The 3 Secrets of Winning Willpower

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0. Intro 🎬

Obstacles are those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off your goal.
~ Henry Ford

What? A Multiple-choice Question!

What was the first thought that crossed your mind when you saw those two words—”Winning Willpower”—appear together in the title above? Choose from the following three choices:

  • A. Willpower that sets you on a winning streak?
  • B. The act itself of wooing—hence, winning—willpower so as to make it yours?
  • C. Winsome willpower, if there can be such a thing?

If you answered with an “All of the above“, you’re super-close, because the correct answer is: “Choices A and B” (Choice C borders, dare I say, on the metaphysical, so we’ll skip that for now.) And if you ran away, stricken with test-taking fright, please come right back; you have my solemn pledge that not another multiple-choice question will rear its head from here onward.

All I was doing there was setting the stage. And how better to do that than by helping you connect this willpower business with some related, recent musings. Enter creativity, which, as you may recall, had been on our minds lately: We had dissected the ins and outs of creativity like never before, amirite?

Something Had Been Missing

Then I got to thinking that a crucial element had gone missing from our vivisections. On tuning my radar, it dawned on me that I had lapsed, ending up putting the cart before the proverbial horse.

You see, creativity isn’t something that happens to you; it is something that you make happen. “And exactly how do you do that, Mr. Smartypants Blogger?“, you delicately ask. Glad you did.

Enter willpower.

This time—following on the heels of a handful of deep dives into fathoming the essence of creativity—we explore the groundwork that has to be laid before the chariot of creativity to go trundling forth (and for our creativity chariot to get anywhere, really.) So yeah, having held forth on all things creativity, we rush to make up for our lapse, putting the horse before the proverbial cart.

This Critter Called Willpower

You see, without a critical mass of this critter called willpower, you and I are not going to get anywhere with creativity (and with a boatload of other things, for that matter.) Luckily, the horse hasn’t left the barn, so let’s get right down to business.

(“Hey Akram, who is that guy with the red woolen cap in the pic above, standing atop what appears to be a peak in a mountain range, his ebullience on conquering the heights on full display?“, you ask. Well, um, I don’t know. What don’t you take a peek yourself? So there. Hah. I’m getting good at this delegating business.)

Next thing I know, you’ll be asking me to find that mountain’s grade! Speaking of grades, and albeit of a different flavor, that guy with the red woolen cap gets an A grade for social distancing in these times of COVID-19 (especially as there’s not another soul in sight.)

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1. The Vista Opening Before Us â›”

Fired at first sight with what the Muse imparts,
In fearless youth we tempt the heights of Arts;
~ Alexander Pope

Row, Row, Row Your Boats

The lads on the rowing team above sure are heaving those oars mightily in their fearless youth, aren’t they? True grit on display.

I invite you to linger over the scene and see how many metaphors you can glean from the action taking place—In particular, try bringing to mind how our perception itself evolves as we experience life more fully, and how this metaphor (of evolving perception) is expressed elegantly by the sentiment that

We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are.
~ Anais Nin, in Cities of the Interior

With that sentiment in mind—and its import hopefully impressed on your heart—the vista opening before us has three doors, each of which leads onto a tantalizing terrace of enlightenment:

  1. Remember To Not Get Fooled By Your Body’s Reward System
  2. Get Better At Managing Your Body Budget
  3. Align Your Work With Your Interests

One door at a time, we will, together, enter the realm of action taking place therein. We will linger only so long as to pluck the gist of what’s happening, with a view to having it help us understand this critter called willpower.

And Keep Rowing

Lads, as you tempt the heights of the Arts, you keep heaving those oars, chopping out water by the bucketful while we revel in the splendor of water suspended in the skies—see those puffy clouds forming the backdrop of the picture coming into view?—a little startled by the amorphousness of the molecules of life.

Let’s see if we can begin to see things as they are, and perhaps not as we are.

Hmm… This is getting a little meta. We had better ground ourselves and get concrete, and dive into it—not the concrete, as that would be mighty painful—divulging one secret at a time. So here we go.


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2. Secret #1: Don’t Get Fooled By Your Brain’s Reward System 🍰

The intelligent desire self-control; children want candy.
~ Rumi

Sucked Into The Vortex Of Distraction, Unbidden

It starts innocently enough. With some free time on your hands, you decide to catch up on what’s happening in the world of sports, news, books (insert your favorite pursuit here) and find yourself—an hour later—still burrowing unbidden, going deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole.

What just happened there? Well, that’s your brain’s reward system at work. You see, our brains have evolved to ensure our relentless pursuit of the promise of happiness instead of the experience of happiness. This is the brain’s way of keeping us—much as it did for our ancestors in a different and wilder setting—hunting, gathering, working, and whatnot.

Your Brain’s Reward System

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is your brain’s reward system, alive and kicking. More details, a whole lot more details, can be found in a fine book—one that I highly recommend—entitled The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It (Penguin Publishing Group). It’s by Kelly McGonigal PhD, who is an award-winning psychology instructor at Stanford University, and a lecturer and program developer at the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education.

It is not pleasure that makes life worth living. It is life that makes pleasure worth having.
~ George Bernard Shaw

You will find in the pages of The Willpower Instinct the lowdown on why we’re driven by the pursuit of pleasure, but often at the cost of our well-being. It presents in an engaging way the fruits borne after years (think decades) of hard science, all carried out by people much smarter than you and I. So yeah, a special area of the brain—the reward center—lights up when it senses pleasurable things coming its way.

And to really, really educate yourself—remember how to be forewarned is to be  forearmed—I suggest that you search your digital edition (of The Willpower Instinct) by the keywords “reward center” and see for yourself the search results light up your e-reader like a carnival at night, amirite?

Something Pulling Your Strings?

Have you ever pondered on what is perhaps the blight of our lives? Specifically, if you have wondered what our cell phones, the Internet, and other social media may have to do with exploiting our brain’s reward system, then this is your book. And if you sensed your reward system light up at the prospects of getting a hold of a new book—mine would, the incorrigible sucker for books that I am—then know, too, that this one will reward you many times over.

In nature there are neither rewards nor punishments; there are consequences.
~ Robert Green Ingersoll

If you’re having challenges with an, um, surplus of books in your home (as might be the case in certain other homes down the street), then what I’m going to say next should not be held against me. But I’m going to say it anyway: This book is a keeper. Go grab a copy. Rigorous, yet readable. Educational, yet entertaining (when was the last time that happened?)

Incidentally, the Rumi quote appearing above also make an appearance—a prominent one—in The Willpower Instinct, appearing right after the dedication page.

With our fire lit, we say in synchrony: “Onward.”

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3. Secret #2: Get Better At Managing Your Body Budget 💾

A budget tells us what we can’t afford, but it doesn’t keep us from buying it.
~ William Feather

A Monetary Fable

A disclaimer is in order, especially if you were intrigued by the stash of dough above: I’ve never seen so many Benjamin Franklins in my life. Truth be told, I’ve never seen Benjamin Franklin in my life. Ever. Only the likes of his appearance—remember the polymath extraordinaire from history books, the one who was a writer, printer, political philosopher, politician, postmaster, scientist, inventor, humorist, civic activist, statesman, and also a diplomat in his spare time?—fittingly commemorated on the face of a certain currency.

I found the picture above in the public domain. (And yes, much like you, I don’t have a clue why anyone would spend their precious time taking such outlandish, though evocative, pics.) Oh well, it—awash as it is in tons of a certain denomination—appears here purely to make a point.

And that point is this: My budget is far more modest than you may have been led to believe after glancing at the gazillion Benjamin Franklin denomination huddled together—more like stacked up—in their two-dimensional existence, and getting an F grade in the process for observing social distancing rather poorly in these COVID-19 days. (Think, if you will, though unromantically enough, to the novella Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions if the dimensional allusion strike you as a bit disorienting or, frankly, as quirky.)

Heh, the point I am trying to make is that you and I each also have a non-monetary budget, one that impacts us in far more immediate ways than our monetary one. And what might that influential budget look like?

Well, welcome to your body’s very own budget.

Hello, Body Budget!

One more time, the budget I have in mind for you has nothing whatsoever to do with that fiscal stuff; I’m talking about the physical stuff, the stuff of our very flesh and bones. Hmm… I see your brows starting to furrow in knots of protestations at such an assertion. Trust me, I’m not making this one up: Your body really does have a budget.

And the last word on the subject—that of your body budget—can be found between the two covers of a fine book entitled How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain (Mariner Books). It’s by Lisa Feldman Barrett PhD, who is a University Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University, with appointments at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital in Psychiatry and Radiology.

Starting with an engaging primer on what this body budget business is all about—how your brain budgets the energy in your body to safeguard your wellbeing—the author does a masterful job of making the case for acquiring a better understanding of your predictive brain in conjunction with your body budget. (Those who either deal or dabble with predictive analytics will get a kick out it. I sure did.)

Like The Sand Through The Hourglass

Like the cycles of the ocean, with tides ebbing and then receding, your body budgeting has its own circadian rhythms, automatically sending you signals to, for example, replenish your body’s energy by eating, drinking, and sleeping. Conversely, you spend energy by engaging in various activities

And this is where the brain’s amazing predictive capabilities kick into high gear. At least they should. Guess what? You get to have a say in how you manage all of this spending and replenishing, taking your brain’s constant predictions (about your body’s energy requirements) as best as you can.

You guessed it. Yep, this is where you come in and make a difference: use your brain’s (predictive) signals wisely and reap the rewards of a smoothly running operation that is your body, in concert, of course, with everything that makes us human—our emotions, feelings, perception, attentiveness, consciousness, and so forth.

Remember that recharging the expending the body budget go hand-in-hand.

What Will You Do?

The better you get at managing your body budget, the more you harness willpower, which (i.e. willpower) has been scientifically shown to become more manageable when your body budget is being handled—by you, of course—in increasingly intelligent ways.

So go forth and flourish, using your newly acquired knowhow as a guide to conquering willpower.

Let me say it one more time: I wasn’t making this one up. Your body does have a budget. Tend to it intelligently, and you’ll reap the rewards. I’m working on it myself—my energy budget, that is, and definitely not the part having to do with confabulating or speaking in parables (or dabbling with investing a certain currency, for that matter.)

Enough said.

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4. Secret #3: Align Your Work With Your Interests 🏄

Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.
~ Confucius

Yay, This Is Fun!

That inflatable slide sure looks like a lot of fun.

Plus it leads us directly to encapsulating Secret #3 in a nutshell: If you choose a job that brings you joy, you effectively lower the barriers to entry in the realm of your motivation. Your willpower, in turn, gets a boost and things follow from there.

The basic idea here is one of lowering the barriers to entry when it comes to human motivation. Of course, if that doesn’t apply to you—if boredom is alien to you and your engines of motivation are automatically revving 24×7—then you deserve to rejoice in the happenstance because

If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.
~ David Foster Wallace (in The Pale King)

For the rest of us, we don’t get to have it that easy; we get to wrestle with the motivation monster.

The Right Chemistry

Actually, it’s not that bad, that motivation monster; just grumpy at times. Seriously, though—and I first came across this idea in the pages of Shawn Achor’s The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology that Fuel Success and Performance at Work—you can make your life easier by aligning your work with your interests more and more. If you are lucky, there will come a day in life when you find yourself reveling in the quote above from Confucius (“Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.“)

It’s easier said that done. But it can be done.

And here I would be remiss if I didn’t remind you—and myself even more so—that it’s far easier said than done. Sigh, a whole lot more has usually been said than done after everything’s been said and done.

But I digress.

And Your Point Is?

The point is: You can, given enough gumption, eventually find resonance with your work—work that you’ve of course been aligning with what lights your fire and floats your boat—at which time it ceases to be “work”; it gives you joy. You find yourself in a state of “flow.”

Ask any virtuoso and she or he will confirm that time flies when they’re engaged in their life’s work. (The phrase “being in the zone” is likely to come up.)

One genius in particular, perhaps the prototypical genius—if there be such a critter—opined poignantly that

Men of lofty genius, when they are doing the least work, are most active.
~ Leonardo da Vinci

(A tad recursive—a genius speaking of genius. Oh well; all in a day’s work.)

Remember, the more you align your work with your interests, the more you boost your willpower—jujitsu-style, by lowering the barriers to entry in the realm of motivation. If you choose a job you resonate with, then you choose to have fun doing what you love, as presaged by Confucius.

One More Time Please

To drive the point home, let’s turn to a famous comedian taking a shot at the driving range populated by die-hard golfers:

If you watch a game, it’s fun. If you play it, it’s recreation. If you work at it, it’s golf.
~ Bob Hope

And if I haven’t driven you crazy yet—my friends and fans love me all the same—let’s call this a wrap. But not before some final words of gravitas, words that just might rock you with the force of a sawmill.

Ready for some buzz?

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5. Wrap Up 🏁

The human brain starts working the moment you are born and never stops until you stand up to speak in public.
~ George Jessel

Start Me Up

Speaking of standing up—and I hope you got a kick like I did out of the wry humor standing starkly in the quote above—I invite you to stay tuned for a final announcement which will be made at the end.

Meanwhile, let me remind us all that what one fool can do, another can, too. Together, we’ve hewn thorough a pile of material and sawed through a boatload of timber. Well, at least the guy standing up in the pic above did. All good, except… “Cough, cough, what’s with all those noxious-looking fumes in the background? No environmental protection, for crying out loud? No nothing?

But there you have it, a log enters on one end of the sawmill and lumber exits on the other. Can we build it? Bob the Builder says, “Yes we can!

But I digress.

Where We Went

To recap—appropriately enough, as we call it a wrap—today we explored willpower from three vantage points:

  1. Remember To Not Get Fooled By Your Body’s Reward System
  2. Get Better At Managing Your Body Budget
  3. Align Your Work With Your Interests

I invite you to revisit each one of the three—now or later—and let the ideas soak in. I know I’ll be doing exactly that: I write as much for you as I do for myself, reminding you that success is decidedly (pun not intended) not a zero-sum game.

A Celebration In The Making

Meanwhile, remember the guy you and I met at the beginning, the one wearing that red woolen cap, standing atop a mountain peak, celebrating his conquest with an almighty lunge? Well guess what. He’s still there, and he’s still lunging. Darn. Some people get carried away, amirite?

But if you and I manage to conquer willpower, either by ourselves or in our togetherness—details to follow, so stay tuned—I’ll be the first one to cheer you on (and I know you’ll do the same for me) in a celebration worth a mountain of gold.

Treasures untold await you: What are you waiting for?

Let your future unfold.

Stop reading—you can always linger here plus return and read to your heart’s content—and get going.


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  1. thanks for the post Akram. Good reminders – I am a little in arrears on body budget.
    Love the quote by Bob Hope – I must remember that for my next foursome.

    • My own tending to body budget management tends to come and go in cycles: Always a work-in-progress. Happy that you enjoyed the post. LOL! So you, too, got a kick out of that Bob Hope quote, one which I’m happy to learn will be on your mind the next time you step on a golf course. (Funny that you mention Bob Hope: I was talking with someone just the other day about two other founts of decent-humored wisdom: Will Rogers and Yogi Berra.)

  2. Dear Akram,

    Your blog is always a pleasure. I especially like George Jessel’s witty comment: “The human brain starts working the moment you are born and never stops until you stand up to speak in public.” Some extraordinary individuals can face an audience unfazed, but for people like me it’s like diving into a shark tank. The mind goes blank, flooded with fight-or-flight stress hormones, as one becomes instantaneously stupid.

    • I beam on reading your note, thank you! Plus I’m delighted that you found yourself resonating with the gravitas writ large on the George Jessel comment that I had quoted (i.e. “The human brain starts working the moment you are born and never stops until you stand up to speak in public.”). Well, I’ll have to disagree with the second part of your comment: Your assessment about speaking in public. (I can imagine you handily outdoing Cicero any day of the week.)

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