Kickstart Your Willpower

Have you ever had something you wanted or needed to work on, but you just couldn’t seem to muster the discipline to dig into it, instead finding yourself distracted by lots of other, less important things?

Do I even have to ask?

Distract Me Please

We all feel this way, and we all feel this way often. For most people willpower is a frustrating word. Because for most of us our willpower is actually more of a reminder of how weak we are. We feel the burden of needing to be productive far more often than we feel the excitement of actually being productive. Authors, painters, project leaders, bosses, accountants, landscapers, lawyers, everyone. Even comedians.

Part of the problem is that willpower is far too broad a concept to be useful to us. We can’t do anything with it. It’s just a force we either feel or don’t feel. But perhaps there is some way to break it down into something more useful? It turns out there is.

A while ago a good friend of mine introduced me to a musician named David Wilcox. He is a singer-songwriter in the most classic sense: an independent storyteller who travels the country singing sweet, simple songs about life and longing and hope and heartbreak. His song “Down Inside Yourself” (which you can listen to here) offers an especially profound story. It’s about a man who felt lost in his own life. He was stressed, overwhelmed, and uncertain how to become unstuck from his cycle of frustration and powerlessness.

But he had heard there was a wise man in India who could heal the hole in his heart, and so he traveled an incredibly long way to see him. As he entered the wise man’s village, the wise man came out to meet him. The man said, “Help me shake this nightmare… I need to move my spirit, but I don’t know where to start. I need to fill this empty, but I don’t know where to start.” And then the wise man, who he expects will offer some deep truth or brilliant observation about the state of his heart and the nature of all things, instead says, “You need to bring your problem back to proper size. It’s not philosophical, but physiological in disguise. Get some sleep, eat some broccoli, run a mile, and take a shower.”


When he asked the wise man this huge question, he was told, “You’re overcomplicating it.” The solution he is given is not to redirect his entire life, but instead to simply do a few small things that would make him feel better.

Because the wise man knew that when he is feeling more energized and accomplished, he’ll be in a much better position (and he’ll already have the beginnings of the momentum needed) to face much bigger challenges.

Because realistically, what’s the alternative? Wait for everything to line up, for the answers to be revealed, for the moment we’ll feel whole once more? Wait for that burst of creativity and discipline and determination to arrive out of the blue? All I can think to ask is: what if it never arrives? And more importantly, doesn’t that seem like a strangely passive way to approach our desire to become active?

I had this teacher who used to say, “We don’t feel our way into good behavior – we behave our way into good feeling.” His argument, essentially, is that waiting for willpower to arrive is simply not workable. It takes too long. It’s not really a solution. The real solution is that we must summon willpower. But how?

That’s a big question. Too big. So let’s shrink it down. Way down.

If every object has a charge, either positive or negative, what if we applied that to ourselves? What if we looked at our many daily simple actions as either things full of positive energy or things full of negative energy? Taking the metaphor one step further, could we categorize all our small actions as either things that fill us with energy, or things that drain us of energy?

It’s pretty easy, actually. I love eating Doritos, but I have never once felt physically better after I ate them. I’ve never felt energized. I love watching movies, but I have observed time and time again how watching movies directly drains my motivation to work on things that require willpower. Easy things seem to only create an appetite for more easy things. What if, instead, we did challenging things, choosing to believe the simple reality that our present actions can pay off as soon as just a few minutes into the future, after we start to feel just a little closer to our goal?

That sense of accomplishment carries with it a powerful positive charge. And it can be felt simply by crossing something off the to-do list. (Have you ever done something and realized it’s not on your to-do list, so you write it in just so you can cross it off? Let’s fact it, to the untrained eye that is straight-up lunacy. But I know why I do it – I feel a little charge of accomplishment when I cross it off.)

Where I see this the most is in my desire to write. For me, writing is hard work, and it’s always a challenge to convince myself to do it. But it also gives me energy. I’m always glad I made the effort. Good conversations give me energy too. Such a simple thing, but it’s also the kind of thing you have to seek out. You have to pick up the phone, or make plans with a friend, or simply get out of your house. These are such small things. But also such rewarding things.

Perhaps we should stop pretending that these small actions we take all the time have no effect on us, on our mood, on our willpower. Can we start thinking of our daily decisions about how we use our time as either bringing us a positive charge or hitting us with a negative one?

In an attempt to answer my own question, here is a list of the things I typically do with my time:

While it’s a highly subjective exercise, and you’d be better served by making your own list, it does give us some clarity. Now we just have to do more of the things on the positive list than on the negative. Which is challenging. There is nothing easy about resisting the call of easy actions. But that is their only reward: they’re easy. They don’t fill us with a feeling of accomplishment. They certainly don’t summon our willpower. So we shouldn’t spend less time on them? I’m not saying we should swear off all creature comforts. That’s a little extreme for my tastes. I’m just wondering if maybe we should be more conscious of how they affect our ability to do the things we most want to do with our lives.

Life is filled with people who watch more than 4 hours of tv per day. Honestly, I could easily be one of those people. But that’s not really the person I want to be, nor is it what I want to do. I want something much bigger. At the end of the day, what I want most is to be the person who accomplishes difficult, but worthwhile things. A person with something to say. A person with an autobiography that might be worth reading.

So the next time those difficult, worthwhile things start to seem unappealing and overwhelming, I’m going to remember the words of the wise man in David Wilcox’s song. “Get some sleep, eat some broccoli, run a mile, and take a shower.”

I’m going to take a few small actions that fill me with energy. I will summon my willpower. Because I know making a little progress will remind me how glad I am I even have these big dreams in the first place. And it will remind me that the time I have now is all the opportunity I need to start making them a reality.