Willpower isn’t something that gets handed out to some and not to others. It is a skill you can develop through understanding and practice. — Gillian Riley

If you often get mad at yourself for lack of willpower and discipline, then let me tell you upfront: you are not lazy you’re just missing 3 essential elements that are required to ignite your willpower engine.

I personally kept thinking that laziness is woven into the fabric of my genes.

That is why I have been studying the subject of willpower obsessively in the past 5 years; and here’s the biggest revelation I had that finally unleashed my iron will.

Willpower is an extremely powerful engine of self-control inside the head of EVERYONE. But to get that engine started, you have to satisfie the following conditions:

  1. Crystal clear goals
  2. Crystal clear boundaries between the goals
  3. Pre-Commitment

If you carefully employ these 3 elements, crushing the temptations would be like cutting butter with a hot knife.

And of course, there’s also the hard-way of increasing willpower through which you literally change your brain structures (e.g. increasing gray matter in the pre-frontal cortex — the seat of willpower).

But we’re gonna take the smart way

I. The Critical Importance of Vivid Goals for Willpower — David Blaine

The more the body suffers the more the spirit flowers — David Blaine’s philosophy, borrowed from St. Simeon Stylites, a fifth-century ascetic who lived for decades atop a pillar in the Syrian desert.

When he is not performing his magic tricks, David Blaine works as an endurance artist:

Fig 1. Vertigo Act - David Blaine
  • He stood for 35 hours eighty feet above Bryant Park of New York atop a round pillar of just twenty-two inches wide with no sleep and no safety harness.
  • He spent sixty-three sleepless hours in Times Square encased in a giant block of ice.
  • One of his records published in the New England Journal of Medicine is a loss of fifty-four pounds in forty-four day of fasting with only water. Meanwhile, he was entombed in a sealed transparent box above Thames River where the temperature ranges from subfreezing to 114 Fahrenheit.

In an interview, while echoing St. Simeon’s notion — that suffering makes the spirit flower — he added:

Breaking the comfort zone seems to be the place where I always grow.

Now the question is how David Blaine pulls off such feats of endurance and willpower?

If we can figure out how he manages to fast for forty-four days, then we can use the same principle to help us last through until dinner perhaps.

1. The Secret of Blaine’s Crazy Willpower

Self-control without goals and other standards would be nothing more than aimless change, like trying to diet without any idea of which foods are fattening. — Roy F. Baumeister

This is how Blaine replies when asked about the secret to his willpower:

Now that I think about it, when I’m training for a stunt and I have a goal, I change everything. I have self-control in every aspect of my life. I read all the time. I eat perfectly. I have a whole different energy. Complete self-control. I eat food based on nutrition. I don’t overindulge. I don’t drink. I don’t waste time.

And here’s the revelation:

But as soon as I’m done with my goal, I’m not able to sit down and read for the same amount of time. I can’t focus the same way. I don’t use my time the same way. I waste a lot of time. I’ll drink. After a stunt, I’ll go from 180 pounds to 230 pounds in three months.

Key #1: Define crystal clear goals, what is it exactly that you want to accomplish and why do you want to accomplish it? 

II. Keep Your Goals Limited and Non-Conflicting — Benjamin Franklin

For most of us, lack of a vivid goal is not the problem, but rather, it’s too many of them; And as the intuition instructs, we often capture them on our daily to-do lists.

In his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin recalls with some smirk the mission he had set for himself in his twenties:

I conceiv’d the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection. I wish’d to live without committing any fault at any time; I would conquer all that either natural inclination, custom, or company might lead me into.

But soon, he noticed a problem:

While my care was employ’d in guarding against one fault, I was often surprised by another. Habit took the advantage of inattention; inclination was something too strong for reason.

So, Franklin opted for a divide-and-conquer approach as follows:

He provided a list of virtues and described what it meant to achieve them. For instance, Order: “Let all your things have their places, let part of your business have its time.”or most of us, absence of a vivid goal is not the problem, but rather, it’s too many of them; And as the intuition instructs, we often capture them on our daily to-do lists.

Franklin demonstrated one of the greatest pitfalls of the modern to-do lists: Striving to carry out too much at once is bound to failure:

He had decided to reach moral perfection by practicing 13 virtues.

Franklin tried a divide-and-conquer approach. He drew up a list of virtues and wrote a brief goal for each one, like this one for Order: ‘Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.’

Fig 2. Franklin's divide-and-conquer attempt to reach the moral perfection by upholding to 13 virtues: Order, Temperance, Silence, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Cleanliness, Tranquility, Chastity, and Humility.

But soon, he noticed a the problem.

For instance, if he exercised Frugality (“Waste nothing”) by always preparing his own food and mending his own clothes, there would remain less time for Industry at his job.

So, if you’re trying to have both quality-time with your family and work up your way on the ladder of career success, you are going to experience some difficulties.

The result of conflicting goals is unhappiness instead of action. — Robert Emmons

 How to avoid the trap of conflicting goals

Baumeister — author of the seminal book, willpower — recounts an experience where a psychologist was about to give a talk on managing resources and time to the audience at the Pentagon.

He decides to warm up the audience with a brief exercise — all of whom were laureate elites and generals.

He asked them all to write a summary of their strategic approach limited to 25 words.

The only general who managed a response was the lone woman in the room. She had already had a distinguished career, having worked her way up through the ranks and been wounded in combat in Iraq. Her summary of her approach was as follows: ‘First I make a list of priorities: one, two, three, and so on. Then I cross out everything from three down.’”

To avoid the trap and consequences of conflicting goals, keep your to-do list short and prioritize your items. As James Collins famously said:

If you have more than three priorities, you don’t have any.

III. Pre-Commitment, Bulletproof Willpower Technique — Henry Morton Stanley

Self-control is more indispensable than gunpowder. — Henry Morton Stanley

My favorite technique by far is pre-commitment and I find it to be a bulletproof willpower technique. Let’s learn it from Henry Morton Stanley whom Africans call Bular Matari: Breaker of Rocks.

While on a mission in Ituri rain forest, Stanly and his men suffered through torrential rains and waist-deep mud while trying to thwart the never-ending swarms of stinging flies and biting ants.

They were weakened by a prolonged hunger, crippled by infected sores, and incapacitated by malaria and dysentery. They were hunted and killed, and sometimes eaten, by natives who attacked them.

Many suggest that you barely can name any explorer in history who have endured such sustained misery and terror.

Stanly’s Europian companions marveled at his “strength of will”, and it was through the torturous expeditions that he earned the title of Bilar Matari: Braker of Rocks. 

6 month into his mission, struggling with malaria and dire sickness, while he was constantly being warned by natives that he will die if continues, in one evening he writes:

I have taken a solemn, enduring oath, an oath to be kept while the least hope of life remains in me, not to be tempted to break the resolution I have formed, no living man, or men, shall stop me, only death can prevent me, But death — not even this; I shall not die, I will not die, I cannot die! — Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer

The act of writing his resolutions was the major strategy to preserve his willpower that Stanley used over and over with success.

This is called pre-commitment. An insanely effective strategy that would prevent you from having to rely on willpower in the first place.

The essence of the strategy is to lock yourself into a virtuous path.

You anticipate that you will face lucrative temptations to stray you from your path. Thus, you make it impossible — or somehow make it disgraceful, sinful, or unthinkable — to leave the path.

3 Ways to Use Pre-commitment

  1. Write it down with date and time. This simple technique almost never fails me. If it is something that I keep procrastinating on such as the desire to start a new online course, going to gym etc, guaranteeing the execution is as simple as writing my decision down and specifying an exact date and time. If it is something long term, I simply write it down in a form of a creed or something: I, Amir, make a pact with myself to …
  2. Pre-commit the Odysseus way. Do you want to prevent yourself from indulging in the social network while you have to focus on your projects? Pre-commit by blocking your access to them. Or if you want to be a bit more extreme, abandon them altogether. (Works like a charm)
  3. Pre-commit publicly or pre-commit to an accountability partner. I am so tempted to say this works 100% of the times. Let me suffice to say it is perhaps the most bulletproof of all. If for instance, you want to go to the gym, pre-commit by telling your friend to let’s go together. I once decided to go on three-day fasting and I made it easy to stick to it by simply letting EVERYONE around me to know that I’m gonna do this.

Final Thoughts

I have been obsessed with willpower and discipline and have always had this belief that to be human is to have discipline.

Nevertheless, I finally came to realize that willpower without a solid goal has absolutely no meaning.

In all the lapses of mine, I kept blaming myself over a delusion — that I did not have enough willpower.

But I was getting it wrong.

Fortunately, my obsessive reading of the subject revealed to me that if my willpower to work, I must know what it is exactly I’m trying to accomplish and why. As Friedrich Nietzsche famously wrote:

He who has a why can bear almost any how.

I have experimented with numerous techniques to increase willpower. But, these three elements are the only things that I believe one might ever need to accomplish anything of his/her desire:

  1. Vivid goals
  2. None-conflicting goals
  3. Commitment

Get clear on your goals; focus on a few of them at a time, and ensure a disciplined execution by committing through writing down your resolution in form of a creed, or pre-commit through an accountability partner. 

Be the next breaker of rocks.


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