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Willpower doesn’t help you achieve anything. Here’s how to actually change your life

If you want to make permanent changes in your life, don’t rely on your willpower.

Whether you want to set up a new business, get fitter, be happier, write a book or improve your relationships – willpower won’t help with any of these things.

Personal success and achievement are best approached as though you’re overcoming addiction. Because, quite literally, when you’re trying to change something, that’s what you’re doing. As humans, we all have addictions.

I openly admit to being addicted to social media, my current diet, my single lifestyle and my comfort zone. I’m addicted to my current belief system. I’m addicted to the behaviors that contradict my goals.

We’re all addicted. Our addictions are stopping us from achieving what we want.

It you want to make change in your life, willpower is not going to help you. Willpower is actually what’s holding you back.

Willpower is for people who are uncertain about what they want to do with their lives

If you need to exert willpower to achieve what you want, there’s an internal conflict happening inside you.

You want to eat the candy bar. Yet you want to get healthier.

Your tongue is salivating at the thought of eating that chocolate. What do you do?

Are you going to be strong and resist? Or will you crumble and devour the candy bar?

According to research, willpower is like a muscle. It’s a finite resource that depletes with use. By the end of a strenuous day when you’ve been forced to exert willpower – when you’ve had to stop yourself from eating that candy bar a hundred times over – your willpower is exhausted. You are exhausted.

The fact that your willpower is required, making you continually exhausted, stems from causes:

  1. You don’t know what you want, creating internal conflictions.
  2. You haven’t actually committed to creating conditions in your life that help you achieve your goals.

What do you really want?

According to Ralph Waldo Emerson:

“Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen.”

If you continually need to exert willpower, you haven’t actually made a decision about what you want. Once you make a decision, the internal conflict is over.

Michael Jordan once said:

“Once I made a decision, I never thought about it again.”

After you have decided what you want, there is no more need to think about it. The decision has been made.

Until you make that decision, willpower will always be needed. Back to square one.

Are you committed?

What does commitment mean? How do you know if you’re committed?

When I quit my PhD to start Ideapod, it required commitment. But it didn’t require any effort. The decision was made long before.

Well before I ventured out full time to create a place for people to connect through ideas, I knew this was what I wanted to do. I researched what it meant to incorporate a company, raise capital and hire developers. I spoke to potential users of Ideapod to get feedback and incorporate this into the design process. I found advisers who could help me on the journey.

In my mind, even before I quit the PhD, I was already an entrepreneur. The day I actually quit was no different to the day before.

It was the same when I decided to run a marathon. Six months before, I made the decision. It didn’t require willpower on the day of the marathon. I had put in place a training regime that resulted in being able to run the full 26 miles on the actual day.

When you’re committed, you’ll build up training regimes and work practices that are aligned with your goals.

Creating the conditions to make success inevitable

Success is the result of a process.

One of the most important components of becoming successful comes from transforming your environment.

This is why having willpower to achieve success is misplaced. When you’re relying on willpower, you’re trying to overcome your current environment. You’re fighting against yourself.

Eventually you’ll succumb to the fight. You’ll become your own worst enemy.

Our environment is always more powerful than our internal resolve. We always end up being products of our environment.

What matters most is consciously designing an environment that facilitates you achieving your goals. If you’re truly committed to something, this will be your focus.

If you’re trying to stop the use of recreational drugs, you’ll stop being around people that do drugs and stop going to parties where everyone’s doing it. You’ll never need to say no to drugs because you won’t allow yourself to be exposed to them in the first place.

If you want to be a successful entrepreneur, you’ll surround yourself with other entrepreneurs and orient your lifestyle around the goals you want to achieve.

We naturally adapt to our environments. Conscious evolution involves purposefully surrounding ourselves with people that are reflections of who we want to become and creating environments that are conducive to what we want to achieve.

Everything in life is natural and organic, including our ability to consciously design our environment. If you want to create change in your life, consciously change your environment and stop relying on your willpower.

Conclusion

Osho once said, “positive thinking is terrible advice.

When you force yourself to think positively, you’re fighting against yourself. Instead, it’s much better to direct your ability to make decisions towards consciously designing your life.

Instead of focusing on yourself, relying on willpower, focus on your environment.

Your environment, and the people who are in it, is the clearest indicator of the life you’ll live.

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Notable replies

  1. ACD says:

    I think this is mostly very poor advice. When Michael Jordan or Ralph Waldo Emerson make up their minds to do something (play basketball, write philosophy), it is essential they are Michael Jordan and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Justin Brown can make up his mind to play basketball or write philosophy also. Both Michael Jordan and Ralph Waldo Emerson had loads of willpower and, more importantly than that, self-discipline. Now, when it comes to being an entrepreneur, it takes lots of self-discipline, but this must be a labor of love for the true entrepreneur. However, someone who loves being an “entrpreneur” and does not love the enormous self-discipline required will not be an entrepreneur for long and will leave a trail of broken promises in her/his wake. Was Bernie Madoff an entrepreneur? Is Elon Musk? Osho? Self-discipline, and the love of it, is essential. This is at the center of Dale Carnegie’s message to salesmen of the US golden era. Carnegie was a very successful entrepreneur in material as well as social terms. There are temptations everywhere in life. Shall I eat that 75% sugar candy bar masquerading as chocolate, shall I succumb to the entreatment of others to “try” some crystal meth knowing that I will become as drug-crazed as my entreators, shall I persuade investors that they can receive a low-risk return of 20% p.a. knowing that it is the next investor who will provide that return and knowing that this scheme must eventually end in disaster, shall I preach against positive thinking to my cult followers knowing that this is a self-serving tactic to enlist others? These are all moral hazards waiting for all of us. It requires self-discipline, born of a drive to live a life full of purpose, to avoid them. Positive thinking is a gift if it flows from love, ethusiasm, and a sincere Zen-like drive to create rather than to destroy, including even creative destruction. Surrounding oneself with positive thinkers may help but, unless one joins them, they will not want to be surrounded by one who criticizes them for thinking positively.

  2. The article would be strengthened by providing a definition of willpower at the beginning.

    Here’s a definition I found:

    Willpower is the ability to control oneself and the decisions one makes. It’s the ability to delay gratification and choose long-term rewards over short-term rewards.

    Using this definition of willpower, it’s clear that it requires a lot of self-discipline. I agree that self-discipline is important, as is giving up short-term rewards for the pursuit of long-term fulfilment.

    The point I’m trying to make in this article is that it’s ineffective to design one’s life where it requires a continual supply of self-discipline. It’s more effective to be clear about the processes that are required to achieve long-term rewards and design an environment to help carry out the processes without needing to constantly think about them, or constantly make decisions about them.

    Of course, nothing is clear cut. Strategic planning will always be important, as will be reflection. Self-discipline is also a quality that will help people to achieve their long-term goals.

    But I think that shifting the emphasis from willpower to habits and processes will be helpful to many people.

  3. A person is doing something they enjoy and is using the time spent to achieve a goal that may not be clearly defined.

    Vincent Willem van Gogh often painted to sell for money for food, for living expenses. His goal was not, “Today, Van Gogh’s works are among the world’s most expensive paintings to have ever sold at auction.”

    It is evident, based on his lifes work of, “among the most famous and influential figures in the history of Western art. In just over a decade he created about 2,100 artworks, including around 860 oil paintings, most of them in the last two years of his life.” that he had a lot of self-discipline.

    So you want to make Ideapod a success, but you have no model to follow, as Chevrolet may have copied Ford in the 1930s. You have a world of the internet to use as a model, but you spend time writing articles probably because it is more enjoyable.

    You lack self-discipline, if you will be as thoughtful about every aspect of Ideapod and seek ways to improve any element, page, word, image, button, anything, you will find that you have accumulated a lot of progress, a lot of knowledge and likely a lot more users.

    It is not a significant change you need; it is a refined change. Your PC today is still a keyboard and mouse and screen, same as the first PCs. But it is much more sophisticated, much more useful. Perhaps that is something you need to consider, how to make Ideapod more useful.

    I have learned a lot in my life, and here at 75, I am still learning. What will Ideapod be like when you are 75? Can you imagine? Think about that. Write a short description. Now, how different is that description from what Ideapod is right now? Not much? That may be a problem; you would not be happy using the 1985 PC, why would the world of 2054 be happy with the 2019 version of Ideapod?

  4. ACD says:

    @justinbrown

    The title is “Willpower doesn’t help you achieve anything” which may be intended as clickbait, I suppose. What you write as a comment is more reasonable but, in my opinion, also fails to recognize that, for the truly motivated, self-discipline is second nature – a clearcut, undesigned, very long term and effective habit, if you will. No shift required. No way around it.

  5. Maybe Modafinil will

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Written by Justin Brown

I'm the CEO and co-founder of Ideapod, a platform for people to connect around ideas. I'm passionate about people thinking for themselves, especially in an age of information overload.

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