Pvt. Stephen Colbert outsources his willpower. From the US Army Flickr feed.

Recently, I made a decision: I need to give up on discipline.

Let me explain.

I’m a pretty motivated guy. This has not always been the case. Many of the posts on this blog detail the many, many ways I attempt to get control of myself, to make myself do the things I know I need to do to move towards what I want in life.

That process is a lot harder than it might seem. I’m sure, if you’re reading this, that you’ve experienced something similar: you want something, you know you need to work to get there, but you don’t. You watch TV, or go out, or do whatever fun and easy thing you want to do instead.

I’ve always believed that this was a part of being human, and that there were any number of ways we could motivate and discipline ourselves to succeed in life. I still believe that.

However, I no longer believe that using willpower and discipline is the best way to achieve everything.

To understand this, we need to talk about the well.

The Well

Imagine you are standing at a well.

The well is quite deep. You can see, by peering down, that it’s filled just about halfway to the top with clear, clean water.

There is a bucket and rope at the top, and you are welcome to draw from this well all you want. In fact, it’s the only source of water for the entire neighborhood, so you’ll need to draw from it quite often.

Throughout the day, you draw from the well. You draw from it for drinking water, to wash dishes and take showers, to water lawns and do laundry. By the end of the day the water level is quite low; it gets harder and harder to reach the water with the bucket and rope.

In the morning, you return to the well to find it replenished. Overnight, ground water has seeped back into the well, returning it to its original state. Once again, you may draw all you wish – but only to a point.

Will Power As A Psychic Commodity

We’ve talked about this before, but one of the single most effective things you can do start understanding and affecting your own behavior is understand that will power is a finite resource.

Much like the water in the well, you use will power throughout the day for all kinds of things: to stop at just two cups of coffee, to not hit your boss right in his stupid face, to smile at the girl you dislike. You also use your willpower for the big stuff: to stick to your diet, to wake up at 5 to run, etc.

Sooner or later, the water runs out. Your will power gets low, and it becomes increasingly more difficult to resist temptations and do difficult tasks. Eventually the time will come when you can’t draw on willpower at all. Thankfully, the well will be refilled in the morning, and your willpower will return.

This leads us to an unavoidable conclusion: you can’t do everything you want.

Kill Your Darlings

In life, we acquire all sorts of ambitions. We want to be an amazing musician, an inspiring painter, have a six-pack, raise a loving family, live in a big house and be rich and travel to Peru.

All of those are awesome goals, and worthy. But each of them has a separate path to success (practice for 4 hours a day; find a studio to show your work; change your diet and workout every morning; spend more time at home; get a second job and start saving; call the travel agent), all of which require willpower.

What will happen if, during the course of our already-stressful and demanding lives, we attempt to achieve all of these goals at once?


Willpower is finite. Trying to do everything – committing our energy everywhere at once – will leave us with nothing. No success, no progress.

William Faulkner once said “In writing, you must kill your darlings.” He meant that all your favorite sentences, characters, and bits of language – all the writery things you are really proud of – need to be cut. It isn’t about you, after all; it’s about the story.

The same applies to goals. We need to make sure that if a goal is important enough to spend time, energy, and willpower on, it’s important enough to spend enough time, energy, and willpower on. That means dedicating a lot of our precious psychic resources to that goal.

We can’t do everything. We have to choose. We have to decide what really matters to us, what fulfills us and profoundly reflects who we are, and then we have to get rid of everything else. We have to kill our darlings.

How I Gave Up On Willpower

Let’s take a moment to talk about my own life, and how I’ve applied this line of thinking.

As I noted earlier, I’m pretty motivated. I’m a goal-driven, disciplined guy; I wake up several hours before work each day to write and answer emails. I have set-aside times each week to write music, to manage the record label I run, to try to make more money. I do these things because they’re important to me, and to my stability in the long-term.

But there are other parts of my life, like my health, that I just cannot seem to get under control. I’m not that unhealthy, or particularly overweight, or anything like that. I just don’t exercise or eat particularly well. I’ve got about ten extra pounds I wish I didn’t have. My father died of a heart attack, and it weighs on my mind. I want to make sure that doesn’t happen to me.

I know that I could die if I don’t exercise regularly. I know it will make me look and feel better if I do so. It’s hard to think of a stronger motivation to take a relatively simple action: go out and run a few times a week, go to the gym and lift weights.

And yet I just can’t seem to do it. I start and stop after a few weeks. I can’t muster any strong feeling about it one way or the other. I know I should, but I don’t, and that’s been the case for a long, long time.

Why is that? There are probably several reasons – human beings are notoriously awful at predicting how we’ll feel in the future, and how much we’ll regret not doing the things we should – but I suspect that a large part of it has to do with willpower.

I spend so much willpower on other parts of my life, always with multiple projects going at once, several things which require my attention and time, that I’m left without enough willpower to get an exercise habit started. If I could just get started, get going with a regular routine and start building an exercise habit, the willpower requirement would go down (habits require very little willpower to maintain, and often require willpower to break). But getting started is the hard part.

So, if using willpower to get started is a losing battle for me, how do I get started? I don’t want to just give up on being healthy.

So, I hired a personal trainer.

That’s right. I said it. I hired a personal trainer.

Even Tiger Woods Has A Coach

When faced with a situation in which you can’t muster the willpower to work on an important goal, you need to look for ways to circumvent the need for willpower.

I’ve talked about this a bit in my on-going email course, and about ways to manipulate your physical environment to decrease the need for willpower and change ingrained behaviors. One thing I haven’t talked about, however, is how to outsource your willpower by hiring a coach.

Who is a coach, in this context? A coach is anyone who has the responsibility of monitoring your behavior, advising you on how to move forward, and holding you accountable for your slip-ups. A coach could be a teacher, a friend, a personal trainer, or even an actual, paid, licensed coach.

There are a few reasons why hiring a coach can be very effective in this kind of situation:

1. Accountability.

Accountability – having other people know what you are supposed to do, and aware if you do it or not – has been shown to be a very powerful motivator. No one wants to look like a jerk to their peers.

I never, ever want to exercise after work; now that I have a trainer waiting for me, however, I’m very unlikely to skip a session. I know that I’d be putting him out, inconveniencing him and taking a step backward on my goal of starting an exercise habit. That’s a powerful incentive to go.

 2. Commitment.

The fact that I am spending money on these lessons is a strong motivation to go. I want to get my money’s worth; I’m already committed, financially, to the decision to start an exercise routine. I don’t have a lot of money, which makes each dollar I spend very important.

Being committed in this way makes it very difficult to pull out or stop. I’ve already lost the money, I might as well get something out of it.

3. No guess work.

Often, when we have trouble moving forward on a goal, the problem is not so much motivation as certainty. We’re often not sure exactly how to proceed, and that uncertainty can make it difficult to get started.

I’ve read dozens of books on exercise and diet, and I have a growing list of possible regimes to try sitting in my Evernote. Which is best? If I choose one, how do I know I’m performing the exercises correctly? What if I hurt myself, or aggravate an old injury? How do I know if I’m making progress?

Having a coach solves this problem. A coach can tell you what to do, and when. They can evaluate your performance and correct mistakes. Having a coach removes uncertainty – you don’t need to do the research, weigh your options, or worry about if you’re doing everything correctly. Just show up.

You’ll also benefit from your coach’s competitive advantage in their field. No matter how much I read about exercise, I’ll never know as much as the guy who went to school for exercise science, has worked out for his entire adult life, has trained hundreds of people and keeps up with all the latest literature in the field. Exercise is what he does. The depth of his knowledge far surpasses mine, which means that I can benefit from all the work he’s done without having to do it myself.

All these factors mean that the willpower requirement for starting a new exercise routine is far, far lower than it would be if I tried to go it alone. Essentially, I have outsourced my willpower to someone else. I no longer need to rely solely on my own willpower to work towards my goal: I just need to concentrate on getting to the gym. Everything else is out of my hands.

If there’s an area of your life in which you’re having trouble making progress, consider finding a coach. Maybe find a friend who’s working on similar goals, and be coaches for one another, holding each other accountable and sharing knowledge. If you can spare the money, look around for people you can pay to hold you accountable (Craigslist is a great place to start for personal trainers and coaches).

Giving up on discipline and investing in a coach can have powerful results.

By the way, I’ve coached some people before. If that sounds like something you’d be interested in, drop me an email. I’d love to hear about what you’re working on.