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Big Ideas

A Master Plan for Taking Back Control of Your Life

Our willpower is a highly limited resource, and it gets depleted by every act that requires its use. We outline 8 steps you can take to maintain peak performance.

Here’s the problem we face, every day of our lives. Nearly everything that generates enduring value requires effort, focus, and even some discomfort along the way.  At the same time, we’re deeply wired to avoid pain, which the body reads as mortally dangerous, and to move toward pleasure, the more immediate the better.

We’re also exposed to more temptation than ever. The world is literally at our fingertips, a few keystrokes away. It’s forever beckoning us, like the Sirens singing to Odysseus, who lashed himself to the mast of his ship to resist their call.The sirens sing to us, too: Have the dessert. Skip the workout. Put off the hard work. Surf the web. Check your email. Indulge your whims. Settle for the easy way out. Thanks to researcher Roy Baumeister and others,  the evidence is clear that we have one reservoir of willpower. It’s a highly limited resource, and it gets depleted by every act that requires its use. So how do we take back control of our lives?  What follows are the key moves we can make. It’s not all or none.  More is better, but each one will help.

1. Make more of your behaviors automatic.

Because our willpower is so limited, our best defense is to rely on it less. Here’s how the brilliant mathematician Alfred North Whitehead put it: “Civilization advances by extending the number of operations we can perform without thinking about them.” A ritual is a highly precise behavior that you perform over and over, at a specific time, so it becomes automatic and no longer requires much willpower to get it done.

2. Take yourself out of harm’s way.

You can’t easily lash yourself to a mast, but you can selectively avoid temptations. If you want to lose weight, it makes sense to remove your favorite high-calorie foods from the shelves, and to tell the waiter at restaurants not to bring the bread.  If you want to get challenging work done, turn off your email entirely for designated periods of time rather than try to resist its Pavlovian ping.

3. Whatever you feel compelled to do, don’t.

The more powerfully driven you are to take instant action, the more likely you shouldn’t. When the pull is intense, it’s likely you’ve activated your fight-or-flight physiology. That’s great when you’re actually facing a life-or-death situation and need to react instantly. In most life circumstances, it serves you better to reflect before you react.

4. Sleep as much as you must to feel fully rested.

For nearly 98% of us, that means at least 7 hours a night. “Fatigue,” said Vince Lombardi, “makes cowards of us all.” Specifically, it undermines our capacity for self-control, and we’re more likely to default to instant gratification.  The best sleep ritual is not just to choose a precise bedtime, but also to begin winding down at least 30 minutes before turning out the lights.

5. Do the most important thing first in the morning.

That’s when the vast majority of us have the most energy and the fewest distractions.  Our energy reservoir diminishes as the day wears on, which is why it’s so difficult to get to the hardest work late in the day. Conversely, the more focused you are, the higher the quality of work you’ll do, and the more you’ll get done. I often get more important work done during the first 90 minutes of the morning than in the rest of the hours of the day put together.

6. Eat energy rich foods in small doses at frequent intervals.

Food – specifically glucose – literally fuels willpower.  Unfortunately, the body can only make use of a limited amount at any given time, so we need to refuel at least every three hours.  Sugars and simple carbohydrates provide a surge of energy that doesn’t last, while lean proteins and complex carbohydrates provide a steadier, more enduring source of energy and therefore willpower.

7. Do one thing at a time.

With so much coming at us so relentlessly – emails, texts, people, and information – we assume the only way to get to it all is to juggle multiple tasks at the same time.  In fact, moving between tasks creates something called “switching time.” When you shift attention from one focus of attention to another, the average time it takes to finish the first task increases by at least 25%.

8. Work in sprints.

Human beings aren’t meant to operate like computers, at high speeds, continuously. Rather, we’re designed to pulse between spending and renewing energy. The ultradian rhythm refers to a 90-minute cycle inside us, during which we move from a state of higher physiological arousal progressively down towards fatigue. Focus intensely, ideally without interruption, for no more than 90 minutes at a time. Then take a real break, for at least a few minutes, to relax emotionally, give the mind a rest and physically recharge.


Above all else, it’s critical to ground yourself in deeply held values. Knowing what you stand for is a uniquely powerful fuel for behavior, especially when the going gets tough, and the temptation is to take the easy route. If you’re clear about who you want to be in any given situation, non-negotiably, the songs of the Sirens aren’t so alluring. —

What About You?

How do you stay focused and motivated?

More Posts by Tony Schwartz

Comments (91)
  • Peter

    Perhaps increasing “mindless operations” frees us to grow and develop through mindful activity.
    If we need to conciously think about each action we take, would we have the capacity to focus on growth and development?

  • Elizabeth Pease

    Thanks Tony…good reminders and tips!  thank you!

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    I found lots of interesting information here. The post was
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  • Ashley J

    I especially love #3 – don’t do what I am most compelled to do.  When I am most tempted to do something I really don’t want to (like eating that chocolate bar) I’ll often stop myself simply on the basis of starting a new pattern.  It’s like using that principle to catapult me to create a better habit.

  • Kane Croudace

    Steps one and three are going to cancel each other out. just sayin’

  • Tabraiz Feham

    Very interesting and helpful article that will halp in aligning our lives with what we wish to achieve. I have been listening to a lot personal development and productivity podcasts, and you have really summaized it all here in a superb fashion. Thanks.

  • RazvanNeagu

    1 is to be applied to good habits and 3 to bad habits…

  • Flamboyanz

    Thanks a ton for sharing these invaluable tips. It would help one deeply introspect amd se;f evaluate his actions, behaviors and the very thought process. This is going to by my Manifesto going ahead.. Thanks again

  • Patricia Howitt

    Thank you for this fascinating and helpful article!  I’ve just come thru the fire of producing 36 15’x20′ exhibition-quality paintings as illustrations for a book, and it was a real hard one at times, from the deadline point of view.  Although I was working on more than one painting at once, I fully believe in 7 and normally use it is much as I can, doing things in batches rather than flitting about from one task to another.  Re 4 – I was actually sleeping and working round the clock towards the finish, but it’s not a practice I’d recommend!   I also really like your final piece of advice, and fortunately was in a position once or twice to stand on my dig. and call the shots on how this work was to be done. Thank you for this helpful piece.
    PS: Re 2 – I don’t have a TV.

  • Hollie Sheard

    I think the ultradian rhythm link is possibly supposed to go somewhere else?

  • jkglei

    Thx Hollie. Fixed the link.

  • Fajr

    This was truly an enlightening article, I especially love the tips on sleeping as much as needed, eating healthy and working on one thing at a time. All common sense things, but things we neglect to do. 

  • Juanita

    Odysseus; The name has several variants: Olysseus (Ὀλυσσεύς), Oulixeus (Οὐλιξεύς), Oulixes (Οὐλίξης)[1] and he was known as Ulyssēs in Latin or Ulixēs in Roman mythology.

  • Ingwemalmsteen

    Imagine yourself in the impoverished outskirts of any large third world city, crouching on a dirt floor in a soggy cardboard and tin hut, cooking some thin soup in a tin can with your biggest dream being to last the night. 

    Now re-read this article.

    You’ll see the self-pretentious, self-indulgent self-blather of the 1%.

  • Matt Williams

    6. Eat energy rich foods in small doses at frequent intervals.  While this is conventional wisdom, it is for the most part deeply flawed. 
    Anyone who believes they can micromanage their blood sugar by eating 5-6 small meals a day is in for a challenge.

    I personally follow a reasonably low carbohydrate diet and I no longer suffer from the ups and downs of glucose dependence -> I enjoy steady energy throughout the day while eating 2-3 meals and a 1-2 coffees/teas.

    It’s the kind of thing where people are dismissive, labeling anything contrary to the norm as a fad. There are certainly fads out there but there are also nutritional approaches that I consider far superior to the conventional low-fat high carb recommendations.

    If you’re interested, I suggest looking at Why We Get Fat by Gary Taubes or The Primal Blueprint by Mark Sisson.

    Enjoyed the post BTW,


  • Aleš Kroutil

    I tried GTD, but nowadays I don’t have so much work to do so I use simple todo lists.

  • Kevin McLoughlin

    Totally agree with Matt. Finding the time to eat 5-6 times a day isn’t possible for most of us. Hell, I have trouble enough planning 3. 

    My approach: automate breakfast during the 30 minute wind-down before sleep. 

    I have a bowl of berries (blueberries, raspberries), which I wrap and prepare the night before, and scrambled eggs on toast. For this, I leave the eggs on top of the bread in the fridge, and place salt and pepper beside the toaster. 

    The berries are “slow-glucose”, and the eggs/toast give you just the right amount of proteins and carbs. 

    “You’re only as good as your last meal” (Tim Ferriss), and this routine helps me consistently execute on #5 above. 

  • Timo Kiander

    Exercising, power napping, working with a timer and eating healthy food on a regular basis. Those things put me to focus zone.

    Note to Matt: It is not impossible to eat 5-6 small meals per day. It just takes some practice… I have done it for several years.


  • oxy sleep

    2) Avoid Caffeine – there has been a study showing that caffeine when not fully metabolized makes a person sleep harder.

  • Catpatrick

    Thank you. As a working mom I feel that so many of these things are not directly in my control, at least not in their entirety. A major reason that I am 30 lbs overweight is that my “mom” kitchen is very different from the kitchen I kept as a single gal, and I spend a heckuva lot of time in that kitchen. I realize that before kids I unconsciously did #2. I am working on ways to resist the food that is inches away from me as I cook, clean, unload groceries … But it is not easy. Fatigue is also a killer. By Friday night I just DON’T CARE and tend toward comfort-food pig outs. I do have a huge workout 90 minutes! Each morning, which I did by following #1 – I made it easier to go to the gym than to not go. All my stuff is in my lOckee, etc.

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