How to be Productive – Part 4: Willpower and Focus

In our comprehensive journey to peak productivity, we’ve delved into the realms of planning, tasks, and the environment in which we work. As we enter Part 4, we turn our attention inward, to the heart of personal drive: willpower and focus. These silent forces, operating behind the scenes, often dictate the trajectory of our success. They’re the invisible hands guiding our actions, determining our resilience in the face of challenges, and our clarity amidst distractions. As we explore these intrinsic elements, we’ll uncover the power of our inner resolve and the profound impact of our mindset. Join us as we navigate the depths of determination and the pivotal role of positivity in our quest for efficiency.

What is Willpower and Why It’s Important

Willpower is the inner strength that enables you to make decisions, delay gratification, and resist unwanted behaviors or thoughts. It’s the driving force behind perseverance, self-discipline, and determination. In the face of obstacles and temptations, willpower is what pushes you to continue.

When we dive deep into the stories of successful individuals across various fields – be it business, sports, arts, or sciences – a common thread emerges. While their paths might have differed, their unwavering willpower and focus played a pivotal role in their journeys. Thomas Edison, for instance, made thousands of unsuccessful attempts before finally inventing the light bulb. J.K. Rowling faced numerous rejections before “Harry Potter” became a worldwide phenomenon. These individuals, and countless others like them, possessed an extraordinary ability not just to set goals, but to remain focused on them, undeterred by failures or distractions.

Further shedding light on this connection is groundbreaking psychological research. One of the most notable experiments in this realm involved children and their ability to delay gratification. In the famed “Marshmallow Test” conducted by Walter Mischel, children were presented with a choice: they could either eat one marshmallow immediately or wait and receive two marshmallows later. The findings were striking. Those who could wait for the second marshmallow, exhibiting greater self-control and focus, were found to achieve higher academically and maintain better emotional well-being later in life. This study underscored that the ability to focus and exercise willpower at a young age had profound implications for future intelligence and success.

We Are Not Created Equal in Willpower

While it may seem unfair, the truth is that not everyone is born with the same reservoir of willpower. Some naturally have a more resilient and persistent spirit, while others may find it easier to give in to distractions.

You Can Develop Willpower

For those feeling disheartened, there’s good news. Willpower isn’t solely a trait you’re born with. A statistic showcases that 93% of successful people attribute their success to persistent hard work rather than innate talent. This underscores the idea that even if one isn’t born with an abundance of willpower, it can be cultivated.

The possibilities of willpower and self-control appealed tremendously to my vivid imagination, and I began disciplining myself. Had I a sweet cake or a juicy apple that I was dying to eat I would give it to another boy and go through the tortures of Tantalus, pained but satisfied. Had I some difficult task before me which was exhausting I would attack it again and again until it was done. So I practiced day by day from morning till night. At first, it called for a vigorous mental effort directed against disposition and desire, but as years went by the conflict lessened and finally my will and wish became identical. They are so today, and in this lies the secret of whatever success I have achieved.

Nikola Tesla

Contrary to popular belief, developing willpower isn’t an act of magic or a gift bestowed from above. It’s about consciously choosing discomfort and challenge over comfort and ease. Nikola Tesla’s quote perfectly encapsulates this idea; he exercised willpower by deliberately acting against his immediate desires. The advice that follows doesn’t reveal any secrets but rather serves as a guide to stepping out of your comfort zone and engaging in the hard work that will yield maximum results. Some of these ideas are inspired by Kelly McGonigal’s book “The Willpower Instinct.”

No pain, no gain

I want to compare developing willpower to gym training because the analogy makes the principles clear and relatable to almost everyone.

  • The Initial Struggle: just like your first day at the gym can be daunting, so can the initial phases of willpower training. You’ll feel the metaphorical “burn” as you push against your comfort zones, but that’s a sign of growth, much like muscle soreness post-workout.
  • Consistency Over Intensity: in the gym, erratic, high-intensity workouts without a consistent routine can lead to injuries. The same is true for willpower. Being overly ambitious can exhaust your willpower muscle, leading to setbacks. Consistency, in terms of daily practice, will yield more sustainable results.
  • Incremental Progress: you don’t start lifting the heaviest weights on day one. Similarly, don’t overwhelm yourself with monumental willpower challenges right away. Start with lighter weights—easier tasks—and gradually work your way up.
  • Systematic Approach: a workout regimen requires a structured plan: warm-up, workout, cool-down. Similarly, plan out your willpower tasks, with a well-thought-out beginning, middle, and end. This systematic approach can be as simple as a list of daily or weekly willpower challenges to conquer.
  • Record-Keeping: when training at the gym, progress is often tracked to identify strengths and areas for improvement. Likewise, keeping a record of your willpower-related activities allows you to measure growth and pinpoint where adjustments are needed.
  • Rest and Recovery: rest days are crucial in any gym routine to allow muscles to recover and grow. In the same vein, it’s essential to give yourself breaks in between willpower challenges to recover and replenish your mental energy.

Daily Limit of Willpower

You have a finite amount of willpower each day. To manage it wisely:

  • Avoid Overcommitting: Don’t start multiple activities that each requires a significant amount of willpower. This may lead to exhaustion and disappointment, not because your willpower is weak, but because your approach was incorrect.
  • Convert Tasks Into Habits: Repetitive tasks should be transformed into habits, thereby conserving your willpower.
  • Time of Day Matters: Your willpower is strongest in the morning and depletes throughout the day. Hence, more challenging tasks should be scheduled for the morning hours.

Further Strategies

  • Healthy Lifestyle: A balanced lifestyle supports willpower but is comprehensive enough to be its article.
  • Stress Management: The ability to manage stress effectively is also a crucial part of willpower, deserving its spotlight.
  • Practice Cognitive Reframing: Change your mental narrative. Instead of seeing a challenge as an obstacle, view it as an opportunity to grow.
  • Rewarding Effort: Often, the path to developing willpower is long and arduous, which makes it crucial to celebrate the small victories along the way. Positive reinforcement in the form of self-rewards can be a highly effective strategy to sustain your willpower over the long term. Whether it’s treating yourself to a favorite meal after a week of healthy eating, or enjoying a leisurely activity after completing a challenging task, rewards serve as a reminder of what you’re working towards. These tokens of self-recognition can reinvigorate your commitment and replenish your will to continue the journey of self-discipline.
  • Believing in Yourself: Confidence can be a game-changer in building willpower. Doubt drains energy, while belief in your abilities provides the extra push to overcome challenges. It’s more than just positive thinking; a strong belief system can tangibly improve your performance. Therefore, nurture self-confidence by revisiting past successes as reminders of your capabilities. A solid belief in yourself lays the foundation for resilient willpower.

Conclusion: Cultivating Willpower as a Life Skill

In the quest to better ourselves, understanding and enhancing willpower serves as a vital pillar. Unlike what some might believe, building willpower is not a mysterious art but a disciplined practice. Whether you’re comparing it to muscle training in a gym or managing a finite daily ‘battery’ of willpower, the message is clear: willpower can be developed and optimized.

To put it succinctly, growing your willpower involves conscious choices, structured approaches, and an unwavering belief in your capabilities. Rewarding your efforts and embracing strategies can make this endeavor not just attainable, but also sustainable. As we’ve gleaned from experts like Kelly McGonigal, the path might be challenging, but it is navigable.

Your willpower is not just a trait; it’s a muscle. The more you train it, the stronger it becomes. So start small, but most importantly, start now. Your future self will thank you.