The Secrets of Boosting Self Discipline. Keystone #2 - Willpower

A great way of understanding how to build self-discipline, is best explained using an analogy. Self-discipline is like a muscle. The more you train it, the stronger it becomes. The less you train it, the weaker it becomes.

The second of our four keystones of building self-discipline is Understanding Will Power.

Willpower is such a dirty word these days. How many commercials have you seen that attempt to offer their products as a substitute for willpower? They begin by telling you that willpower doesn’t work and then attempt to sell you something “fast and easy” like a diet pill or some wacky exercise equipment. Often they’ll even guarantee impossible results in a dramatically short period of time. They’ve nothing to lose really because people who lack willpower probably won’t take the time to return these useless products.

But here’s the thing … willpower does work, if you know how to use it properly. In order to take full advantage of it, we must learn what it can and cannot do. People who say willpower doesn’t work, are trying to use it in a way that’s beyond its capabilities.

What Is Willpower?

Willpower is your ability to set a particular course of action then set about doing it.

Firstly, it's important to acknowledge that whilst willpower can provide an intensely powerful boost, it's effects are only short term. Think of it as a turbo-thruster. It burns out quickly, but if directed intelligently, it can provide the burst you need to overcome inertia and create momentum.

Willpower is the spearhead of self-discipline. To use a World War II analogy, willpower would be the D-Day Normandy Invasion. It was a huge, surge of effort that turned the tide of the war and got things moving in a new direction, even though it then took another year to reach the end of the war. To have made that kind of effort every day of the war would have been impossible.


Willpower is a concentration of force. You gather up all your energy and make a massive thrust forward. You attack your problems strategically at their weakest points until they crack, allowing you enough room to manoeuvre deeper into their territory and finish them off.

The application of willpower includes the following steps:

           1. Choose your objective

           2. Create a plan of attack

           3. Execute the plan

With willpower you may take your time implementing steps 1 and 2, but when you get to step 3, you’ve got to hit it hard and fast.

Don’t try to tackle your problems and challenges in such a way that a high level of willpower is required every day. Willpower is unsustainable. If we attempt to use it for too long, we just burn out. It requires a level of energy that can be maintained only for a short periods of time; in most cases, the 'fuel' is spent within a matter of days.

Use Willpower to Create Self-Sustaining Momentum

So, if willpower can only be used in short, powerful bursts, then what’s the best way to apply it? How do we keep from slipping back into old patterns, once our temporary blast of willpower is over?

The best way to use willpower is to establish a 'beach-head', so that further progress can be made with far less effort than was required of the initial thrust. Using our D-Day analogy again, once the Allies had established a beach-head, the road ahead was much easier for them. It was still challenging for sure, especially with the close quarters fighting among hedge rows in France before the Rhino Tanks began ploughing through them, but it was a lot easier than trying to maintain the focus, energy, and coordination of a full scale beach invasion every single day for another year.

So the proper use of willpower is to establish that beach-head; to permanently change the territory itself such that it’s easier to continue moving on. Use willpower to reduce the on-going need for such a high level of sustained effort.

So, how does all this work in real life?

Suppose someones objective was to lose 24 pounds. They attempt to go on a diet. It takes willpower, and let's say do OK with it the first week or two. But within a few weeks they’ve fallen back into old habits and gained all the weight back. They perhaps try again with different diets, but the result is still the same. They just can’t sustain momentum for long enough to reach their goal weight.

That result is to be expected though because willpower is temporary. It’s for sprints, not marathons. Willpower requires conscious focus, and conscious focus is very draining; it cannot be maintained for long. Something will eventually distract you.

Here’s how to tackle that same goal with the proper application of willpower. You accept that you can only apply a short burst of willpower, maybe a few days at best. After that it’s gone. So you’d better use that willpower to alter the territory around you in such a way that maintaining momentum won’t be as hard as building it in the first place. You need to use your willpower to establish a beach-head on the shores of your goal.

So you sit down and make a plan (and write it down). This doesn’t require much energy, and you can spread the work out over many days. You identify all the various targets you’ll need to strike if you want to have a chance of success:-

As an example, firstly, all the junk food needs to leave your kitchen, including anything you have a tendency to over-eat, and you'll need to replace it with foods that will help you lose weight, such as fresh fruits, vegetables and salads.

Secondly, you know you’ll be tempted to get fast food if you come home hungry and don’t have anything ready to eat, so you may decide to pre-cook a week’s worth of food in advance each weekend. That way you always have something in the fridge. You set aside a block of several hours each weekend to buy groceries and cook all your food for the week. Plus you might choose to get a decent cookbook of healthy recipes.

You might decide to purchase and prepare a ‘food diary’ and have this ready for when you get started. Perhaps a weight chart posted on your bathroom wall. Get a decent set of scales that can measure weight and body fat percentage. Make a list of sample meals (5 breakfasts, 5 lunches, and 5 dinners), and post it on your fridge. And so on…. and so forth... At this point, all of this goes into the written plan.

Then you execute; hard and fast. You can probably implement the whole plan in one day. Get all the materials you’ll need. Purge the unhealthy food from the kitchen. Buy the new groceries, the new cookbook, and the new scales and the food diary. Post the weight chart and the sample meals list. Select recipes, cook a batch of food for the week and fill in your first days intake into your food diary. Whew!

By the end of the day, you’ve used your willpower not to diet directly, but to establish the conditions that will make your healthy eating pattern easier to follow. When you wake up the next morning, you’ll find your environment dramatically changed in accordance with your plan. Your fridge will be stocked with plenty of pre-cooked healthy food for you to eat. There won’t be any junkie problem foods in your home. You’ll have a visual reminder of your previous meals and snacks in your food diary. You’ll have a regular block of time set aside for grocery shopping and food prep. It will still require some discipline to follow your plan, but you’ve already changed things so much that it won’t be nearly as difficult as it would be without these changes.

So in summary, don’t use willpower to lose weight 'directly'. Use willpower to attack the environmental and social obstacles that have kept the problem alive. Establish a beach-head first and then strengthen your position (i.e. turn it into a habit, perhaps by setting yourself a 30-Day Challenge). Habit puts action on autopilot, so that very little willpower is required for on-going progress. This allows you to practically 'coast' towards your goal, in comparison to attempting to maintain will power.

In the next blog, we’ll be looking at the 3rd key-stone of boosting self-discipline; How to develop a ‘working hard’ mind-set; Working Hard and Hard Work.

Until then, keep it all going!



The Secrets of Boosting Self Discipline. Keystone #1 - Acceptance

A great way of understanding how to build self-discipline, is best explained using an analogy. Self-discipline is like a muscle. The more you train it, the stronger it becomes. The less you train it, the weaker it becomes.

There are four main keystones to building self-discipline;

Keystone #1- Acceptance

The first of the four keystones of self-discipline is ‘Acceptance’. Acceptance is really about perceiving your current situation accurately and consciously acknowledging what you perceive.

This may sound simple and obvious, but in practice it isn’t always that straight-forward. At times when we’ve experienced difficulties in the past with our diet or our motivation, there’s a strong chance that the root of the problem is a failure to accept reality as it is, or worse still, we perceive our current situation as worse than it actually is.

Why is acceptance a keystone of self-discipline?

The most basic mistake people make with respect to self-discipline is a failure to accurately perceive and accept their present situation. Remember the analogy between self-discipline and weight training from the last post? If you’re going to succeed at weight training, the first step is to figure out what weights you can already lift; i.e how strong you are right now. Until you figure out where you stand right now, you cannot put together a sensible training program.

All too often, when people find themselves in a routine of unhealthy eating, little or no exercise and feeling things are beyond their control, the trap they can fall into is to perceive their situation far worse than it actually is; convincing themselves that lack of time, energy, money, will power, motivation, support, etc, are all to blame for their current situation and that a genuine solution to their problems is now beyond their control.

Further to this, lots of these same people seem to have perfectly good self-discipline in many, if not all other areas in their life; In other words, they feel perfectly in control in their working lives, in their social lives, whilst driving a car, with their personal hygiene, etc, etc. but they have convinced themselves, usually through years of negative reinforcement, that they just can’t control their eating habits. The chances are this really isn’t actually the case at all, it’s just a belief that has formed and grown with continuous repetition of habit. If we really had NO self-discipline, we’d be crashing our cars all the time, turning up late for work, forgetting to shower and pushing people out of the way!

Until we accurately accept our current situation, the point at which we are going to start from, our minds remain clouded by either ignorance or denial.

With ignorance, we simply don’t know how disciplined we are; we may probably have never even thought about it (You don’t know that you don’t know). We may only have a fuzzy notion of what we can and can’t do. We’ll experience some easy successes and some dismal failures, but we’re more likely to blame the task or blame our self instead of simply acknowledging that the ‘weight’ of the challenge was too ‘heavy’for us and that we just need to become stronger. An example of might be someone with quite an active job who decides to try a severe calorie-restricted diet, such as the Cambridge Diet. It simply would be unrealistic to maintain their energy level to do their job effectively on 400 to 500 calories a day. So, either their work would suffer, they’ll continually find themselves ‘cheating’, or they’ll just give up altogether (and feel they have failed).

When we’re in a state of denial about our level of discipline, we’re locked into a false view of reality. We’re either overly pessimistic or optimistic about our capabilities. As such, we won’t get much improvement in our self-discipline because it’s unlikely we’ll be able to stimulate the proper ‘training zone’ by accident.

On the pessimistic side, we’re more likely to pick up easy weights (easy tasks) and avoid the heavier ones (more challenging tasks), which we could probably actually lift and which would make us stronger.

On the optimistic side, we’ll keep trying to lift weights that are too heavy for us (attempt unachievable challenges) and failing. This often resorts to us either beat ourselves up or to just try harder, neither of which will make us stronger

So, if we want to increase our self-discipline, we need to begin by seeing our current ‘starting position’ as it is, not worse than it is. We need to know where we stand right now, at the start. In other words, how strong is our discipline at this current moment? Which challenges do we feel are easy, and which do we feel are virtually impossible?

Here’s a list of everyday challenges, some easy, some perhaps not so easy, to get you thinking about where your level of self-discipline stands right now (in no particular order):

Do you shower/bathe every day?

Do you get up at the same time every morning? Including weekends?

Are you overweight?

Do you have any addictions (caffeine, nicotine, sugar, etc.) you’d like to break but haven’t?

Is your email inbox empty right now?

Is your office or workspace neat and well organised?

Is your home neat and well organised?

How much time do you waste in a typical day? On a weekend?

If you make a promise to someone, what’s the percentage chance you’ll keep it?

If you make a promise to yourself, what’s the percentage chance you’ll keep it?

Could you fast for one day?

How well organised is your computer’s hard drive?

How often do you exercise?

What’s the greatest physical challenge you’ve ever faced, and how long ago was it?

How many hours of focused work do you complete in a typical workday?

How many items on your to do list are older than 90 days?

Do you have clear, written goals? Do you have written plans to achieve them?

If you lost your job, how much time would you spend each day looking for a new one, and how long would you maintain that level of effort?

How much TV do you currently watch? Could you give up TV for 30 days?

How do you look right now? What does your appearance say about your level of discipline (clothes, grooming, etc)?

Do you primarily select foods to eat based on health considerations or on taste/satiety?

When was the last time you consciously adopted a positive new habit or discontinued an old, bad habit?

If you're in debt, do you consider this debt an investment or a mistake?

Do you know exactly what you’ll be doing tomorrow? Next weekend?

On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate your overall level of self-discipline?

What more could you accomplish if you could answer that last question with a 9 or 10?

Just as there are different muscle groups which you can train with different exercises, there are different areas of self-discipline: disciplined sleep, disciplined diet, disciplined work habits, disciplined communication, etc. It takes different 'exercises' to build discipline in each area.

A good starting point to begin the process of improving your overall self-discipline is to identify an area where you feel your discipline is weakest and assess where you stand right now (seeing things as they are, not worse than what they are). After acknowledging and accepting your starting point, think about what your own ‘training program’ would look like, to help you improve in that area. For example, identify and carry-out some easy exercises in that area that you know you can do, and gradually progress over time to greater challenges;
For example, if your current situation is that you eat two chocolate bars every day, could you commit to eating just one bar on two days of the week and have two on the other five days? Sounds feasible doesn't it?
Once you've mastered that, how about increasing your 'one bar' days to four, leaving the other three days where you still have two...?
From that point, and having been used to having just one bar on most days, your next step might be to have two bars on just one day of the week and one bar on the other six.
Committing to small, progressive and achievable steps like this, conditions your mind to success after success, progressively increasing the likelihood that your next step will also be successful.

Progressive training really works with self-discipline just as it does with building muscle.

As another example, if you can barely get out of bed at 10am, are you likely to succeed at waking up at 5am every morning? Probably not. But could you master getting up at 9:45am? Very likely. And once you’ve done that, could you progress to 9:30 or 9:15? I’m sure you could. The key is to make that next step a small challenge … but achievable, because you’ll already be within range of it.

Once you learn to accept and acknowledge where you currently are, then take progressive, small steps toward strengthening your self-discipline, your days of looking on at others’ achievements with envy will be numbered. You really can become impressed by what you can accomplish over the next 3 months, 6 months, 12 months or 2 years if you progressively build your self-discipline. It will not necessarily be easy, but it will be worth it. The first step is to openly accept where you are right now, whether you feel good about it or not. Surrender yourself to what you have to work with; maybe it isn’t fair, but it is what it is.

You won’t get any stronger until you accept realistically where you are right now. However, once you DO have acceptance, you now have something real and tangible to build on and move forward.

In the next blog, we'll take this a step further by exploring the smart way to use will power; the next keystone in improving our self-discipline.

Until then, keep it all going;