Systems > Willpower

Willpower is a finite resource. There is a huge, growing body of research to support this.

This is why it’s harder to hit the gym after the office than before. It’s why, after a day of eating healthy, we fall off the wagon and eat ice cream before bed. It’s why the vast majority of crime, promiscuity, relapses into addictive behavior, and other poor decisions happen late at night.

Yet it’s enduringly popular to think that if we only try harder, set lofty goals, and want it badly enough, we can change our behavior and our outcomes.

It’s time to get realistic, time to be honest with ourselves. We need a better, more reliable, more powerful way. We need to recognize the power of systems and create habits that help us reach our goals.

Systems are greater than willpower. Here’s a few that I use to trick myself into better living:

  • the siren song of a new email or text message are too great for me to resist, so when I practice or write, I close gmail and put my phone in airplane mode.
  • if I start the day without any goals or plans in place, I’ll drift aimlessly and accomplish little. So I keep a pen and paper next to the coffee maker. When I make the coffee, I make a list.
  • it’s easy to spend too much time on facebook & twitter, so I installed Stay Focused and now it blocks me if I spend more than ten minutes (combined) on either site.
  • I’m training for a half marathon. My motivation changes from one day to the next, but I have a training schedule, and every day I simply look at what I need to do. Then I do it. I don’t leave the house planning to run six miles but stop after four because I’m hungry.
  • Instead of “x times per week”, I practice everyday. The “what” of my practice is scheduled weeks ahead of time. No decisions to make, no resistance felt.
  • I know where things are, because they all belong somewhere. My keys are on a hook by the door. My kindle is in the zippered side pouch of my bag. Picks are in my right rear pocket.
  • setting up my gear at a venue entails no decisions––I’ve done it so many times that it’s automatic. I know which pieces to set where, which pockets hold which cables and what step is next. When I load out, I know exactly where to put each piece so everything fits nicely in my trunk.


Your environment can also be considered a system of sorts. Again, examples from my life:

  • bread, carbs, and processed foods are easy to eat when I’m in a hurry, so I don’t keep them in the house.
  • TV is a major distraction for me. I’ll leave the room if it’s on, and I make it a point to book shows in venues with as few televisions as possible.
  • if it’s noisy, a pair of headphones helps keep me focused.
  • I make it a point to hang out with other positive, ambitious, dream-big-and-do-interesting-stuff people, and I avoid negative, boring, resigned people.
  • a clean desk is easier to write at, a clean kitchen is easier to cook in, and a clean car interior makes it easier to drive long distances.
  • my guitars are on stands, beckoning to be played no matter where I am in the house.

I don’t mention all of this to impress you with how cool I am. Each one of these things took some time to get right, I have days where I fail, and I still have a long way to go.

How about you? Are you relying on willpower where a system would produce a better result, with less stress? Is your environment set up with your goals in mind? Do you have examples that you’d like to share? Hit us up in the comments! We’ll all be better for it.

About Josh Frets

Guitarist, singer, and songwriter. On a mission to transform guitar instruction. Why? Because at present, the state of guitar instruction is a freaking travesty. Hit me up on Twitter or Google+.