How to Build Willpower for the Weak

The second in a series of columns on failing your way to success, by the creator of "Dilbert"

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Researchers say we humans have a limited supply of willpower, like a muscle that can be exhausted. If we use up our willpower resisting one temptation we will have less in reserve to resist the next. That’s a big deal because you don’t want to use up all of your willpower resisting a cupcake right before your married coworker offers you a shoulder rub in the janitor’s closet. Robbed of your willpower, you’ll go through the day like a kitten that has stumbled into a barrel of catnip.

So how do you manage your limited supply of willpower? In my experience, the best way to avoid using up your willpower is to stay away from situations in which your only options are pleasure or deprivation. Given those choices, pleasure usually wins. Let me give you an example.

Let’s say you haven’t eaten in hours and you’re starving. I put your favorite unhealthy snack in front of you. Would you have the willpower to resist?

Probably not.

(MORE: The Real Secret to More Willpower: Be Power Hungry)

Now suppose I put that same unhealthy snack in front of you, but this time I also offer a wide range of delicious and healthy alternatives. Taste-wise, you might still prefer the unhealthy snack. But now it’s fairly easy to pass it up because the healthy food tastes good too, and it’s just as convenient.

My favorite guilty pleasure is potato chips. If I open the fridge and see nothing that looks tasty, 10 seconds later I’m on the Ruffles like a dog on a preacher’s leg. It isn’t a pretty sight. But if my fridge contains, as it often does, some cucumber slices marinating in white vinegar and water, mmm-mmm. I don’t need willpower to salt those bad boys and pop ’em in my mouth.

In my experience, anything that requires a lot of willpower isn’t sustainable. That’s why I use a number of tricks to avoid situations that pit pleasure against deprivation. The cucumber trick is just one of them.

I also like to train myself away from using willpower the way Pavlov trained his pooches. After a workout at the gym, I always treat myself to a delicious protein shake and 20 minutes of unstructured chilling out in the snack bar while reading interesting tidbits on my smartphone. The combination of the cool-down, the delicious shake and the free time with my thoughts and the Internet is deliriously pleasurable. Now when I think about going to the gym, I don’t imagine the boringness of the exercise in isolation. I think of it as a package deal that includes the wonderful 20 minutes that follow.

(MORE: Q&A: Willpower Expert Roy Baumeister on Staying in Control)

I also give myself permission to work out as little as I want on any given day and to call that a success. I used to have a target of exercising three to four days per week. On workout days I would push myself to the point where I knew I would be sore for the next day or two. No pain, no gain! The problem was that when I thought about exercise, I imagined the pain and discomfort. It took a lot of willpower to exercise three to four times per week while knowing it would hurt while it happened, and hurt the next day too.

In the past year I switched to the active-every-day schedule. I’m permissive about what “active” means. Some days it means cleaning the garage. Other days it means tennis, biking or going to the gym. My new system is that I never exercise so vigorously today that I won’t want to exercise again tomorrow. Thanks to my new plan, exercise now requires zero willpower because I enjoy it. I converted one of my least favorite activities into something I look forward to. The result is that during the year I used the least amount of willpower, I saw dramatic improvements in my fitness. I had gain without pain.

Willpower reminds me of the empty space in art. It’s not something you manage directly; it’s the result of putting everything else where it belongs. If you organize your life to avoid any pleasure-vs.-deprivation choices, it will look to others as if you have loads of willpower. The reality is that you simply put everything else where it worked best.

NEXT: Scott Adams on Why ‘Passion’ at Work Is Overrated


Lmaoo you're super hilarious! Love this article!!!


"shoulder rub in the janitor's closet"

lol... "shoulder rub"


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Having read quite a bit about willpower, I must say I really love this post! I complete agree that "anything that requires a lot of willpower isn’t sustainable" and therefore we should focus our efforts to avoiding the temptations altogether rather than to fighting them.

One great tool for this was coined by Harvard lecturer Shawn Anchor and its called the 20-Second Rule. Shawn wanted to read more and watch less TV, but when he arrived at home he slumped onto the sofa, thinking that he will start reading "soon". Problem was, "soon" never came, and he kept watching TV. He realized that the problem was the 20 second threshold that separated him from the books and decided to reverse the situation. He took the batteries out of the remote control and placed them in a drawer in the bedroom, while placing some carefully selected books within arm’s reach from the sofa. This small modification completely changed his home routines: Suddenly, when he was tired on the sofa, the easiest option was to read, and the harder option was to watch TV. The 20 Seconds Rule was born. It simply means that one should build a 20 seconds buffer against bad behavior, and decrease the threshold for the good behavior. Very simple, but highly effective!

P.S. More about this and other tools of willpower from my recent book:


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Great article. You had me at "like a dog on a preacher’s leg."