Willpower: The Owner’s Manual

Willpower: The Owner's ManualI read Willpower: The Owners Manual by Frank Martela a little over a year ago and it’s had a significant impact on how I structure my day. Because willpower is a finite resource, I try to get most of my most mentally demanding work done in the morning, and I’ve also placed a much higher priority on sleep. The book is divided into 12 Tools for doing the right thing, and below are excerpts which I found the most important and that I review every so often:

This book is your owner’s manual to willpower. Don’t just read it. Use it. By integrating the tools provided into your everyday life you will not only get what you want – you will also get it much easier. By using these tools, you can make the right choice the easiest choice. And then it will be only natural to do the right thing.

In this world of choices, it is not always easy to do the right thing. You might know what you should do, but all sorts of temptations, urgent desires, and outside pressures might lure you to follow them instead. Willpower is your ability to make sure you do the right thing.

Most generally, there are four ways to get oneself to do the right thing:

  1. Being internally motivated to do the right thing
  2. Using willpower to do the right thing
  3. Being habitually inclined to do the right thing
  4. Designing the environment so it nudges one automatically to do the right thing


Here we concentrate on willpower, the rugged cousin of motivation, who is called in when a job needs to be done (think about Mr. Wolf in the movie Pulp Fiction).

Willpower consists of two parts:

  1. First there is the muscle-like capacity to fight urges and impulses. Research has shown that willpower is like a muscle: it gets tired when used, but quickly recovers through resting.
  2. Second, there is the role played by the right kind of attitude. The more you believe in yourself and in your willpower, the easier it is to fight urges.

So if there is one message I hope you get from this book, it is this:

The best way to use your limited willpower resources is to change the situation so that you do not actually need willpower at all to do the right thing.

Through this automated routine, you get into a position in which the temptation is minimized, and thus you need significantly less willpower to fight it. For example, most of us don’t have to fight the battle of whether to brush our teeth every morning. It simply is part of the morning routine, and we perform it without giving it a second thought.

So when facing a willpower challenge, ask yourself first, is there a way to tweak your habits or your environment so that you never have to face an open battle. This way you can save your willpower for those battles that matter.

Example: This is actually what Barack Obama does. Being the President of the United States of America, he faces an incredible amount of tough choices every single day from dawn till dusk. To survive this challenge, Obama has decided to focus his decision-making energy: “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” he explained to a reporter of Vanity Fair. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” He admits that his wife makes fun of how routinized he has become, and how this is not his natural state. Yet, given his position, it is the only possibility: ”You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.”

It is important to notice that willpower is only needed when there is a conflict within you, when two desires (one more beer vs. being sharp in the morning) fight for your attention. When you know that something needs to be done, but at the same time some acute urge sneaks into your mind, willpower is the ability to keep your eyes on the ball. Willpower makes it possible to choose one’s future well-being over present desires. This ability to fight present urges and think long-term makes us humans a unique species in the animal kingdom. Most generally put, willpower is the power to say no to the wrong things, and yes to the right things.

Modern psychology has shown that the human ability to control one’s own feelings and behaviors is weaker than we have previously thought. The tail wags the dog; your conscious mind is all too often the one who merely justifies the desires and behaviors that your more impulsive unconscious self has already followed through with.

NYU professor Jonathan Haidt has likened our mind to an elephant and its rider. The rider is our conscious mind, which thinks it is in charge. Unfortunately, the intuitive elephant mind it is riding on is much bigger and stronger. To tame the elephant, and to get it to go where one wants it to go, requires a significant amount of training and building of healthy routines. Traditional psychology has often ignored the elephant and focused only on the rider. The most significant practical contribution of recent psychological research has been a renewed interest in the intuitive, unconscious part of our mind. By acknowledging the existence and great influence of the elephant, and by learning more about how it works, we can start to take increased control over our lives.

You use your willpower every time you fight against an urge, try to filter some distractions out of your mind, make a choice between alternatives, or try to concentrate on something. And when you use your willpower, you have less of it available for the next task. Willpower is like a muscle; it gets exhausted through use, but recovers through rest. Roy Baumeister summarizes the key insights emerging from his research into two points:

  1. You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it.
  2. You use the same stock of willpower for all manner of tasks.

Example: College students preparing for a tough exam were similarly asked about their beliefs about willpower. Again, those who believed their willpower didn’t get depleted demonstrated greater self-control in the stressful time leading to the exam, while those with a limited view of self-control were more prone to slip into bad habits. Other research has shown that positive emotions and the right kinds of motivation can both counter, to some extent, the exhausting effect of willpower usage. This attitudinal side of willpower is captured well by a slogan popularly (but probably falsely) believed to be from Henry Ford’s pen: If you think you can, or if you think you can’t – you are probably right.

First, just reminding yourself of the positive outcomes you are aiming for helps you to remember what makes you motivated for the activity. Instead of thinking that you have to study for the exam, think about why you are studying in the first place. Perhaps to be able to do some interesting work in the future? Then realize that you don’t have to study, but you can choose to do it, in order to get where you want to get. Keep the end goal in mind.

12 Tools For Doing The Right Thing

Tool 1: Mind your blood sugar. Eat well and sleep enough.
To uphold concentration, to make decisions, to resist temptations all require energy. And within your brain, it is glucose that provides that energy. When the blood glucose levels drop, the executive functions of the brain are the first to suffer. It is precisely these executive functions – located mainly in the frontal lobe – that are responsible for your self-control.

Tool 2: Invest in effective resting
The takeaway: Do not believe that every working hour has equal worth in terms of productivity, creativity, or quality of decisions. All hours are equal but some hours are more equal than others. The pattern in the parole case was clear: Acceptance rate peaked in the early morning and then started to slowly decline. After the lunch break, acceptances peaked again, only to decline more and more the longer the day dragged on. There are two practical conclusions to be drawn from this:

  1. Schedule your activities according to your willpower level. For example, I myself meticulously guard the first three hours of the working day. Whatever meeting you try to schedule with me in the morning, I claim I am busy. This is because writing is the key to my profession, and in terms of performance – calculated both by quantity and quality of my writing – the morning hours are at least four times more worthwhile for me than the afternoon hours.
  2. Make strategic resting a part of your daily routine. When you feel that your energy is getting low, it is time for action: Before the next challenge, give yourself a chance to rest. Invest 12 minutes of your busy schedule on yourself. Put a timer on and until it buzzes, give yourself permission to rest.

In intensive work, your stress levels rise up, and this weakens your ability to concentrate and make rational decisions. When you give yourself permission to rest, your parasympathetic system kicks in: stress hormones diminish and heart beat lowers. Among athletes, the power of small resting moments has been common knowledge for years, and research supports their effectiveness.

Manage your energy, not your time – this is the key insight for success in modern work.

Tool 3: Train your mind with the zorro circle
That’s the magic of the Zorro Circle: Instead of trying to control everything at once, you can start by finding some small corner that you feel you are able to control. Instead of cleaning the whole apartment, clean the kitchen table. When you master it, you conquer some new ground (kitchen floor?), and with increased confidence you can soon face challenges that seemed unimaginable a few months before.

Tool 4: Commit yourself fully to your target
Before running a marathon, think it through: Do I really want to do this or not? Go through all the arguments for and against it. And make a decision. You don’t have to do it, but if you decide to do it, decide it firmly. When the decision is made in advance, and it stands solid, you don’t lose your energy on thinking about that during the situation. The decision is made, and you can concentrate your thoughts and energy on executing it. Precommitment is an essential building block of strong will.

Tool 5: Forgive yourself in order to learn from your mistakes
So when you face a self-control failure, the most important thing is to accept responsibility for what happened, and have a realistic look at the situation that caused it. What situational factors were at play? What could I have done differently? It is this reflection and a commitment to change that are the real drivers of change for the better. By focusing on self-punishment, you easily fail to have this essential reflection. But self-forgiveness alone is not enough, either. However, when forgiveness is combined with a commitment to change and a plan, it might work magic in making you less prone to repeat your mistake.

Tool 6: Don’t fight or flee, instead pause and plan
The solution is to learn a different way of reacting to these kinds of threats. The donut is not an external threat; instead, it is a trigger for an internal battle between that self within you that is committed to the diet and that self which is eager to eat something sweet. And to win this internal battle, the best thing you can do is to calm down. The calmer you are, the more coolly you can look at the situation. And the more coolly you look at it, the more you gain control and are able to follow your more rational self and your long-term commitments. Instead of fight-or-flight, the modern threats are better dealt with through pause-and-plan.

So the next time you sense a threat (which is not a lion), do as follows: Before panicking, take ten seconds to breathe deeply. In and out, in and out. This calms you down and gives the conscious part of your mind the time to gather itself. You are again in control of yourself and can better address the situation in a way that you – and not your gut instincts – see appropriate.

Tool 7: Use mental judo to think anew your challenge

  1. Breaking in a new habit. So make a decision that you do something for the next two weeks, in order to break it into your system. In addition to actually doing the thing a few times to get started, it is important to pay attention on how you get started on it. What are the small routines that are needed in order for you to get there? In the case of jogging, it might involve the choosing of proper clothes, deciding which track you are going to run on today, and finding the time necessary for running.
  2. Rerouting an existing habit. When a desire kicks in, simply sitting down and abstaining is very burdensome. More often than not, it is better to feed the desire with something else instead because saying no to an old habit is usually harder than saying yes to a new habit. If tobacco is your temptation, instead of biting your nails, smoke an electronic cigarette, or run up and down the staircase a few times. The idea is to reroute your brain into a new path. You might have been conditioned so that a certain trigger leads to certain desires and behaviors (e.g. beer ➔ smoking), and the task is to condition oneself anew so that the same trigger leads to a new desire
  3. Delay the gratification. Often it might feel too harsh to say no, period. That sounds so final that you give yourself permission to eat that chocolate cookie, just this once. Instead of saying no, a good strategy is to say later.
  4. Think anew your challenge.  Let’s say that your problem is going to sleep too late and being tired and crumby at work the next day. You have tried to say yes to the bed early enough, but this is not succeeding. How about looking at what you should say no to, in order to get in bed on time? Perhaps it is the all too exciting world of the Internet that keeps you awake. Perhaps your challenge is not about saying yes to bed at 11:30, but about saying no to the computer after eleven. More generally, the most important advice in mental judo is this: Learn your opponent. When you have a willpower challenge, pay close attention to the details. What are the small triggers that build up the path towards the bad habit? What are the small obstacles in the way of the good habit? What is the tiniest possible change that can be made to get the present situation out of balance, and ready for change? The more you learn about the habit and its constituent parts, the more able you are to find its weak spot, and tackle it for good.

Tool 8: You get what you measure
What is this magic of the mirror? The explanation is that a mirror makes you more aware of yourself, and this increased self-awareness increases your commitment to your own principles and aims. Carver and Scheier go even so far as to argue that the reason we humans have developed self-awareness in the first place is to strengthen our self-control.

The takeaway from this is that increasing your self-awareness increases your willpower. The more aware you are of what you do, how you do it, and what the results are, the more self-control you have. And one proven way to increase your willpower through increasing your awareness is through measuring. Whatever your target is, if it can be measured, this measurement can be used to your advantage. For example, those weight-watchers who visit the scale daily are more prone to reach their target than those who do it less often.

Tool 9: Small steps, big rewards
One proven way to increase motivation and enjoyment along the way is to break the big target into a series of smaller targets – and then celebrate all these steps toward the right direction.

Another crucial element is celebrating the small successes. Ambitious targets animate the ambitious parts of your mind. But what about that part of your mind, which is more animated by present pleasures than remote abstract accomplishments?

Promise yourself concrete, tangible rewards, and you will notice that the more pleasure-oriented part of your mind also pushes you toward your target – instead of pulling you away from it.

Tool 10: Where is your environment nudging you?
The best way to avoid a temptation is to make it impossible to fulfill. A candy bar at your desk is much harder to resist than a candy bar that is still at the store. It is easier to fight the urge to splurge on those designer jeans, if you left your credit card at home before entering the mall. In a similar vein, many business people praise flights as times of great productivity because the lack of Internet and telephone makes it possible to achieve concentration that is never possible on the ground. Of course, one can achieve this without boarding a plane as well: When Dan Heath needs to write, he uses his old laptop from which he has physically removed the Internet port altogether – making it impossible to surf and thus ensuring a far better concentration than with modern wifi-equipped machines68. So whatever your temptation is, take a look at your environment and think: Is there a way to avoid it altogether? If there is no chocolate in the house, you don’t have to fight against that late night craving for a bite.

Tool 11: The 20 Second Rule
In his book The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor, the lecturer of a popular course on happiness at Harvard, tells us how he wanted to read more books and watch less TV. The intention was good, but after a long day at work, he arrived at home and slumped onto the sofa. “I’ll start reading soon,” he thought while picking up the remote control – and before he knew it, two hours had passed. He realized that the problem was the 20 second threshold that separated him from the books and decided to reverse the situation. He took the batteries out of the remote control and placed them in a drawer in the bedroom so that it would take him exactly twenty seconds to get them and put the TV on. On the other hand, he placed some carefully selected books within arm’s reach from the sofa. This small modification completely changed his home routines: Suddenly, when he was tired on the sofa, the easiest option was to read, and the harder option was to watch TV. Accordingly, he found himself spending the evenings reading and very rarely made the extra effort to pick up the batteries to be able to watch TV. Thus the 20-Second Rule was born.

Tool 12: You are who you hang with
“We are the sum of all people we have ever met; you change the tribe and the tribe changes you.” These words by Dirk Wittenborn, have recently been shown to be true as regards a large number of behaviors. If a good friend of yours is obese, it is 171% more likely that you become obese, too. If your friends smoke, the chances are that you smoke, too. On the other hand, if a few good friends of yours quit, your odds for quitting increase dramatically, too. An analysis of human networks has revealed how both depression and happiness spread in these networks like a disease. The people around you influence you both explicitly and implicitly. On an explicit level, they give you ideas, values and advice that influence your choices. The options you see as possible for yourself as regards career, for example, are much dependent on the role models in your neighborhood. On the implicit level, you are all the time picking up cues about what is acceptable and what is not based on what you see other people doing. As a social animal, you have a compulsive need to “fit in” and prove yourselves, even to complete strangers.


The most important background capability for willpower is the ability to plan. This means that you just don’t go on doing things, but occasionally stop to reflect: Why am I doing what I am doing? Given my aim, what is the best strategy to pursue it? This isn’t as self-evident as it sounds. More often than not, you do things without a second thought. This might be great for many purposes – nothing paralyzes a man better than too much thinking – but sometimes the most straightforward path doesn’t lead to where one is heading. In these situations, it pays to plan, to look at one’s behavior, habits and the environment.

I highly recommend picking up a copy of Willpower: The Owners Manual. If you just pick up one habit that makes you more productive, you’ll be getting your money’s worth.

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