Willpower is Completely Overrated: A Better Approach to Achievement

“Willpower is completely overrated and just doesn’t deliver.”

—Dave Kirchhoff, CEO of Weight Watchers

Kirchhoff is right; willpower is overrated. I consider myself a fairly hard worker, but I’d never trust myself to keep accountable for my own goals. Our minds have a tendency to focus on the here and now, whereas goals are inherently future oriented.

To boot, the research behind ego depletion seems to point to the idea that our willpower is a finite, limited resource, that can’t keep running at 100% during all waking hours of the day. Therefore, the less we use it for tasks that can be automated/outsourced, the more we’ll have available for when we really need it.

As such, the purpose of this post is to communicate the importance of automating the task of keeping yourself accountable. Thankfully, there are plenty of free tools out there that assist with keeping you accountable for goals you’ve committed to, which I’ll discuss.


Strategies Used By Marketers & Project Managers

There are plenty of strategies out there for keeping yourself accountable for challenging goals, but the strategy I’ve found works best is that of repeated reminders.

When you have a lot on your plate, goals can easily take a backseat to the urgent tasks in your life (and rightfully so). This is unavoidable, and you shouldn’t feel bad if you ever need to put your goals on the sidelines temporarily. However, it takes a lot of mental energy to summon those goals back up and resume where you left off. This step is so difficult, in fact, it’s a pain point for a lot of people.

This is why, in the online advertising world, remarketing campaigns are so effective. If someone expresses interest in an item, but doesn’t buy it right away, marketers have found that repeated reminders – typically through a bombardment of ads for that product – can cause a non-buyer to eventually follow through with the purchase. If the customer was expected to remember to revisit the purchase later, without any assistance from the advertisements, purchase rates would plummet. I believe our goals are the same way. Rather than expecting ourselves to pick right back up where we left off with our goals, why not let an automated system do the summoning and “remarket” our goals to ourselves?

The whole point is to have a system that can poke at you, and bring goals to the surface of your mind. And just by the fact that the goal is now a thought in the forefront of your mind, you’re more likely to act on it, without much additional perceived effort. While most of my thoughts on this are anecdotal, there is related research on the effects of priming in daily life that appears to have a similar effect (for more on this, check out Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely).

Furthermore, when you take the time to properly validate your goals with concrete actions steps, it’s so much easier to pick back up with a goal if you’ve let it slide for a little while. Having a system that lets you validate your goals in advance is crucial (I use Trello for this, as you’ll see below).

Now that we’re familiar with the concepts of repeated reminders and validation, let’s review my personal system for automating accountability and sparing willpower.


1) Google Calendar Emails

I have my Google Calendar set up so that it emails me whenever I have an event or appointment coming up. I like this because:

  • If you don’t receive an email, it’s easy to lose track of the fact that you still have the appointment once dismissing the pop-up.
  • Archiving the email reminders gives you a sense of progress once the meeting / event is complete.
  • It allows me to use Google Calendar as an accountability system

It’s that last point that I want us to focus on. When Google Calendar can poke at you through your inbox (or text message, if you think that will be more effective than email), you can schedule follow-ups with yourself.

For example, I read The Startup of You late last year (fantastic book, by the way), and I wanted to hold myself accountable for the many takeaways contained within. Upon starting this blog post in late May (roughly six months since finishing the book), I received this email from Google Calendar (click to enlarge the screenshot):


Google Calendar Reminders

I immediately thought, “Oh crap! It’s been awhile since I’ve paid attention to this. Let me pull up the notes I’ve taken, and projects I’ve set up on Trello, and see how my progress has been these past six months. If it hasn’t been good, it’s time to get serious.”

It’s so easy to schedule a Google Calendar event a couple of weeks/months down the road to check in on projects you would hope you haven’t forgotten about. If you don’t want to enable email reminders for your entire calendar, you can create a dedicated calendar just for these kinds of follow-ups, and enable email reminders for that calendar only. You can likely do this in other calendar applications as well.


2) Trello

As I’ve discussed in a recent blog post on validating your inspirations, Trello is fantastic way to translate dreams into real steps. For example, if you read an inspiring book, you should start translating your inspiration into concrete projects and action items as soon as possible. Otherwise, it probably won’t be acted upon.

Below is my current setup for tracking my projects and staying accountable through Trello. I had to edit out a few of the projects for the privacy of those I’m collaborating on those projects with (click the image to enlarge):



3) FutureMe.org

So simple, yet so powerful. FutureMe.org allows you to write an email to your future self, which will be delivered at a specified time. I’ll typically write an email to myself and have it be delivered 6 months or a year in the future. These emails discuss, at a high level, goals and achievements that I’d like to have accomplished (or close to accomplished) by the time the email gets delivered to my future self.

When I receive these emails, I’ve usually forgotten that I’ve even written one, so it catches me by surprise. Upon reading it, I’ll either feel great that I’ve made the progress I wanted, or, to put it frankly, feel like shit for falling behind. If the latter, I’ll immediately revisit the goals I’ve been falling behind on, and put together a plan to remedy the situation.

I’d highly recommend trying this service out and seeing how you respond to those emails from your past self.


Do you have any go-to strategies for keeping yourself accountable for things you’d like to get done in life? Share them in the comments below!

Evaluating Bottlenecks to Create A Bullet-Proof Productivity System

Considering I have been re-evaluating my productivity system in the past few days, I figured this post would be a great way to record and hash out what I have discovered in my analysis. I have noticed that theoretically sound productivity systems can flounder and even fail when bottlenecks are not properly managed. A bottleneck is defined as: “The point at which an industry or economic system has to slow its growth because one or more of its components cannot keep up with demand.”

When this definition is carried over to fit today’s topic of discussion, a bottleneck is the point at which a productivity system has to slow its ability to save you time and effort because one or more of its components cannot keep up with the amount of information that needs to be processed through it.

In order to begin analyzing your productivity system for bottlenecks, you have to define the different parts of that system. Generally speaking, a productivity system is divided up into:

  1. Receiving / Capturing commitments, tasks, obligations, important information, etc.
  2. Delegating the above into the proper areas of your system (calendar, to-do list, waiting for list, project folder etc.)
  3. Working with each area of your system to carry out, accomplish, or keep tabs on all obligations and tasks.
  4. Reviewing and Cleaning Out outdated, irrelevant, or neglected obligations.

So with this in mind, let us begin.

Receiving / Capturing

Do you find yourself frequently losing papers, forgetting where you placed things, or discovering last minute that you forgot to record down a specific time and date of an event? If this sounds like you, then you need to work on your ability to flawlessly receive and capture information. The characteristics of a strong capture system include:

  • Having no more than 3 different capturing devices (e-mail, physical inbox, etc.)
  • A way to easily process out information once it has been delegated
  • A way to recall documents and papers that you may need to refer back to in case of error

I use a physical inbox for papers and my e-mail inbox for digital communications. Others may find the need for a third type of inbox, but the former two work well for me. Physical inboxes and e-mail are excellent at easily processing out information. For e-mail I simply archive the e-mail into my records (so it no longer remains in my inbox), and for physical papers I have my inbox stacked on top of my outbox. I simply move the papers into the outbox once I have processed them into my system and after the week is over, I file them into my filing cabinet if I know I may need them in the future. This brings me to the ability to recall documents in case of error. I simply go into my outbox or filing cabinet to refer to documents I feel I may have made an error in recording. For e-mail I simply search my archive (using Gmail) to pull up the original e-mail. Flawless.


In order for your delegating system to work smoothly, you must have clearly defined routes for incoming information out of your inboxes. Any lack of clarity or definition will lead to confusion and misplaced tasks. Generally, the four defined routes one will need are:

  • Immediately actionable with free time at the present moment
  • Immediately actionable without free time at the present moment
  • Actionable or occurring at a later date
  • Actionable by someone else (Delegate-able)

Items immediately actionable with free time at the present moment should be executed right away. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. If you don’t have enough time right now or feel it would be cutting it too close to your next appointment, delegate the task to “actionable without free time at the present moment.” In this case, you will add it to your to-do list/next actions list. That way, as soon as you have free time, you can finish the task. Paper-and-pencil lists, planners, rememberthemilk.com, and Google Tasks are all great ways to create such a list.

Tasks or events that are actionable or occur at a later date will require a calendar. A calendar can be used to trigger the adding of a task to your to-do list OR indicate where you need to be at what time (event trigger). For example, click on the screenshot thumbnail below to see event and task triggers on a calendar:

Producitiy System Calendar

Productivity System Calendar

Items actionable by someone else will require two lists. First, your to-do list should include informing the correct people about the task and what they are expected to do. Second, you should have a “Waiting For” list to keep track of who needs to do what by when. It is usually a good idea to date such lists. For example: 9/23/09 – Mike needs to give me the information about the eBay auction he listed for me by 10/05. Optionally, you can also add a task trigger on your calendar to make sure you stay on top of it. Continuing the above example, you could add a trigger on your calendar on 10/03 reminding you to ask Mike how the information he is supposed to send you is coming along.


With clearly defined and well-functioning lists, calendars, and inboxes, working with the system should be relatively easy. You just need to make sure that these systems are with you wherever you get work done. For example, being a college student, I can find myself doing work in the main campus library, the small library closest to my building, the computer room in the business school, my room, or a friends room. Because I do work in so many different places, I have placed all of my lists, calendars, and one of my inboxes online. I use Remember the Milk, Google Calendar, and Gmail so I have access to my system wherever I am. Some people prefer to keep everything on a planner and just take that with them everywhere. This works too.

My filing cabinet does not travel with me so I always need to be careful to take relevant papers with me, which requires a small degree of planning, but is by no means a bottleneck or a fatal flaw. Be sure to identify how your productivity system travels with you and meets the needs of your schedule and lifestyle. Not having your productivity system with you at times when you need it can be a huge bottleneck in your overall ability to get things done and be productive.

Reviewing and Cleaning Out

A productivity system needs a periodic tune-up.  This will include:

  • Making sure you haven’t missed or skipped over any commitments on your lists or calendar
  • Cleaning out unnecessary clutter in your inboxes and filing cabinet

This review will keep your system squeaky clean and more reliable.  I suggest reviewing at the end of every week and cleaning out once a month or every other month. This is a personal preference based on how well you filter information the first time around. Just be sure not to neglect it. Having to navigate through tons of clutter can be a significant bottleneck when you need to recall certain documents or e-mails.


And there you have it! By closely analyzing each part of your productivity system, you can see where any bottlenecks exist and quickly tune up that area to make it more efficient in processing your daily work flow.

‘Till next time.