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Willpower Doesn't Exist: The New Way to Get Stuff Done

05/16/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

In a passage from Homer's Odyssey, Odysseus and his ship are about to pass through the Siren-infested waters. On the one hand, he knows that hearing their song will spell his doom. On the other hand, he's dying of curiosity and is tired of hearing about their song and just wants to hear their song, dammit, and be the only mortal to live to tell.

Now Odysseus is one crafty dude, so he tells all of his sailors to plug their ears with wax so they can't be tempted by the Sirens' song. He keeps his own ears unplugged, but has his mates lash him to the mast and ignore everything he says. That way, he gets to eat his cake and have it too: he hears the Sirens, but doesn't die.

This is what I call the Odysseus Protocol. Essentially it's arranging your physical environment to achieve the outcome you want so you don't have to rely on willpower. Odysseus' outcome was "Hear The Siren's Song Without Croaking." So he plugged his crew's ears so they wouldn't be tempted, and made sure he didn't do anything silly by getting himself tied up nice and tight.

Now a lot of you may have heard a lot about this thing called willpower. Really? Where is it? Next to the pasta sauce at Ralph's? Must have missed it.

Listen up: willpower does not exist. Never had; never will. There's action, and inaction. That's it.

There's a universal principle for realizing potential: things will flourish spontaneously when the conditions are right. Instead of relying on willpower, create those conditions in advance.

A sequoia seed is an unimpressive thing -- about an inch long, smaller than an apricot pit. And if you drop it on concrete, or linoleum, not much happens.

Yet it contains the complete blueprint for creating a huge sequoia tree - one of the oldest, largest organisms on the planet. So the seed has the potential to become something pretty impressive. But when it's stuck in the wrong spot, it'll just shrivel up or get eaten by birds.

On the other hand, let's say this sequoia seed fell on some nice, moist earth. And let's say a donkey passing by happened to have the urge to bury the seed under a big steaming pile of donkey dung.

Now the seed's got a chance. And according to its innate program, it will start to grow spontaneously. At first, a wispy little thing. Then it puts out a root system and becomes self-sustaining.

Pretty soon, it'll be it's own little ecosystem and provide shelter and food for thousands of other creatures.

Sometimes the right conditions are about preventing harmful events. If a bird swoops down and eats the seed, end of story.

Now with people, we have a similar scenario. We all have vast amounts of talent and potential within ourselves; most of us just don't tap into them as much as possible.

This may have to do with people thinking that it's all about willpower or its flip side, weakness.

Well, the good news is that you as a human possess the gift of arranging conditions to favor the outcome you want. It's not about your being perfect or having infinite willpower. It's about recognizing that, like Odysseus, you're fallible. So in lucid moments, you structure your life to serve your own best interest.

Take TV, for example -- a net negative entity for me, since every minute spent watching others pretend to live life is a minute I haven't spent living my own. I'd much rather read, cook and hang out with friends, so the opportunity cost of watching TV is too high.

I recognize the tendency in myself to plop down in front of the boob tube and surf for hours on end, justifying my torpor with reasoning like "This National Geographic special on frogs is so educational!" or "These game show leech-eating contests are a fascinating window into Japanese culture."

Riiight. I was wasting my time, and feeling guilty about if afterward. Solution: I got rid of my TV over a decade ago. Haven't had one since. Sometimes I miss watching The Simpsons on Sunday nights, but you can get that online now, without the ads. And it gives me an excuse to visit friends with TV sets.

So there's the surefire Odysseus protocol: you remove the source of the bad behavior. Then you don't have to rely on your willpower, memory, or saintliness. After a few months, you'll get so used to your new way of doing things, you won't miss the old way or be tempted by it.

Let's talk about food and health. Over half of Americans are overweight, and it's self-inflicted. Unlike French geese, no one is shoving food down our throats through a funnel except for ourselves. And Americans famously eat a lot of high-calorie, low-nutrition, fattening food.

So if you're one of those people who wants to shed excess mass, start by emptying your fridge and cupboards of sugary, fatty food and never purchasing that stuff again. So there's no butter, mayonnaise, processed cheese, sweets, candy bars, ice cream or dessert anywhere in your household. Only healthy stuff like fruit, of which you can eat as much as you want, because you'll feel too full before you have a chance to ingest excessive calories.

Let's talk about your circle of associates. Are some of them bubbly, fun, positive people who are always propping you up? Great! If you like to grow as a person, spend more time around them.

Are some of them snarky, gossipy, negative people who always have something to complain about? Chances are those friends aren't going to be the catalyst to your greatness.

So quietly excise the merchants of negative energy from your life and spend as much time with the sunshine brigade as possible. They say that your income is the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with. I'm guessing your attitude and contentment probably follow a similar pattern, so keep that in mind.

What else can we Odysseus here? Ah yes, dating. Let's say you do silly things when you're drunk on a date. Possible solution: try not to order any booze the evening of your next date.

But that's not the full Odysseus: you're still relying on willpower here, and we already know that doesn't work.

The key is to make it impossible for you to have the undesired behavior. So you have the date at a cafe where alcohol is not served at all. Or go for a walk in the park instead of the sit-down dinner.

As for the things you want to do: Odysseus yourself into committing to them early, so you can't possibly waffle and weave your way out later.

Sign up for the night class you want to take as soon as possible. Once you've plunked down the money and made the commitment, you're less likely to renege on yourself. Same goes for trips - book them now. If you keep your options open too long, you'll lose them.

In what ways have you utilized the Odysseus protocol and didn't even know it? I'm out of space here, so let's hear it from you.

The power is within you.

Twitter: @dralexbenzer
Email: dralex(at)thetaoofdating.com