Building Willpower

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“What Stoics discover, though, is that willpower is like muscle power: The more they exercise their muscles, the stronger they get, and the more they exercise their will, the stronger it gets. Indeed, by practicing Stoic self-denial techniques over a long period, Stoics can transform themselves into individuals remarkable for their courage and self-control.” (William B. Irvine, A Guide to the Good Life)

I came across this highlight the other day and made a mental list of areas where I’ve built up some willpower and areas where I’ve found myself struggling or falling short. I decided to make a note for my future self to see if I can build more willpower in areas that I’m struggling in. This is not an exhaustive list by any means, but the ones that are typically top of mind.

Where have I succeeded in building willpower?

Not procrastinating

“Work while it is called today for you know not how much you may be hindered tomorrow.” (Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanac)

I used to be a serial procrastinator, putting off doing things until the last minute. Ever since kids entered the picture, I’ve found myself running head first into getting the hard things out of the way. If I sense that I might put something off, I try my best to back out or to say no in the first place. Embracing David Allen’s Getting Things Done approach of getting small things done right away and turning larger things into multi-step projects has been a great way to avoid procrastination (see my blog post on lessons from the book). Life’s so much more pleasant without the dread that procrastinating can put over my head.

Writing weekly newsletter

I’ve been pretty diligent in making time for my newsletter for the past 3 years. There have been weeks when I am exhausted or mentally drained, but thankfully the willpower is there to push me through. I’ve prioritized sending something versus trying to be too precious with how I feel about each newsletter. Through quantity, I believe I’ve been able to improve the quality as well (see my blog post on quality through quantity).

“True behavior change is identity change. You might start a habit because of motivation, but the only reason you’ll stick with one is that it becomes part of your identity.” (James Clear, Atomic Habits)

As noted in the James Clear quote above, I’ve also come to believe that the newsletter is an important part of my identity. It’s my preferred medium of expression and a way for me to keep in touch with friends, acquaintances, and business colleagues as well as folks I’ve yet to meet. It’s an endless source of new connections as well as an opportunity for me to reflect on various topics and organize my thoughts. The identity piece is perhaps the most powerful source of willpower in this case (see my blog post on lessons from Atomic Habits by James Clear).

Daily mobility exercises

I’ve honed in on a routine–after 6+ years of experimenting and trawling YouTube–to loosen up my body every morning. It consists of yoga-like movements that help me activate my spine, back, hamstrings, shoulders, neck, wrists, calves, quads, and ankles. It takes about 10 minutes and is not easy even though I’ve done it hundreds of times. I’m still tempted to skip it every now and then, but I’ve managed to power my way through it, even when my kids hop on my back calling their dad a horse or crawling under my legs like I’m a tunnel. The source of willpower here is the fear of back pain or discomfort in the body. Having suffered through some unpleasant tweaks in the neck and upper back areas, a 10-minute daily investment to prevent such pain feels well worth it.

For those interested, here’s core of the routine. I experiment with a few new movements occasionally, but these are the ones that are foundational for me:

Where have I fallen short in having willpower?

Indulging in sweets

While I’ve certainly cut down on the amount of sweets I consume regularly, I’m still a sucker for sweets and have trouble resisting the occasional chocolate (Tony’s Chocolonely from the bodega), ice cream, or dessert (baklava!). I want to continue fighting this because I usually regret having had sweets, both for their empty caloric value and the way they make me feel, sluggish and gross.

Checking Twitter

I continually find myself making excuses for why checking Twitter is a net positive. I’ve gotten a great deal of inspiration, ideas, and learnings from following people in investing, business, marketing, real estate, and the agency world, but I feel like I’ve also burned way too many hours endless scrolling and reading nonsense and throwaway memes. Those same hours could have been better spent reading a book or going to bed earlier. Speaking of which…

Sleeping Early

I’ve struggled to get to bed earlier, especially during the summer months when it gets dark later. Ideally, I’m in bed by no later than 10:45PM, but I find myself doing things until past 11 and sometimes close to midnight. I will continue to challenge myself to hit bedtime earlier because the extra sleep certainly does make a difference in my mood and energy the next day, and I’m sure it has long-term health impact as well.

Breaking Down Willpower

Outside of the areas mentioned above, there are plenty of other things in my life where I’d benefit from having greater willpower. These include the way I respond to certain situations at work and at home–the willpower to be patient, open-minded, and calm can be in short supply depending on my mood and energy that day. I’m also aware that my willpower to sit still and read for hours at a time has deteriorated over the years and is in need of rebuilding.

When I think about the concept of willpower, I can’t help but to conflate it with habits. Willpower gets built up over time through repetition, and that repetition comes about through discipline, by deliberating deciding to behave in a certain manner. Underlying all of this is the desired outcome – who do I want to be, what do I want to achieve, why is this important to me? Having firm answers to these questions can help motivate the behaviors that then become repeatable habits, which in turn build up the reserve of willpower.

It’s easier said than done because the payoff for some of these habits are hard to see and/or they conflict with other habits. For example, I’ve sometimes gone to bed late because I’ve lost track of time while writing my newsletter. In such a case, my desire to write and publish my newsletter is stronger than my desire to be a better sleeper, hence the former wins out. Knowing this, I can be more deliberate the next time in planning and find ways to complete my newsletter writing much earlier in the day so it doesn’t present a dilemma later on.

The essence of willpower is the ability to be disciplined and deliberate about who I want to be and how I’ll get there. It’s incredibly powerful. The process never ends, and as life throws out new challenges, leveraging willpower will be key, I think, to living a fulfilling and satisfying life.


    • Peter Kang says

      Hi Ryan, thanks for the request — I added the routine to the blog post above!

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