You Can Do Anything You Put Your Mind To... Until You Can't

If you’ve known me for longer than 15 minutes you know I’m not one for rah-rah motivational stuff.  I hate #motivationalmonday.  I detest the crap you’ll see on Facebook like this touting people’s mindset over their physical capabilities.  I know it’s nice to hear but 99% of it is complete crap.  It’s really fun to imagine that with enough motivation/willpower you can do anything but unfortunately it’s just not true.  Talent is important.  Luck matters.  Things that your mindset has no impact on.  

Now before you label me as a huge debbie downer (a label I’m fine with actually... though I prefer realist) let me just say that I’m not outright dismissing the importance of a mindset.  I’m an advocate of mental practice like anything else but really for only one reason: you don’t have any other choice.  I’m only an insane optimist because there’s no reason not to be, not because I view it as a key to success.  If you’re relying on (or blaming) your mindset/willpower alone then you’re destined to fail.  Instead of thinking that you can do anything if you just put your mind to it, instead let’s accept a few key facts about our brain/willpower and work with it.

 Know Your Enemy

 Let’s talk (in very simplistic terms) about your brain.  In essence it’s split into 3 main parts.  

  • The Brain Stem controls automatic system: heartbeat, breathing, nervous signals, etc.

  • The Cerebellum (also known as the little brain or Lizard Brain) controls things like balance, autoregulation and posture.  Included in the Cerebellum is the Limbic System.  This Limbic System controls basic emotional responses.  

  • The Cerebrum is what separates humans from most species.  This part of the brian houses things like logic, pattern recognition and speech.  

 It’s important to understand that these pieces of the brain are there in you no matter how much you believe in yourself.  In the same way that (thankfully) you don’t have to think about every breath you take or heart beat; you also don’t have complete recognition/control (unfortunately) over every action you take.  If you ever go on autopilot that’s basically your Lizard Brain taking over.  Overall that’s really helpful, but often times it can get you in trouble.  A lot of times, your higher functioning brain (The Cerebrum) spends it’s bandwidth overruling your Cerebellum.  And just like your muscles, your brain can become exhausted and can’t win every time.

 If You Only Learn ONE THING It’s This:  Willpower is a Fixed Resource

 Reading motivational posts is a lot like playing the lottery.  If the lottery is “a tax on people who don’t understand odds” then motivational posts are heroin for people who don’t understand the brain.  I know it’s tempting to think you can do anything you put your mind to but let’s live in the real world for a moment and understand this one basic concept: willpower is a fixed resource.  

 Did you have to convince yourself to get out of bed?  Zap!  A little bit gone

Did you have to convince yourself not to yell at some idiot in traffic? Zap!

Trying not to eat candy on your coworkers desk?  Zap!

Finally deal with that email that’s been in your inbox?  ZAP!




Now I’m not judging, we’ve all been there.  You didn’t eat pizza because you had to, or you didn’t  know it was bad for you.  You did it because you were basically out of will power. Every time you have to do something you don’t want to do, that’s a little bit more bandwidth your Cerebrum is spending overruling your Cerebrum.  And just like any computer system, bandwidth is ultimately fixed (fixed much lower if you use Comcast).


3 Tips for Maximizing Willpower Bandwidth

 1.) Do it early

Ok this is the kinda advice I usually blast people for so I’m willing to take a lashing for it but it deserves to be said.  If you want to do something you’re infinitely more likely to get it done the sooner you do it.  I say this as a relentless procrastinator (but I’m getting better) but just getting things started earlier is better than later; because later often turns into never.  If there’s one thing I’ve realized as a gym owner is that the people who come at 6am are the best.  When someone commits to making something the first part of their day; you likely have a great customer.  Even though getting out of bed is tough, it’s easier to overcome because their willpower stores are full.  Do it early if you want to increase your odds of getting it done.

 2.) Make it fun.

I love CrossFit and being around the people it attracts.  But I’m also keenly aware it’s not for everyone.  Just because someone speaks to the benefits they’ve seen doesn’t mean it’s perfect for everyone.  I often say, “Everyone can’t do it; but it’s not for everyone.”  I truly mean that.  If something feels like a chore then it’s probably a chore.  When push comes to shove and your willpower reserves are low; you’re very unlikely to get it done.  

 I also often tell people that the actual work you do is not even close to most important thing in your workouts.  I’d say the number one thing is the atmosphere the second most important is the people, and probably the 10th most important is the actual workout.  If Soulcycle is your kinda atmosphere, do it!  Whatever activity you look forward to doing is the thing you should do more of. Save your willpower for saying no to Susie’s goddamn candy.

 3.) Replace Don’t Rid Habits.

This one probably warrants a blogpost on to itself but there are relatively simple ways to hack your lizard brain so that it gets you to do things you ought to do instead of things you want to do. Shoot Charles Duhigg wrote a whole book about it called The Power of Habit.  The key to the whole game is habit.  You’re a victim of habits in almost everything you do.  To keep it simple every habit is made of three parts:

  1. A Cue

  2. A Routine

  3. A Reward

Without explaining the entire thing (read the book!) the most important thing to understand, in my opinion, is that you can’t get rid of habits, you can only replace them.  

Let’s say you have a nasty habit of drinking a soda every day when you get home from work. Instead of saying “I’m not gonna drink a soda anymore” (very unlikely to work) start by recognizing the cue.  Is it because you’re thirsty?  Is it because you’re tired?  Do you crave one after a particularly tough day at work?  This could take awhile but recognizing what triggers the habit is important.  

Then, what’s the routine?  Do you pick one up on the way home from work?  Do you have it at home?  Do you share it with your roommate or significant other?  Change that up.  Take a different route home.  Don’t buy it when you’re at the grocery store.  It’s not important that you kick the habit immediately, it’s just important that you disrupt the cycle.

Finally, experiment with the reward.  Start by rewarding yourself with something else like ice cream or an enjoyable TV show.  Then maybe you replace it with a piece of fruit.  Then it becomes reading a book or talking to a friend.  This could take a week or a few months.  But the important thing is not to rely on some magic mindset shift, but rather feeling control and taking ownership of it.

In the end the reason I hate motivational phrases and gurus is because it’s just a new iteration of the “overnight success” mentality.  It replaces the reality of hard work, delayed gratitude and struggle with a meaningless but enjoyably immediate dose of “feel good.”  So you can keep playing the lottery of motivation if you like; but you’re far better off building your fortuitous fortune over time.

Andrew Killion