Debunking the myth of willpower and success

July 20, 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Famed U.S. historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. declared humanity’s first successful lunar mission in 1969 as the most important event of the 20th century. He even ranked Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s first steps on the moon above the discovery of penicillin and the invention of the microchip.

But prior to its success, the general public perceived the Apollo 11 mission as an impossible feat. NASA engineers didn’t even know how to get to the moon, or how the astronauts would fare if they arrived.

The anniversary of this major world event has led me to reflect on my own dreams, and the role that willpower plays in reaching our goals and, ultimately, achieving success.

If you’re worried about your own level of willpower and whether you “have what it takes” to build a business, complete a major project, or even stick to your workout schedule, then I have good news for you.

Recent studies have debunked the most commonly repeated myths about willpower. The infamous marshmallow study by Stanford professor Walter Mischel, which directly linked the ability to delay gratification at an early age to success in adulthood has been challenged by recent studies. Similarly, the idea that willpower is a limited resource that we can exhaust, like water, is also under direct threat.

Such theories have been turned on their heads in recent years and newer research shows us that the concept of willpower is multifactorial. That means there are specific actions you can take to be more successful, instead of worrying that you don’t have enough willpower to achieve your goals.

The truth about willpower

Traditionally, willpower has been framed as a superpower that some people possess and others simply don’t. For instance, you might assume that your colleague who gets up at five am to run 10 kilometers, eat a perfectly balanced breakfast, and drive to work in a eucalyptus-scented electric car has willpower to spare. You — sitting at home watching 30 Rock reruns and eating a donut for breakfast — well, you don’t.

But that’s not necessarily true.

Willpower, like the tooth fairy, is pretty much a myth — something we’ve heard about all our lives, but has no real scientific basis. Instead, what we call willpower is really a combination of separate, but interrelated factors:

1. Motivation

2. Habits

3. Recognizing and avoiding distractions

4. Realistic goal-setting

5. Self-control (which can be genetically-related)

6. One’s personal life-context

On a side note, it’s important to separate the issue of alcohol and drug addiction from a more generalized discussion of “willpower” and success. Addiction is a disease that affects the brain and the body, and involves compulsive substance use in spite of the negative economic, social, and health-related consequences. It’s not something people can simply walk away from if they had more “willpower.”

Question the source of your motivation

What’s preventing you from reaching your goals? Sometimes the source of our motivation is misaligned with our true values, which makes attaining a goal more difficult — and sometimes even impossible.

This is where extrinsically vs. intrinsically motivated goals come into play. For instance, if you decide to go to business school to satisfy your parents, then you probably won’t do as well as you would if you choose an area of study that you genuinely enjoy. Motivation that comes from within is more powerful than the motivation to attain status or money.

But there’s more to willpower than just motivation.

Don’t rely on motivation alone: think about your habits, too

Too much reliance on motivation is unhelpful. There will be days when you don’t feel motivated, even though you may love what you do.

Sometimes we don’t prepare adequately to achieve our goals. For example, if you’re trying to lose weight, then you need access to healthy snacks at home and at work. Or, if you’re preparing to cook a meal, everything will run smoother and turn out better if you have all your ingredients mise-en-place (in their place) before you start cooking.

Basically, motivation plus good habits can help you create a more productive and positive “normal,” if you’re aware of what you want and what stands in your way of achieving it.

In his book, “No Dream Is Too High: Life Lessons from a Man Who Walked on the Moon,” the Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin said, 

“…failure is not a sign of weakness, it is a sign that you are alive and growing.”

Learn to recognize and avoid distractions

For the days when you don’t want to come into the office or go for that morning run (even though you typically enjoy those activities), you need to have a plan B.

When motivation wanes, it’s more important to watch for potential distractions — which I’ve previously explored in the context of learning — to boost willpower when it’s not intrinsically forthcoming.

In today’s super plugged-in world, it can be tough to stay focused and truly productive. We’re easily swept into a vortex of 24/7 emails and WhatsApp chats, viral videos and Twitter feeds. Digital distraction is so pervasive that the World Health Organization declared it an emerging public health issue, with the average U.S. adult spending nearly half of their day interacting with media in some form.

I stay focused thanks to my morning workout routine and spending my first two hours in the office writing down my thoughts. If I can’t bring myself to write for two hours, then I focus on other critical tasks to ensure that I’m still maximizing the most productive time of my day.

I also spend at least a week every year helping my family with the olive harvest. This step away from work keeps me sane, creative, grateful, and helps me come back to JotForm with a renewed focus, vision, and appreciation for my work and our team.

Set realistic goals and take responsibility when you don’t meet them

Finally, we also have to set realistic goals if we want to actually achieve them — and that’s not a question of willpower, it’s a matter of honest self-evaluation. For example, if you haven’t exercised in five years, then you can’t train for two weeks and expect to finish a triathlon.

Acknowledge your failures and take responsibility for them. If you’re falling short of your goals, be honest with yourself about why and, rather than getting discouraged, figure out what you need to do differently.

Attributing failure to a lack of willpower or bad luck lets us off the hook too easily. Instead, think of your so-called “willpower failures” as missing pieces of a complete puzzle, which is achieving your goal.

So, when you’re doubting yourself, your plans for the future, or your past accomplishments, consider two of Buzz Aldrin’s guiding principles

“Failure is always an option,” 

and 

“The sky is not the limit … there are footprints on the moon!”

Aytekin Tank is the Founder and CEO of JotForm. A developer by trade but a storyteller by heart, he writes about his journey as an entrepreneur and shares advice for other startups. He loves to hear from JotForm users. You can reach Aytekin from AytekinTank@JotForm.com

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