of productivity.

Simpler said than done, but single-tasking has become the new holy grail of productivity. More important in busy offices, but even in your home office, you need to train yourself to focus on one task until complete. And here’s the trick.

Break down every task into 20 minute bites and enjoy small wins. Like this:

When I’m creating a proposal for a client, I know I need at least two 20 minute chunks to do a good job, catch mistakes and write a nice cover email. The problem is my day is already full. So I take the first 20 minutes to crank out a pretty rough draft: open a new document, cut and paste from some past proposals. Done for now – I leave it.

Later in the day, I take another 20 minutes to check it over, catch mistakes (am I “the best speaker” or “the best speaker ever”?) and write a cover email.

Now I’ve got the job done, worked around my schedule and had two wins to celebrate.

3. Meditate – or walk in the woods

Nothing could be simpler and make such a difference to how we feel and how we perform.

If someone finds a way to bottle up meditation or a walk in the woods – they’ll make a fortune. Nothing could be simpler and make such a difference to how we feel and how we perform.

In one study, researchers used brain scans to compare the effects of walking along a city street with walking on grassland with trees and shrubs and distant views of San Francisco. As you might expect, the nature walkers enjoyed reduced “brooding” (a precursor of depression) and overall a more positive mood.

As little as 10 minutes of quiet meditation is medicine to an over-anxious mind and fatigued body. If meditation has been a frustrating experience for you, try the Head Space app for an entertaining introduction to guided meditation.

4. Better exercise and nutrition – the fastest road to willpower

Most people take better care of their car than their body.

It’s funny (and sad) that most people take better care of their car than their body. Carefully selecting fuel additives, lovingly vacuuming and paying for trips to the car wash.  And then they eat what’s convenient or sweet, with no thoughts to nutrition or energy.

The solution doesn’t have to be complicated, but there is a possible triple win for the brave. Improve your diet and build in consistent exercise and you’ll feel better, look better and build your willpower muscle.

Start by reading this post on how to be younger next year. If you want to know what’s killing you, watch Kip Anderson’s brilliant documentary What the Health all about the draconian influence the big processed food manufacturers, dairy and meat industry and fast food companies have on what we eat.

5. It’s okay to postpone things – and be less tormented


Some stuff can wait.

When I put a task on my Flight Plan for the week or plan for later that month it often adopts a false sense of productivity. The truth is, a lot can wait.

Sure, at the time, it seemed important to make a change to my web site or investigate a time-saving routine for our team. Meanwhile, more critical client work has come up that needs to take priority.

I’ve learned to welcome postponing and to remind myself what’s most important today is a moving target.

Hanging onto everything on my list creates stress I don’t need and distractions I don’t want. Instead I postpone it to later in the month of my “Someday” list.

6. Give yourself a back-slap

One last thing – remember to celebrate wins. Even small ones.

Savouring your successes, according to social psychologist Fred Bryant, can build our resilience and pump up positive emotions, making it easier to face daily stressors.

A quick celebration for me is crossing a task off my list, a fist pump (I really do it) or hiking down the street for a green tea latte.

One final thought

We all want to get stuff done. Finish our education, build our business, run a 10km race or save up to buy a house.

Maybe building willpower is not the most obvious route to success, but it always works. Like getting your car tuned up or pumping the tires on your bike – with more willpower, you get where you want to go faster and with less effort.