The Will to Succeed

“Improving willpower is the surest way to a better life.”

Those aren’t my words. They’re the words of Roy Baumeister, Professor of Psychology at Florida State University, where he’s been doing experiments in willpower and self-control since 2000.

His research shows that you can train your willpower.

What’s this mean for copywriters like you and me?

Choosing between what you want to do
and what you must do to succeed …

Being a freelancer of any sort takes willpower. More so if you’re a copywriter.

We’re constantly challenged to stay on task. Email. Internet. Phone calls. Friends. Family. All these distractions assault you, threatening to derail your efforts to write and succeed.

It takes willpower. Many of us learned willpower is a matter of moral strength. Many of us got this message pounded into us growing up. I got it from my mother … and the nuns!

Unfortunately, this perspective makes calling on willpower that much more difficult. If willpower is simply a matter of moral strength, either I have it or I don’t.

“Not much I can do about it,” I tell myself. “I’m hardwired (so the moral strength model says) for being distracted. For giving into temptation.”

Baumeister and science writer John Tierney tell a much different tale in their book Willpower.

They contend … and have the experiments to prove it … that willpower is a skill that’s learned. And—this is the important point for you and me—exercises can build willpower.

According to Tierney in an interview by NPR’s Audie Cornish:

“The Victorians talked about this vague idea of it being some form of mental energy. In the last 15 years we’ve discovered that it really is a form of energy in the brain. It’s like a muscle that can be strengthened with use, but it also gets fatigued with use.”

Out of sight, out of mind … and more productive

How can you strengthen your willpower? Or, at least give your willpower a better chance of succeeding?

“Out of sight, out of mind” doesn’t seem like much of strategy for building willpower. But it is. It has huge impact on how easy … or difficult … it is to exercise the willpower you do have.

Here’s why.

Resisting temptation, like a sweet treat or going on YouTube, saps mental energy you need for self-control.

Dieting is a good example. Putting food where you can see it drains willpower. Putting it out of sight makes it easier to resist, because you’re not actively resisting temptation.

Baumeister ran a study where experimenters forced hungry students to resist eating chocolate chip cookies. They didn’t do as well on later tests of focus and self-control as students who hadn’t been asked to exercise restraint.

Your reserve of willpower is limited. You need to conserve it and save it for times where using it is critical.

Here’s the implication for times when you’re supposed to be working.

Eliminate as many work-related normal distractions as possible. Turn off the phone and let everything go to voicemail, if you can.

Close your office door (if possible) and hang a “do not disturb” sign on it.

Don’t keep your browser open in the background when you’re writing. If possible, you might even consider turning off your Internet connection.

But also, reduce temptations in other areas. Keep food temptations out of sight, out of mind. Same for anything else that could sap the self-control you need to stay on task with your copywriting.

Want more willpower? Sit up straight!

Baumeister’s experiments show you can build willpower through exercise. You do this by challenging yourself in small areas of self-control.

In one study, experimenters told students to watch their posture for a week. After that week, those students performed better on self-control tasks. And these tasks had nothing to do with sitting up straight. Students who had not been exercising posture control all week didn’t do as well.

Other simple willpower-building exercises suggested in Baumeister’s book include:

  • Not using contractions in your speech. (But use them freely in your copywriting.)
  • Forcing yourself to speak in full sentences.
  • Making yourself say “yes” instead of “yep” and “no” instead of “nope.”
  • And, not using profanities.

Doing these sorts of activities requires mental effort, and according to co-author Tierney …

“The more you do that, the more it builds up that muscle.”

What are your biggest challenges to willpower? How do you deal with them? Do you have any willpower-building strategies that work well for you? Please let us all know by leaving a comment here.

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Published: November 24, 2014

11 Responses to “The Will to Succeed”

  1. Will---soaking in this powerful stuff ...I think if there's anything I've learned about challenges to willpower, it's to hang in there, staying focused in a hyper-connected world, fighting for consistency of habits, and letting the habits fight for me. We shouldn't walk away from these activities, get distracted, get too busy or tired. I'll never take all things willpower for granted. Every second we manage to have small wins overcoming impulses, our willpower grows stronger. Best regards!


  2. Willpower is a tough subject. I have it in some areas, but not all areas.

    A wise man told me once that without discipline there is destruction.

    In some areas, such as exercise and healthy eating, I have enough willpower to try to stay healthy.

    In the area of clutter, it is much tougher. I have a family and I work. Even knowing what clutter can do, it's tough getting rid of it daily.

    Making the time to learn to write will pay off. I have willpower for that, for sure. It's important.

    scott moore

  3. I do not speak English. I speak Portuguese. Make Money Writing is a dream that never thought possible. Be Copywriter is my biggest goal.
    Brazil is a country with over 200 million inhabitants and seventh in the world economy. I believe that will be a very skilled copywriter, from the guidance and you have one huge untapped market to work. These prospects are exciting.
    Thanks for the tip that THE GOLDEN THREAD. Is closely guarded to be used at the right time.


  4. I struggle with willpower and self-control. I've tried various things for this, with varying degrees of success. For example, I love sweet baked goods (to go with coffee) and snack foods. Buying them is OK as long as they're consumed in moderation, but that's where I struggle (a whole bag of tortilla chips can disappear in less than 24 hours!). So I keep these things in the garage. That helps somewhat. I also keep my personal email program closed when I'm working, which helps too. And I've started timing my use of Facebook and YouTube. But I still have a long way to go.

    Guest (Jeff Soufal)

  5. Hi Will, great article, thanks for that.

    In The Science of Getting Rich (1907), Wallace Wattles spends 2 Chapters on the Will, read the book many times, it was the foundation for the movie The Secret.

    My gut feeling, what I learned is that willpower or will is created/fed by the desired end result of anything. What do you REALLY desire to have in your life, stay focused on that and you will shape/bend the will to it, to manifest.

    We are powerful beyond comprehension - it is all in the mind.


  6. Determination and stuborness I have. Willpower on the other hand I have a much harder time with because it requires taking bad or unhealthy habbits and breaking them. Sometimes if we try replacing the bad habbit with something that is good and are able to implement that positive thing consistently (and the key thing is "Consistency") we are able to free our selves of the bad habbit. I don't drink, do drugs or smoke but, I still chew my fingers. Mercy! Willpower where are you?!

    Guest (Missy-Jo Blue)

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