I’m fascinated with the idea of willpower, especially as it applies to entrepreneurship. I’ve noticed that we tend to craft narratives of these super-humans who have unlimited willpower, can work for hours without stopping, emerge from tough times unscathed and always believe in their dreams.
But is that true?
The Will of Elon Musk
By all accounts, Elon Musk appears to be a brilliant technician and businessman with an enormous work capacity. There’s a riveting account of a crucial moment right after a disastrous SpaceX rocket launch, where Musk addressed the company:
“Then he said, with as much fortitude and ferocity as he could muster after having been awake for like 20+ hours by this point that, ‘For my part, I will never give up and I mean never,’ and that if we stick with him, we will win.
I think most of us would have followed him into the gates of hell carrying suntan oil after that.” – Dolly Singh, on Quora
It’s an intriguing story and a great answer to the question: “What is it like to work with Elon Musk?” But stories often gloss over a full understanding of how things work. I think there’s a danger around the hero narrative, because willpower alone is not enough. Almost every entrepreneur I know has pushed through tremendous adversity — it’s a necessary but not sufficient part of starting a business.
Here’s the thing: Willpower is a depletable resource. Hundreds of studies have confirmed it. We can do things to expend our willpower (resisting cookies, putting in long hours in the lab or on the computer screen, making sales calls) and over time, our ability to push ourselves diminishes. It becomes harder to get things done, to be creative, and to be a good leader. This is true for you, me, and the ferocious Elon Musk.
So, if it’s not sheer willpower, what is it? What makes for extraordinary entrepreneurs?
Habits Over Willpower
Tony Dungy was only the third person in history to win a Super Bowl as a player and as head coach. After taking the Indiana Colts to victory in 2007, he wrote a book called Quiet Strength, where he said this:
“Champions don’t do extraordinary things. They do ordinary things, but they do them without thinking, too fast for the other team to react. They follow the habits they’ve learned.”
Dungy really emphasized developing rock solid habits in his players instead of focusing on exceptional one-off performances. He built a structure for his team to learn, train and grow within.
And in the same way, I’d argue that a big part of what makes Musk, Jobs, Dorsey and other entrepreneurs successful lies less in their heroic willpower, but more in how they structure their thinking, their actions and their schedule to maximize their effectiveness.
As an entrepreneur, you have to make a lot of decisions every day. There is no class schedule for being an entrepreneur. There’s no list of assignments. There’s no working groups, no HR department, no pointy-eared boss or performance plan. You have incredible freedom as an entrepreneur, which is awesome, but it also means you have to create structure for yourself or you risk being swallowed by the void.
Look, a lot of us seek entrepreneurship because we don’t like structure. But just because we don’t like it doesn’t mean it isn’t sometimes helpful.
Habits are conditioned behaviors that don’t require cognitive input. They happen automatically in response to a particular cue — which can be extremely helpful. So by developing the right habits (structure), you can use your willpower on the creative stuff, the tough stuff, the important stuff.
The Habits of Effective Entrepreneurs
If I were to think about what helped me in my startup journey, and what I’d recommend to people wanting to start their own businesses, certain practices stand out. In the following posts, I’ll be diving into each specific habit, but here’s the overview:
1) Select Focused Action Items
Pick three big action items and put some work into each one, every day.
2) Conduct Heart-to-Hearts
Have honest in-person conversations with your team each week.
3) Eat the Frog
Wake up 45 minutes earlier and work on one of your big action items.
4) Stay Close to the Market
Use your product, talk to your customers, or study the competition each week.
5) Give Your Brain a Workout
Devote at least 15 minutes to some kind of physical activity every day.
6) Capture Momentum
Write a little letter about the progress you’ve made, such as milestones or achievements, as well as challenges and problems you’ve faced, each week.
When I practiced these habits regularly, I was on my game, and whenever I slipped, I could tell the difference. I have a feeling these habits might be useful for you.
Jason Shen cofounded Ridejoy, a Y Combinator backed startup that helped tens of thousands of people share rides across the US and Canada. He is currently serving as a Presidential Innovation Fellow at the Smithsonian and writes on his blog, The Art of Ass-Kicking about startups and behavior change. He’s also the author of a new book, Winning Isn’t Normal.