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Developing Willpower, by Jason Shen

Jason Shen has achieved tremendous success in athletics, technology entrepreneurship, writing, and living an outstanding life. To promote his recent GiveGetWin deal on The Science of Willpower, he sat down to tell us how he started learning about willpower, the state of what's known scientifically about how willpower and the brain work, and how you can start improving your life right away by implementing a tiny habit, thinking and systems, and using some powerful thinking tools. Enjoy:

Developing Willpower by Jason Shen, as told to Sebastian Marshall

Willpower has been an undercurrent in my entire life. In gymnastics, you have to use your willpower to overcome your fear of an activity and go for the skill you want, to get over the fear, to push yourself to finish your conditioning and strength training a part of you doesn't want to…

It didn't come automatically to me. When I was a student, I wasn't automatically self-disciplined. There were actions I knew were useful, like doing my homework in one session without getting distracted, or not throwing clothing on my apartment floor. But I wouldn't always do them, and I didn't know why.

I started to learn those answers during a student initiative course at Stanford called The Psychology of Personal Change. That's when I first started reading academic papers on the topic. In academia, willpower and self-discipline is often called "self-regulation," and in 2009 I started to get really serious about it from an academic perspective -- and saw gains from it in my personal life.


We all have limits. They're far higher and further than most people think. They can be pushed and developed with time. But we have limits. The person who truly pushes themselves in fitness, business, career, or anything else will eventually run into the wall, and see they need more training.

Most people do not need to worry much about their limits in the short-term; they're nowhere near them. Learn the basic safety and protocol for what you're doing, and then just go do it. Most people get nowhere near their limits.

But, if you're a Type-A type who wants to push yourself, recognizing and working with your limits is incredibly important. If you're really exhausted, dialing back your activity to something reasonable can be better than going to breaking point.

There's no shame at all in cycling off a weight training program in favor of a low-key week of stretching and recovery. Taking a few days off to sleep enough, plan, and meditate is good. No matter how hardcore you are, eventually you might need to cancel a few scheduled appointments in order to recover and keep your edge over the long haul.

These are all smart and necessary. In the long term, it means building rejuvenation in and getting an intuitive grasp of when you're about to run face-first into the wall. Sometimes you want to do that -- it's good to learn where the limits are -- but stopping yourself from getting burnt-out, injured, or stuck on the hamster wheel is key.

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