Saturday, February 21, 2009

Top 10 Ways to Gain Willpower

Updated: Mar. 6, 2014

So many people can't motivate themselves to do what they know they should. Here are my top ten ways to gain willpower. Might one or more help you?

10. Embrace work. Work can feel as or more rewarding than play. Even though I enjoy, for example, watching movies, I feel better about working with a client and yes, writing this blog post. Because my work isn't too hard or too easy, it is pleasurable, and I feel I'm making a contribution--unlike when I'm watching a movie.

For my dad, work was a wonderful healer. After surviving the Holocaust, he was dumped from a cargo ship into the Bronx. He took the first job he could find--sewing shirts in a Harlem factory. It distracted him from his past and gave him hope for a better future. He finally saved up enough to open a tiny retail store in a bad neighborhood. While I can't say he loved his work, it avoided his living in the past, and made him feel purposeful, providing a decent life for his wife, my sister, and me.

It may be easier to embrace work if you always ask yourself, "What's the fun way to do this?" Even resume writing, cold calling, and interviewing can be reframed to be more fun. View resume writing as a way to figure out all the good things about yourself. Think of cold-calling as a treasure hunt, a backdoor into a crowded employment front door. Instead of an interrogation, think of a job interview as a first date, in which you're both trying to figure out if you should become more involved.

9. If possible, set an exciting goal. Goethe said, "Small dreams motivate no one." Worried about the risk of a trying for a big goal? You can usually control the risk. For example, use the time-honored approach of having a stable mundane job to fund your ability to pursue your dream. 

For example, Wallace Stegner waited tables at night and wrote during the day. He ended up winning a Pulitzer for his writing and founded Stanford's creative writing program, where his students included Sandra Day O' Connor, Ken Kesey, and Larry McMurtry. Remember too that even if you don't achieve your goal--for example, you never get published--your life is richer for having tried-- and you didn't, in the process, risk destitution.

8. Tell your goal to your loved ones--To avoid the embarrassment of admitting to your loved ones that you failed, you'll be more motivated to complete the task.

7. Don't think, act. The famous psychologist, William James, wrote, "The more we struggle and debate, the more we reconsider and delay, the less likely we are to act." Don't wait until you feel better to start the task, for example, looking for a job. Start and you're more likely to feel better.

6. The 6-step procrastination cure I teach my clients:
1. Decide if the task is worth doing: Picture the benefit. Picture the downside. If it is worth doing, do you love yourself enough to delay the short-term pleasure of avoiding the task for the long-term rewards from accomplishing it? Is it worth getting comfortable being uncomfortable?

2. Be aware of the moment you decide whether to start the task. Being conscious of that moment makes you more likely to choose to do the task.

3. Break the task down to baby steps. Don't know how? Get help.

4. Overwhelmed by the task? Try asking yourself, "What's my next one-second task?" Do that a few times and you may have jump-started yourself.

5. Be aware of your crisis points: when you're likely to procrastinate, for example, cooking when it would be wisest to work on your resume.

6. The one-minute struggle: After a minute of struggle, you're unlikely to make more progress. You are likely to get frustrated and quit the task. So after a minute, get help or see if you can do the task without doing that hard part.
5. Make it a ritual. If you're a job seeker, every day, be at your desk at 9 and take a five-minute break only after you've worked for at least a half-hour.

4. Keep your goal top-of-mind. It's easy to forget that you need to work on that project. will send you a reminder email twice a day. I'm trying to lose 15 pounds so I get emails saying, "Reasons to lose weight: live longer, fit in clothes better, look better. And remember, 'a moment of the lips; a lifetime on the hips.'" Update: Candidly, while this sounded good to me. It hasn't worked for me.

3. Go all the way: Instead of tackling your task in drips and drabs, totally immerse yourself in it. When it was time to start writing my first book, I moved out of my house for a week. I rented a cabin in Bolinas, just took my laptop (and my portable music synthesizer for recreation) and wrote for eight hours a day for a week. I got so into writing the book that it was easy for me to continue writing when I got home.

Another example of my going all the way: The only time I lost weight was when I was on a strict diet in which every day, I ate the same foods adding up to 1200 calories a day. That took the choice out of the matter.

2. Try affirmations. Some experts believe that repeating positive affirmations (for example, "I am going to do this!)-and visualizing your succeeding change your brain's neuronal structure, leading to more positive behavior. Viktor Frankl claims that his positive thinking helped him survive the Holocaust. Sports psychologists use visualization with pro athletes.

1. Have a cheerleader or slave-driver cheering, jeering, and/or guilt-tripping you into action.

BONUS: Don't let setbacks stop you prematurely. When you screw up, remember that winners err often. But winners don't get depressed about it--They ask themselves whether there's anything to learn from the setback, and they move on. Of course, if you fail and fail and fail again at something, perhaps the world is telling you you need a different goal. As Kenny Rogers says, "You gotta know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em.

Okay, are any of those strategies likely to help you get unstuck?


Anonymous said...

Regarding #10, about finding the fun: I think it can work very well. I've used it several times for mundane tasks.

And I heard you mention this on your radio show. It's not from "Pollyanna." It's from "Mary Poppins." In that movie, there's a song called "A Spoonful Of Sugar" that begins:

"In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find the fun, and snap! The job's a game!"

I remembered that years later, and while I can't make every job like a game, part of the fun in a job for me is trying to find that element of fun.

One thing you haven't mentioned is the power of, for lack of a better term, negative motivation. This doesn't always work for me either, but some of the biggest changes I've made in my life, including getting my most recent job, happened because I absolutely detested the alternative, and would do anything to escape it.

But of the 10 you've listed here, I think that the most likely to help me get unstuck is the procrastination cure, especially the baby steps and the 1-second task. Getting started has always been the toughest for me when faced with a daunting task.

Cornhusker said...


I always enjoy reading about your father. It's a very inspirational story. I know in the past, you have suggested self-employment...especially selling a service. I was listening to Suze Orman last night, and she was once again discouraging her audience against self-employment. By the way, she was doing this even before the current financial crisis. Your advice seems to be one of self-empowerment rather than servitude. At one point, Suze told a caller that their only job was to please the boss. How depressing!

Anonymous said...

Going to use every one. Thanks.

LuckyBlackDragon said...

I can find all the fun on simple even boring tasks when I'm high with some pot. The problem is that people don't share the enthusiasm I get, and also, I do things very slowly. For instance, reading an article on The Economist that I need to understand. But getting back that sense of emotion and acomplishment really does the trick.

Lily said...

The hardest thing for me is making my mind up about a goal. I have a goal, but then I change my mind and decide to move to something else. That's the hardest problem I have to face, but I'm trying.

Marty Nemko said...

Would you be more motivated by a big goal or an easy-to-achieve one?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post. As someone diagnosed with and several years into the treatment of PTSD, regenerating my willpower and ability to enjoy and maintain work of any sort (paid or otherwise) has proven to be quite a challenge in the long narrative of my recovery. Some of the ideas you mention here may work well with some of the CBT techniques my doctors and I have employed as one portion of my treatment. I will be discussing this post with them.

Anonymous said...

starting is a big lot problem and then the later part is sticking to a resolution, i am such a slug to even move. i am even drained of will, so much as to even pick a knife to kill myself. i pity myself, but i still cant move.

Marty Nemko said...

Dear Anonymous,

Might it help to help someone who's in worse shape than you are? Perhaps you might help him and he could help you, or at least listen to each other to help each other develop baby steps to take?

Thank you for writing.

Anonymous said...

All of this is great advice. Im a very prideful person and refuse to capture anyones opinion. But i like your direction. Easy but affective