Willpower: The most important skill for success

When I started my business, I loved the fact that I was my own boss — I could serve clients on my own schedule. I could sleep in, eat when I wanted, work with those I chose to work with. It was basically a free-for-all.

It was fun for a while but then I noticed a few things: I wasn’t growing my business. I was becoming complacent. I was serving clients but not building for the long term. I allowed myself to procrastinate or become distracted in the middle of projects. I wasn’t as healthy as I could have been, either.

And whenever I tried to change, I would fade back toward my less-than-healthy habits.

I soon discovered that the real cause of my problems was not the choice to do these things but the lack of willpower to do something different.

Willpower is sometimes called “self-discipline” or even “focus” or “concentration”. It refers to your ability to choose a goal and then to push through the pain, discomfort, displeasure, obstacles, etc. that you face until that goal becomes a reality. I hate to admit this but I lacked willpower. If I wanted something, I bought it. My workouts were not really that challenging. I only did things if I felt like it.

… and the results showed. My business did okay (I still had year-over-year growth most years) but it wasn’t stellar. My health was so-so. I was less interested in taking risks.

I ended up like a pot-bound plant — grown into myself — and I didn’t like what I had become.

So I started making changes in how I do things (by eating better, exercising, focusing on my work, etc.), plus I also started studying willpower.

One of the changes I made was to take on a writing project at a client’s office. Although I much preferred to write in the comfort of my home, the discipline of going to a client’s office every single day helped to “reset” my clock. I did that for a year (this was a few years ago now) and enjoyed it. And I’ve willingly done it again since then, simply because it was an excellent way to inject some discipline in my life.

Another change I made was to workout in the mornings and change my diet. I’ve limited my coffee intake, I eat my bigger meals earlier in the day, I have drastically cut back my carbs.

Another change was the Finish What You Start series I blogged about last year. It was part of that whole effort to improve my willpower.

I also study willpower voraciously. I read Theron Q. Dumont’s The Power of Concentration every year, I’m reading Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich (which covers the topic of willpower), I’ve read Kelly McGonigal’s The Willpower Instinct (which I’ve included as one of the 10 business books that changed my life). And there’s more (which I’ll talk about in a moment).

I’ve come to the realization that willpower is the most important skill for success. Success has little to do with how good you are at something or how much money you have or whether you have a great idea. Rather, success is almost entirely wrapped up in willpower — how much pain you are willing to tolerate to achieve your goal.

Lack of willpower is why people don’t stick to their diet. It’s why they don’t quit smoking. It’s why new year resolutions are broken. It’s why people dream of quitting their job to start a business but fail to take the plunge.

But the person with willpower says: “I will adhere to my goal, no matter what, until it is achieved.” That is the person who will succeed.

With that kind of willpower, you can overcome any obstacles, achieve any goal, see results, and enjoy success (however you define it).

So if we want 2014 to be The Year of Awesome then the one thing each one of us needs is MORE willpower.

I believe willpower is a skill. It’s something we’re not really born with (have you ever seen a baby with willpower? Neither have I). It’s something we learn. It’s something we can improve. Here’s how to get more willpower in your life:

  • Start small. Willpower is like a muscle. If it’s out of shape, it doesn’t work as well. So start small and build up your willpower muscle with little successes. If you are trying to change your diet, for example, start with just cutting out the cookies. You can always grow your willpower over time. Once you’ve mastered the cookies, move on to the candy. By doing so, you’ll grow your willpower in a way that isn’t actually that hard.
  • Celebrate every success. Good habits are so easy to give up because we wait until the achieved goal before we celebrate. But what makes the Alcoholics Anonymous method so powerful is that they celebrate every success. If you are trying to quit smoking, don’t make your new year’s resolution to be “no smoking in 2014”. Rather, make an hourly resolution — “I won’t smoke this hour”… and then repeat it every single hour. And don’t stop celebrating. Someone I know just posted on Facebook that she has been sober for 20 years. That’s great. I’m sure it’s a daily battle but as long as she has enough willpower for TODAY, that’s all she needs.
  • Study willpower. There are many great resources out there that will help. I’ve listed some of my favorites above but you will also find some great books about habits — making good habits and breaking bad ones — that overlap with the willpower conversation.
  • Eliminate the temptation. This one is overlooked by so many people, I think. If you want to cut back on the candy you eat, STOP BUYING CANDY. Don’t buy it for other people just to keep in the house. Just stop altogether and ask other people to stop buying it for you. Related: When I found it really difficult to get up in the morning to workout, I analyzed the reasons and made some changes… workout equipment is set out at night, workout clothes are at the foot of my bed, and my thermostat is set to warm up the house shortly before I workout (so I’m not tempted to lay in bed where it’s warm).
  • Replace your rituals. I’m not a smoker but this one makes a lot of sense to me: Smokers have a hard time quitting because, along with the nicotine hit, they also get some sense of comfort from the ritual of smoking — putting something to their lips. So these rituals need to be replaced with other rituals. For me, I want to get lean so I’m changing my diet (what I eat and when I eat). Among those is a new ritual of eating a lot of vegetables throughout the day. My goal is not only to eat healthy but also to create a ritual where I’m gaining enjoyment and comfort in eating vegetables.
  • Decide what you really want and decide how important it is to you. This was huge for me. I was making choices because they were easy and enjoyable for the short-term. When I gave some serious thought to what I wanted in the long-term, and why those long-term goals were more important, I actually found it very easy to change my habits. I was motivated to push through the short-term discomfort because the long-term goal was inspiring to me.

There are other tips but these ones have had the biggest impact on my life.

Hey, I definitely don’t have all the answers and haven’t achieved all of the goals I want to achieve. I’m not saying that I have. This has been a journey for me and continues to be a big part of my ongoing education. But I feel like I’ve stumbled across the one key that I believe will unlock everything I’m working for. It’s willpower. If you want to make positive changes in your life, strengthen this skill in your life!

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