Book Notes: “Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals” by Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D. – Part 1 – Introduction: Willpower & Habits

Note: Book Notes = summary of current book+ insights/personal interpretations + incorporation of prior knowledge

Introduction: Willpower & Habits

According to James Clear in Atomic Habits, goals aren’t what separate successful people from unsuccessful—it’s habits. But if you think about it, setting up a habit is a goal in itself. So we still need to know how we can achieve our goals.

In Succeed, Dr. Grant Halvorson illustrates how anyone can become successful at reaching their goals, with the right motivation & information on how to go about it.

Most people believe the main reason for anyone to not reach their goals is due to lack of willpower. Willpower is most often seen as an innate ability to regulate your actions towards the results you seek. If you don’t have enough, it’s seen as a character flaw. Once you believe you do not have enough of what it takes, what’s the point in continuing to try?

In reality, willpower does not function as you think does. It is not an unchanging character trait you are born with that stays the same throughout your life, or even throughout the day. It behaves more like water and can be seen as a reserve that can be replenished. When you exert effort in any endeavor (i.e., when you take conscious action) you tap into your willpower. For example, when you make a decision or you focus on making a good first impression, you have exercised your willpower. Your willpower is at its weakest immediately after its use, but can be replenished through rest. Or, if you’re in a hurry, a large enough reward.

In a study by Case Western Reserve University, students were instructed to not laugh during a stand-up comedy act, which sapped their willpower reserve. To demonstrate the depletion, they were asked to drink a cup of Kool-Aid made with vinegar instead of sugar. With each cup, students were provided with varying amounts of renumeration for the task. Those that had been allowed to laugh during the act, drank twice as much as those who had to suppress their laughter. However, when the amount of renumeration per cup went up, this effect completely disappeared. Even those students who were asked to suppress their laughter drank quite a large amount of the vinegar Kool-Aid. Though their willpower was depleted, with a large enough reward, it was as if it made no difference.

Dipping into it can also have a ripple effect on other areas of your life. For example, a study was conducted where students completed a daily exercise program, which resulted not only in becoming physically healthier but exhibiting more signs of discipline in other aspects of their lives like washing dishes right away instead of leaving them in the sink and refraining from impulsive spending.

Because of its fluctuating nature instead of relying on your willpower, it might be a better idea to use it as a tool to establish habits instead. Habits can be performed with very little conscious thought, meaning you’ll be expending less energy and relying less on willpower to engage in it. It’s an action you initiate on autopilot. Not complete in its entirety, but initiate, which is an important distinction. You can complete smaller tasks like brushing your teeth completely on autopilot while you think of your dream vacation in the Bahamas, but for more complex habits (like writing a novel), only task initiation can be done on autopilot (i.e., only the first small step of the task like sitting down, starting your computer, and opening your story file). The rest of the task would have to be carried through with conscious effort, but the decision-making part of it (i.e., whether or not to start and if started, how long to keep going) will no longer be required. Which is a good thing because that’s the thing that needs the most willpower to perform and at the end of a long day, when you’re running low on your reserves, a better place to put your bets would be on an established habit.

Tips for Establishing a Habit:

  • Set the parameters. When will you start? Where? How long will you go for? What do you hope to accomplish by the end of it? What are the specific sequence of steps? For example, every evening, as soon as you come home from work, if your computer is as slow as mine, you will start your computer and start on dinner. That way, it’s started by the time you get back to your desk. For half an hour, you can reread your work or add words, but because I know I will usually add words once I get into the story, at the very least, I’ve set my requirement to reread. Once the timer goes off, I can either stop or continue, but either way, I will need to come back the next day and complete the same action. Setting parameters allows you know to know when to start, what to do, and when to stop, so you know when to tick it off as ‘done’.
  • Determine your reward. Figure out a reward large enough to get you started on the thing you really wanted to work on but could never make yourself get to after a long day of work. For example, you can use a point system and set your own rewards after a certain number of points have been achieved (e.g., for every 500 points earned, you can reward yourself $5, or whatever amount gets you motivated).
  • Cue the start of the habit. Focus on only starting (or initiating) the habit. Once started, you’re more likely to see it through (as per Newton’s law). In the example above, it’s the starting of my ancient computer that would trigger the sequence.
  • Focus on one habit at a time. Choosing one habit will require less use of a possibly depleted reserve. Attempting to form multiple habits at once will require more willpower than you may have available at the end of the day. Instead, focus on one and repeat it until you notice yourself starting the task on autopilot. Then move on to the next.
  • How to choose the right habit. If you’re worried about choosing the right habit to focus on first, pick any and do it for a week (or a month), then step back and take stock. Review its progress and decide whether you would like to continue with it or move on to experiment with another habit. Either way though, keep in mind that no matter which habit you chose to focus on first, if it’s a positive one, even if it results in slower progress or you might’ve experienced faster growth with another habit, you’ll still eventually get to that ‘golden’ habit that accelerates everything. Don’t sweat it, just try this out, put it in place so you never have to worry about it again and then go on to the next one.
  • Set a low bar. To ensure you’re using less willpower to start, set a low bar whether in terms of the stakes, intensity, or time investment. For example, don’t decide to write 50,000 words in 3 days by writing intensely for 4 hours every day after you come home from a full-time job. Instead, aim for 50 to 500 words or 15 minutes to one hour of focused work.
  • Make it easier for you to do the thing. Along with setting a low bar, setting the parameters/ sequence of steps, lower the friction of starting. For example, if your computer is from the dark ages like mine, write your story on an app that allows you access to your story across multiple devices. So if you don’t feel like starting up your computer, you can still work on it on your iPad or your phone.
  • Make it harder for you not to do the thing. Get rid of all other options during the time you’re set to work. Increase the friction to other tasks you’re usually like to do during that time. Hide your remote in another room. Place your phone in the farthest corner of your apartment/house (if you’re not writing on that for tonight). If you’re likely to go for snacks to distract yourself, close your the door to your room and place a chair, a couch and your cat in front of it until you’ve completed at least 15 minutes of your writing session.

Essence of the Book:

…there are many ways to frame the same goal in your mind. Do you think of getting that promotion as something you ideally would achieve, or as something you ought to achieve? Is mastering your classwork about developing skills or proving that you’re smart?

Those differences matter— differently framed goals need to be pursued with different strategies and are more or less vulnerable to different kinds of errors. Frame a goal one way, and the person pursuing it will work hard but never love what he is doing. Frame a goal another way, and you’ll create interest and enjoyment— but to be honest, probably not spectacular performance (at least not in the short run). For some goals, confidence is essential, while for others it doesn’t seem to matter if you’re sure or shaky.

Halvorson Ph.D., Heidi Grant. Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals . Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.


What are some goals you’re attempting to reach this month? Quarter or even year? What are some strategies you’ve used that have worked to achieve your goals in the past? What are some things you were hoping to learn about about goal-setting?


Posts in Series

  1. Book Notes: “Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals” – Introduction: Willpower & Habits

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