Understanding Willpower

What’s your relationship to willpower? One of the mindsets that gets in the way of creating discipline is thinking that discipline is about being ‘mentally tough’, that when things get hard you dig your feet in, grit your teeth, and work really hard until you’ve succeeded. This can be intimidating if you don’t feel up for that level of challenge, and this can be exhausting if that’s how you’re choosing to play the game. And this approach, for the most part, doesn’t work. Even Tony Horton, the high-intensity creator of P90x, admits: “Here’s a dirty little secret: I don’t get all that fired up about exercise most of the time.”

Many of us fall into the trap of thinking of willpower as a fixed character trait. It’s something we just have or don’t have. Or we only have a certain amount, and we’ll just need to make do with what we have. Whenever something feels ‘fixed’ or whenever you detect a whiff of ‘should’, you should start getting suspicious of your thinking.

To succeed in creating Masterpiece Days, you’ll need to get into right relationship with your willpower. Because in truth, our willpower is both incredibly weak, and incredibly powerful, in different ways.

First of all, our willpower is finite. It is tied to our physical and mental energy, and is easily depleted just throughout the onslaught of our modern, noisy culture, much less through our attempts to start new habits and face discomfort and confusion. This is one of the reasons we have much more creative energy and make smarter decisions earlier in the day, and why many people collapse into their bad habits later in the day–because they’ve spent all their willpower.

A friend with ADHD once explained it to me like this: you have a finite number of spoons. Everything that requires effort or thought costs a spoon, sometimes several spoons. Once you’re out of spoons, that’s it.

So if you’re struggling to create daily discipline, you are probably both:

  • using your willpower on the wrong things, and
  • running out of willpower, creating a downward spiral of repercussions.

In Masterpiece Days we won’t completely avoid using willpower; rather we will start using it in small, intentional doses. Avoid ‘heroic effort’. It’s not exactly brag-worthy to do just one push-up, but it starts you on the path where a couple months later you might have something to brag about! A little bit of willpower intelligently placed, repeated over time, can create massive change.

“Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.” - Archimedes

Another important attribute of willpower is that it can be strengthened, like a muscle. You actually want to be using it and challenging it, enough for it to be strengthening over time but not so much that you’re not able to handle your daily challenges. Sprinkling a few mini challenges into the day, like a couple of seconds of cold water in the shower or holding a plank in the morning, can help ‘create more spoons’. Use willpower to build willpower.

Willpower isn’t just a coin of exchange to get into action, it’s also a lubricant. When we have an excess of willpower, we tend to be more relaxed, more present, and more agile. The more we’re able to handle any challenges that come our way, the less challenges we tend to create for ourselves and the more ease we’re able to create. Willpower is like the balance of a martial artist or a dancer. The more willpower we have, the more access we will have to flow states.

Some principles:

  • Use willpower in small, intentional doses.
  • No heroic efforts.
  • Conserve enough willpower so that you still have some to spare when you go to sleep at night.
  • Use willpower to get unstuck and get into action.
  • Use willpower to build willpower.


  1. Observe (perhaps even journal about) your varying level of willpower throughout the day. Can you tell when you’ve got a lot of willpower? Can you tell when you’re low on willpower?
  2. See if you can catch yourself when you’re trying to force something and burning through a lot of willpower. Instead, see if you can back off and do nothing, find better leverage, or take a tiny step instead of a big leap.
  3. Share your insights in the Facebook thread

Complete and Continue