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!

About Jon Guerrera

I'm Jon Guerrera, a life hacker at heart and the man behind the scenes here at Living For Improvement. This blog documents all of my successes, failures, and lessons learned as I experiment with finding happiness and fulfillment. I also wrote an e-book. If you like what I write on the blog, you can grab a free copy by subscribing.
  • finneycanhelp

    Nice article.

    Currently, I use Goalscape for big goals, Clear (iPhone App) for daily todo tasks and iPhone Reminders to remind me 6 months away or whatever to re-look at tasks/goals that I want to remember.

    Goalscape: http://smilingfinney.blogspot.com/2012/12/goalscape-friendly-goal-mapping-you-love.html

    The result? Reminders almost never gets looked at for goal reminders. However, tasks that have to be done later do get done on time.

    Question: You use both Google Calendar Emails and futureme.org? You set up two reminders essentially for 1 thing?

  • Good question! The GCal emails are for projects, and are more of a ping (i.e. “How are you coming along with X?”)

    The FutureMe.org emails are meant to be a higher-level, broad overview of the direction I want my life to be going.

    Whereas I may receive multiple GCal pings for one project over the course of a few months, those FutureMe emails are typically once every 6 months or year.

  • Pingback: Big Wins and Moon Shots | Living For Improvement()

  • Anthony Roper

    Hi Jonathan,

    As I go about adopting Trello – could you share what categories you’ve used the colour codes for? I’d appreciate that.


  • Hey Anthony,

    Here are my labels in Trello right now: New Skills, Blogging, Career, Social, and Health/Happiness.

    Hope that helps!

  • Pingback: Men's Fat Loss - The Rebel's Guide()