The single most important thing needed for personal success is willpower and self-discipline.
The best way to strengthen willpower is to make it into a habit. Sometimes it looks like people with great self-control aren’t working hard—but that’s because they’ve made it automatic. Their willpower occurs without them having to think about it.
It was thought that willpower is a learnable skill, something that can be taught the same way kids learn to do math and say “thank you. But recent studies have found that willpower isn’t just a skill. It’s a muscle, like the muscles in your arms or legs, and it gets tired as it works harder, so there’s less power left over for other things. If you want to do something that requires willpower, you need to conserve it or develop it so that you have lots of it.
When you strengthen your willpower muscles in one part of your life—in the gym, or a money management program—that strength spills over into the rest of your life. When you learn to force yourself to go to the gym or start your homework or eat a salad instead of a hamburger, part of what’s happening is that you’re changing how you think. You get better at regulating your impulses. Your learn how to distract yourself from temptations. And once you’ve gotten into that willpower groove, your brain is practiced at helping you focus on a goal.
That’s why signing kids up for piano lessons or sports is so important. It has nothing to do with creating a good musician or a five-year-old soccer star. When you learn to force yourself to practice for an hour or run fifteen laps, you start building self-regulatory strength. A five-year-old who can follow the ball for ten minutes becomes a sixth grader who can start his homework on time.
The way by which we can make willpower into a habit is this:
- Decide on a certain thing you want to do.
- Identify the cues which have prevented you from doing that thing so far.
- Choose a certain behavior ahead of time, and then follow that routine when an inflection point arrives.
- Once you follow that routine and do the thing you wanted to do, congratulate yourself.
The other thing which can help this process is this: When people are asked to do something that takes self-control, if they think they are doing it for personal reasons—if they feel like it’s a choice or something they enjoy because it helps someone else—it’s much less taxing. If they feel like they have no autonomy, if they’re just following orders, their willpower muscles get tired much faster.Giving yourself a sense of agency—a feeling that you are in control, that you have genuine decision-making authority—can radically increase how much energy and focus you bring to your jobs.