How to Finish What You’ve Started

RPG Cartoon Kid

“Why can’t I get myself to exercise after work? I know I need to…I just don’t do it.”

“I always do really well for two weeks, and then things fall apart.”

“Ugh, why can’t I resist when people bring in donuts?”

It’s pretty darn easy to get down on yourself in these situations.  Rather than feeling like you’re in control of your own destiny, you feel like you don’t really have any control at all.  No matter how badly you want to turn your life around, for whatever reason your brain can’t get your body to do what it needs.

Today, you’re going to learn that these issues are not due to a lack of motivation, but rather your willpower.  Like an old-school gamer, today you’re going to make changes to finally start following through.

I’ve turned my life into a video game, so I live and breathe this stuff. 

Today, you’re going to do the same.

Willpower Points

Secret of Mana Whenever you play a role-playing game, you have health points that represent your lifeline.

As you go exploring and hunting, you will encounter bad guys that deplete your health points.  The tougher the bad guy, the harder they hit, and the more hit points you’re going to lose.  If you happen to fight lots of bad guys all at once, your health will deplete faster than if you were just fighting one baddie.

Your goal is to stay alive, defeat the bad guys, and level up.

In order to succeed, you need to be selective in which types of bad guys you pick fights with.  Fight a guy that’s too powerful, or too many bad guys at once, and your character gets overwhelmed, your heath bar hits zero, and you have to start over.  Suck!

Your willpower works just like a character’s health points (HP) in a video game.

People tend to suck at actually following through with things for a few key reasons:

1) Attack a bad guy that’s too powerful.  When you haven’t exercised in a decade and you sign yourself up for 10 miles of running every day, you’re going to fail miserably after two days.  If you decide you’re going to go from eating 6,000 calories of fast food per day to a diet of only vegetables overnight, you will probably gnaw your arm off.  You’re upping the difficulty WAY too much. Start small.

2) Attack too many bad guys at once.  When playing an RPG, don’t run up to that group of goblins and attack all of them at once; you’re going to get overwhelmed and get your ass kicked (Right, Leeroy?).  Instead, pick them off one by one by one and your chance of survival will jump approximately 132.33% (repeating of course).  This is why most New Years Resolution makers fail miserably within two weeks – they try to make twenty changes at once and quickly get overwhelmed.

3) Attack without recovering!  Anytime you get into a battle, you’re probably going to lose some health, that’s just how games work.  If you take the time to recover, your health will be back by the next battle.  However, if you fight ten battles in a row without any rest, you run into some trouble. The next battle might be against some super easy baddie, but could easily result in a game over! After spending all day taxing your body with work and difficult decisions, coming home and forcing your body to make habit changes is going to be incredibly difficult. Give your willpower points a chance to recharge.

If you happen to suck for one of the reasons above, it’s okay.  What’s important is that starting TODAY, you learn how to NOT suck.

It all comes down to one universal truth:

Like our health points in a video game…

Willpower is a finite resource!

Dragon Quest Blue Slime

As we’ve learned from The Power of Habitour bodies will do everything possible to be more efficient, opting in every situation to use less willpower and pick the path of least resistance.  Look at your habits now to see what happens when our bodies operate on auto-pilot: little to no brainpower or willpower required.


When you want to CHANGE a habit or replace an old habit with a new one, your brain has to start working again, requiring you to use some of your Willpower Points to get things done.  Don’t believe me?

Check out this study on chocolate and radishes: Subjects were split into two groups and presented with fresh baked cookies and radishes.  One group could eat cookies and the other group was ONLY allowed to eat radishes.  Afterward, both groups were given an impossible maze to solve.  The group that had to restrain themselves from eating cookies gave up more than TWICE as fast as the group that was allowed to eat cookies!  They wasted so much brainpower on keeping themselves from eating the cookies that they became frustrated faster when it came to solving a maze.

How about this study on number memorization? Students were split into two groups: One was tasked with memorizing a two digit number, and the other tasked with memorizing a seven digit number.  Afterward, both groups were encouraged to walk down the hall to grab a snack, either fruit or a piece of cake.  Those students tasked with memorizing seven digits were TWICE as likely to pick cake over fruit than the students who had to memorize only two numbers!

I know its weird to imagine, but our self control and will power points are finite resources!  This means a few things:

  • The more willpower we use up on certain tasks, the less we’ll have to go around for other tasks.
  • The more difficult the habit to change, the more willpower is used, and the less we’ll have to spend elsewhere.
  • If we try to do too many changes at one, our willpower gets depleted faster and we’re more likely to give up sooner.

How to preserve your willpower points

Earthbound Ness

Now that you know your willpower isn’t unlimited, you can adjust your behavior to make sure you don’t run out:

1) Attack a lower level bad guy.  Yes, it’s fun to wake up and say, “I’m going to run a marathon tomorrow!” or, “I’m only going to eat healthy starting right NOW!”  However, because these changes are SO drastic, our bodies are going to fight us EVERY step of the way.  You don’t set out as a level 1 noob and try to slay a dragon. Instead, tackle level one bad guys and build up your experience, strength, and momentum.  So, PICK EASY TASKS.

  • If you want to eat better, start by cutting back on just one less soda each day, or making one less trip to drive-thru, or one more meal cooked at home.  Small, tiny changes over a long period of time can create massive results.  Ask Optimus Prime.
  • If you want to exercise more, start by only doing push ups every other day.  Again, the goal isn’t to get fit overnight (it doesn’t work that way), the goal is to build the habit of, “today I am going to exercise,” until it becomes automatic. THEN you can increase the difficulty or complexity.
  • If you want to eventually run a half-marathon, commit to just five minutes of jogging every day.  The jogging isn’t the important part; the important part is following through with something on a daily basis until it becomes automatic.

2) Attack only one bad guy at once.  If you want to start building better habits, don’t pick ten different habits to change at once.  PICK ONE.  Do that one change repeatedly until it’s automatic, and then move onto the next habit change. Remember, your resources are limited, so pick an easy habit to change and be successful.  THEN, you can increase the difficulty or add something new, but keep it simple.  Please don’t suck at habit change!  This holds true for exercise, diet, and productivity.

3) Pick the order of your battles carefully.  If you struggle with being productive or making changes after work, try making your new habits BEFORE work.  Life tends to always get in the way, so why not get the important stuff out of the way before life has a chance?  Exercise FIRST thing in the morning, before you have a chance to use up any willpower on anything at work.  If you struggle with making healthy choices by the end of the day, lay out all of your meals BEFORE the day even starts.

4) Use less willpower!  I’ve already covered the topic of automation previously, but here it is in a nutshell: be more like a robot!  Remember, you need willpower when you are making new decisions and building new habits.  The more you can automate, the easier you can make it for your body to take the path of least resistance, the less willpower your brain will use, and the more likely you’ll be to succeed!

Replenish your willpower points

Final Fantasy IX Lego

Although we’ve covered different ways to keep your willpower points from depleting, there are a few different ways to replenish your willpower points as well:

1) Ask your group!  The best part about RPGs is that you can group with different people with unique skills to help heal and protect you in times of danger.  In real life, when you are struggling to actually follow through on something, ask your group for a heal:

  • Make a pact with your friend to drag you to the gym even when you don’t want to (and vice versa).
  • Tell them that you’ll pay $50 every time you skip a workout.
  • Have a competition with friends to see who can be the most consistent.
  • Check in with somebody via text every morning on how you’re going to proceed.
  • We have a community of almost 10,000 adventurers waiting for you to join their party.

2) Watch, read, or listen to something inspiring.  When you need a dose of motivation and inspiration, a movie, quote, book, or video can get you amped up at a moment’s notice.  These are your “health potions.”  Come on, it’s impossible to watch this or this or this and not want to run through a brick wall to accomplish your goals.  We’re actually in the process of building a pretty killer (and free) resource for NF rebels that need a Willpower Potion occasionally.  Stay tuned 🙂
How do you manage to actually follow through with things you’ve started?

Any tips to keep your willpower points full or replenishing it?

Leave a comment and help out your fellow rebels.  


PS – Big props to my buddy Matt Madeiro for taking on a monumental task.  He’s trying to raise enough money to buy a freakin school bus for the schoolchildren of Nepal by his 25th birthday.  He’s done a great job on his site.  Congrats Matt, hope you can pull it off man!


photo sources: Kid and Giant, Secret of Mana, Dragon Quest Blue Slime, Ness Earthbound, Final Fantasy IX Lego

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111 thoughts on “How to Finish What You’ve Started

  1. Linked here from today’s post:

    After graduating university 11 months ago, I’ve been in a phase of living day by day of not knowing whats next to come, with little direction. After finishing my last exam there was a fundamental shift in my attitude- there was all the sudden no plan for whats next: no assignments to finish, no exams to study for, no events to volunteer with, no degree/long term career planning…that’s what freedom is, right? 11 months have gone by and not much has changed in my life….just plugging along doing nothing out of the ordinary. Days and sometimes weeks go by a spur a motivation/inspiration comes and take that time to challenge myself: set task lists, little(and big) goals, and start to make the changes I want to see in my current state. But like this post outlines it was all too much too fast and after that spur fizzed away I’d be back to my normal routine and relatively pessimistic and negative attitude..nothing was going well.

    What I want to contribute to this post is to share my experience of now achieving the little tasks I had set out at those little spurs, naturally without putting much effort into it- it was just kind of worked itself out. And how these small changes have been so fundamental to my increased health and attitude- it totally builds momentum and is a chain effect leading to greater achievements. As an independent person I take on personal goals and work towards them just by myself. My little changes starting happening when i all the sudden wasn’t going at it alone. It was the social support that made them happen. But it wasn’t by reaching out for support and setting up a factor of accountability. I met a new friend and as we were hanging out, I started to realize that everything we did together (as part of his lifestyle) fit right inline with my little goals. I am eating less refine carbs and more whole/raw foods, practicing yoga, and taking a little time each day to reflect. Before the willpower required was a lot between each of these, but just by hanging out with him I wasn’t using any willpower, it was all just natural. And At the end of the day there is still a bank for those other little things that don’t fit in with our relationship. So in the end, what I learned is by surrounding yourself with people who follow a lifestyle/attitude that is in line with your own personal little changes, it turns from being a task to do(needing effort) to be one that is just getting done (no effort).

  2. Sometimes it’s good to give yourself little things to look forward to. , Once I’ve set a long term goal that I know will be difficult for me to complete because I lack the will power, I will give myself little incentives along the way. For example, the past few months in my life have been crazy and I’ve been struggling to keep my eating on track. So now, for each interval (1-2 weeks) that I stay on track I allow myself to have a non-food related treat that builds in scale the longer I stick to my goal. Social outings with friends I don’t see very often, allowing myself an entire day to do absolutely nothing but doodle in a notebook, going to a museum, etc. If I don’t stay on track, I have to wait until the next interval to get the incentive. If I do it twice in a row I start all over. This of course, works for me because I like to play games and challenge myself AND I tend to need justification for treating myself to anything. Not sure how it would be for people who are already on the indulgent side or get frustrated with sticking to a regimen.

  3. I also find this clip to be incredibly motivational – how could I not stick with my exercise plan when people like Katherine Switzer worked so hard for me to even be allowed to do things like go to gyms and run marathons? Ignore the first 40 seconds or so; they’re from a show this clip was featured on. This story never fails to get me going and make me want to succeed.

  4. Could you offer a role model for behavior change that are less male-oriented? Those 3 video clips did nothing for me – I think boxing is inhumane, football just isn’t my sport and Arnold is not exactly a role model, especially for women. I get what you are trying to say – I am just saying that many women aren’t likely to be reached by those videos.

  5. have just discovered this site and have been reading it pretty much nonstop since yesterday. This article is really relevant for me now cos I got to Insanity day 58 (on monday) out of 63 without missing a workout, then broke a toe on a drunken night out. So can’t be leaping about like a maniac six days a week at the minute. Cue the unleashing of the willpower destroyer – no set plan and felt panicky. Healthy eating started to go out the window (had had one leg out the window for the last week to be honest) and i started to feel like I was losing control and that made me more panicky. Had had really good results for the last 8 weeks up til then, despite the ‘diet’ starting to slip.

    For once, I actually looked out the window while at this crossroads. Usually once I see results and reach close to my goal, I take my foot off the pedals and freewheel back to where I started (and downhill is always faster). Not this time. Before I was flattened by the retreating wagon, I grabbed the reins. I might have been heading back downhill, but at least I had the reins, right?? I have now done a LOT of research on the net and since finding NF I now know what my goal is. 8 weeks from now I will have transitioned to paleo, ditched the junk food completely and will have done 8 weeks of angry bird workout (monday, wed, fri) and some very light cardio and stretching tuesday and thurs.

    It’s not willpower I needed, I just needed to look out the window and see where I was headed, and take the reins once again. And make a new map. Back on track, thanks NF!!

  6. Again, starting out but I like looking at this like a ‘health bar’ or a ‘willpower bar’ so as to be successful. It seems like it will be both interesting and somewhat fun to view it that way. I might even make a motivational that shows a half-filled health bar and asks “what is your willpower bar at today?” and post it in my room… And maybe a quote from the second video about sleep…. I enjoy sleep WAY too much. x-x

  7. Thanks a lot for the wonderful pointers! It’s time to put on self restrain and no more feeling guilty about binging afterwards ^^

    I have no problem going to the gym for workout daily but controlling what’s on the plate prove tougher than anything else 🙁

  8. Thanks! I struggle with making myself go to bed early and get up
    earlier. I’m eating semi-paleo (which takes time to prepare), and doing
    cardio, but now have to fit in time for strength training too, so that
    will only happen if I start getting up earlier. It’s the one thing I
    haven’t been able to change, but I will start with 1 or 2 days a week.

  9. Man, that Arnold video. Made me want to jump out of bed and go run a mile and do 1000 pushups at the same time.

  10. I think this is part of my ‘having trouble staying healthy while traveling the world’ issue – traveling long term takes so much energy and brain power that I’ve got hardly anything left at the end of most days for willpower. I really need to sit down and work out a good balance/figure out how to just get it done.

  11. I heard you could train your willpower by brushing your teeth with your nondominant hand for two weeks in the morning. Not sure if it works but the research said that by doing this youre more likely to make healthier decisions throughout the day :•)

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