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How to force yourself to succeed without using willpower

We want to do things that we don’t really want to do. It sucks.

Cold calls. Exercise. Writing. Tax returns. Saving.

The list goes on. Humans struggle. It feels like being torn in two directions. You intellectually want to do something scary like phoning new prospects, while simultaneously (and instinctively) avoiding it.

To get the nasty, scary stuff done we have to manipulate ourselves. Willpower is the blunt instrument of self manipulation. A psychological club with a nail through it. This article serves up the razor-sharp samurai sword alternative. 

To manipulate behavior, you have to manipulate thinking.

Makes sense, right? The problem isn’t what you’re doing, it’s what you’re thinking right before you start doing it. If behavior is the proverbial boulder (hard to start rolling and hard to stop if it goes in the wrong direction) then your thoughts are a mighty lever. When applied with precision, they can change everything.

So how does one go about changing thoughts, deliberately?

It’s easy, when you put thoughts under the microscope.

All thoughts begin with a question. These questions, some more conscious than others, are asked by our internal dialogue – that psychological chatter between ourselves and ourselves.

“What should I have for breakfast?”

“What time is it?”
“What does she mean when she says that?”

“What am I supposed to do now?”

“Why does this keep happening to me?”

All examples of the kind of mental questions that explode in our head, at the same pace that spark plugs ignite fuel in an engine. Our mental questions set the fires of thought burning.

News Flash: We answer any question we ask ourselves

No matter who you are (or what your IQ is), you will answer every single mental question you pose yourself. Therein lies the source of human potential.

Stop and think about this. This is huge.

When Thomas Edison asked “How could a filament burn incandescent for hours?” …. again and again… he eventually came up with the answer. That’s how the brain works.

The fundamental difference between Edison and mediocre people is the quality of the questions they ask themselves.

We have unlimited potential to answer questions, yet most people spend their time focusing on questions like the ones listed above.

Stupid questions will evoke stupid answers.

Depressed people tend to ask themselves “Why do I feel so down?”. Their unconscious mind always rewards them with an answer. Typically, it’s a rich and detailed mental summary of all the ways in which their life sucks.

That’s why, as an aside, good therapists never ask “Why are you depressed?” (the answers only depress the patient more!) but “What has made you feel good?”.

The secret to behavior-change is asking better questions. 

When an entrepreneur has “Cold Call Reluctance” (a heinous, revenue-draining affliction), you can bet they’re asking some variety of “If I do this, what could go wrong?”

Their unconscious mind (their imagination!) rewards them with an image of exactly what could go wrong. It isn’t rational to imagine people yelling, rejecting or being furious. And yet, your mind will imagine it (vividly) if you ask a question that can be answered no other way. 

Don’t be a moron.

Want to force yourself to make cold calls? Mediate on the question “How much fun can I have doing this?” until you’re excited!

It’s that simple.

Ask yourself questions about what you want. Don’t ask questions that focus on what you do not want. Also, don’t let your mind ask itself any old question. Bring intent and purpose to the game.

Print off and laminate a list of five “power questions” and hang it in your shower. Ask yourself these questions, until you get answers, every morning. This really works.

Try questions like

“How much fun can I have doing <insert feared/procrastinated thing here>?”  <– Works because it presupposes fun and tricks your unconscious mind into having it!

“Why do I want, need and crave the results from doing <insert thing here>?” <– Works because it forces you to imagine all the jet-skis you’ll buy when you make all the sales!

“How great will it feel immediately after I FINISH doing <insert thing here>?” <– Keeps you focused on that sweet moment of glorious warm fuzzies, when it’s done. Does this with game-changing psychological precision.

“How much have I got to be grateful for right now?” <– Presupposes that you do indeed have something (asks to quantify how many things). Great for all moments of existential angst. Not the huge difference from asking “What have I got to be grateful for?

“How expertly/swiftly can I solve <insert massive industry challenge here>?” <– Answering this question will make you rich and famous.

Most people habitually ask questions that break down the excitement they feel about doing big, meaningful or important stuff.

If you’ve ever caught yourself not working out because of the imagined hassle of “getting to the gym, sweating, having to shower and all that” … then you know what I’m talking about.

Ask better questions and you’ll start doing the stuff you really want to do. The only reason you don’t already is that you’ve got a bad habit. Habits can be changed.

Ask better questions. Do what you want to do. Manipulate yourself into doing work that counts.


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  1. Awesome stuff, Peter!

    I think I wrote a similar post back in 2010 about asking the right questions.

    I sometimes have some fun with this and ask myself “How would I feel if I felt 10 times as happy as I do now?”

    And the effects are often surprising. Ask the right questions to get the right results.


    1. Hey Henri,

      Glad this is a concept you’ve mastered. The only nitpick I *have* to make with that example is that because “happiness” is a pretty intangible concept (for our unconscious mind) it is far more pragmatic and useful to ask “What can I do, right now, that’ll make me feel 10 times happier….”

      An emphasis on action (versus introspection) is always super super useful.

      Rock on brother!

  2. One of the most frequent questions I hear you ask in conversation is, “Why would you think that?” It’s the kind of question that rocks you back on your heels and immediately gets you introspecting – and very often, the answer that comes back in your mind suddenly seems stupid and silly.

    Very effective.

    What’s interesting is that I can see how powerful this technique of your post can be – immense, as you say. But I think that while it appears very simple, it would actually need some intentional dedication to get into the habit.

    I’m curious to see how my own intentional dedication is going to ramp things up for me – let the mind games begin! 😉

    1. You’ve touched on something I deliberately left out of this article 😛 … questions can be used for the dark side of the force also!

      Sometimes it’s highly effective (when you’re coaching/counseling from a position of permission) to hit people with some radically de-railing questions. That’s a good example. So is “How’s that working out for you?” <--- my all time favorite. It forces people to step out of the frame they're in (psychological disassociation) and objectively analyze both the results they're producing AND the beliefs that got them there in the first place ("why would you think that?") Powerful. Not to be trifled with. Don't try this at home etc. 🙂

  3. My experience is that the process of discovering what is at the core of our procrastination and reticence in facing tasks we do not want to do is as simple as taking the time to diagnose the source of our feelings. What I have discovered is that most likely what I find is some kind of fear. The realization that fear is the cause and the process of exposing that fear to the light is often all that is needed to overcome any obstructions.

  4. Brilliant, Peter! And so simple. (Which is, of course, precisely why it’s so brilliant.)

    I realize that one reason why I love my life so much is that, without thinking of it in these terms before, I regularly ask myself “What do I have to be grateful for *right now*?” I don’t know that I’ve ever verbalized the “right now” part, but it’s always implied, and after reading this post I think that’s key.

    Instead of “What do *I* have to be grateful for?” the question becomes “What’s going well right now?” A very different question, indeed, containing the presumption that something IS going well right now.

    You’ve got me thinking about what other questions — or tweaks to existing questions — I can regularly add to the mix. The wheels are spinning, and I love that!

    Thank you!

    1. Hey Melissa!

      I’ll take the liberty to make a “next level” suggestion. This definitely counts as “advanced”… so believe me, it’s not criticism. BUT….

      People who have a good strong habit of questions around gratitude tend to be very happy with their lives. It’s great. But it comes with a side effect. Sometimes when you’re grateful, you get complacent and struggle to get motivated to make big things happen.

      I always recommend, for people who have got to this awesome place, to start mixing in questions like “How can I make a difference?” and the like. It gets the fires burning.

      If you think things are good NOW, just wait til you add a bit of rocket fuel to your gratitude! 😀

      1. Heh! With “Achiever” as my #1 Strengthsfinder 2.0 strength, I really had to laugh at this one, Peter. I don’t think I’ve ever been accused of complacency, and people who are so content that they lack big goals truly baffle me. (Which kinda describes my boyfriend, ironically enough — or perhaps it’s not ironic, opposites attracting and all that. Truly, I have enough ambition for the both of us, so it works out. ;))

        My problem is more on the “having too many big goals” end of the spectrum. My current mission is actually to unhook productivity from self-worth and learn to slow myself down so I don’t burn myself out. 🙂

        And you must be psychic: “Making a Difference” is my top core value. That’s another question I ask all the time. I think I’m just hard-wired that way.

        (Which is, I believe, a big part of why I love my life.)

        All of that said, I agree with your message 100%. It’s an interesting balance, isn’t it? As an Achiever, I’ve often been a bit baffled by the question of how to reconcile having big goals with being happy now. Part of what keeps me charging forward is that I want *more*, which assumes discontentedness.

        I’m thinking, as a specific example, about a couple of my big creative passions.

        I picked up calligraphy in my late 20s, and though I had a feel for the art form and some native facility, I was still a beginner, and I spent way too much time & energy lamenting that I didn’t yet have the level of mastery I desperately wanted. It led to a perpetual state of low-grade misery, actually.

        Cut to ten years later, when I dove into the world of jazz singing. Once again I was a rank beginner, and though once again I had a certain amount of native facility, I was still years away from the level of mastery I desired.

        This time around, though, I was actually able to enjoy the experience of being a beginner.

        Yes, I was continually aiming at a far-away (and constantly moving) target, eager to reach it. But instead of wallowing in desperation and misery that I wasn’t there yet, I enjoyed where I was, while at the same time working toward where I wanted to go.

        THAT’s the kind of happiness, contentedness and loving-my-life I’m talking about. Once I was able to embrace where I was and accept myself where I was at (which in my case took decades and a lot of self-work), I could enjoy that place, and thrive on the pursuit of mastery and excellence. (Without which, let’s face it, I’d be bored out of my skull!)

        So I guess that was a rather lengthy way of saying that it’s exactly the pursuit of mastery/excellence/big goals that keeps me content! Content in my discontentedness, perhaps..?

        Hmm… Must mull this some more…

  5. I love the way you put this…….it really really hit home with me today! YAY!!!!!!!!! thank you for sharing this in this way!

  6. This reminds me of a trick my girlfriend and I have when we start getting down or ruminating on unpleasant thoughts. One of us will jump up and ask “what would be the BEST THING EVER right now?” and usually we will answer something that we can do right now (not later) that will get us into a good mood and moving in a direction we like.

    1. Is the answer to that question always “bacon”? Cos that’s where my mind immediately went when I read it!

      Good example of how quickly powerful questions can have their effect. Good example of a personal problem I should probably address too …. 😛 😛

      1. Max’s example reminded me of what I like to do when my kids bitch too much about aaaaaalll the things that went wrong that day. “That sucks,” I say. “What three GOOD things happened today?”

        There’s about 2 seconds of resistance and then they make the mental switch. Everyone is all smiles soon enough!

        1. The co-counseling community that I’ve been involved with for almost 15 years uses this “what’s going well?” technique to great effect. Sometimes I wonder if human beings are wired to complain. I confess I get annoyed with all the “The Secret” “just have an attitude of gratitude and everything you desire will magically come to you” hocus pocus, but it’s truly amazing what happens when you pay attention to what’s going well/what’s new and good in your life.

          Noticing where you’re life is good is a wedge that can — over time — actually initiate a major turnaround and life change. I’ve seen it happen.

          1. Considering that the minds “we have” or which “we are” (by which I mean the entire process of human nervous system activity) evolved and grew in flexibility and sophistication under conditions of constant danger and desperate needs. Whatever was threatening or missing was far more important than anything else (babies and lovers being momentary exceptions). No mystery that these minds gravitate to “what’s wrong” ignoring “what’s right”: that’s “why” they developed in the “jungle/savannah” at all… “we” are the “beneficiaries” of this need-full evolution. Relative freedom from this essential function (but momentarily obsolete in present civilizations) of “our” minds is either a stroke of luck or diligent reprogramming. Focusing on “what’s right” is “unnatural”.

  7. peter – one of the biggest things i’ve discovered in the past year is this idea of a “Primary Question”. Essentially, we all have one PRIMARY question that we are continually asking ourselves (subconsciously) over and over and over throughout each day.

    Personally… mine used to be ‘What are others thinking of me right now?’ And you can imagine how that affected my life…

    Other examples:

    How can improve what i’m currently doing?
    How can I get to the next level?
    What else can i be doing right now?

    Switching my primary question from “what are others thinking of me right now” to “how can i share even more of my gifts with the world right now” has made a massive shift in the way i view the world…

    “Stupid questions evoke stupid answers” <— so true.

    1. Andy, I think you and I were separated at birth. I never thought of it as a “Primary Question” before, but “what are others thinking of me right now?” used to rule my world, too. Not fun…

      I really like “How can I share even more of my gifts with the world right now?” Lovely!

    2. This is awesome Andy.

      I’m not 100% sure how accurate the “one primary question” model is. I think we have different questions that are tied (habitually) to different environments. Certainly, most folks have a primary “at work” question and a primary “at home” question. But it’s a cool thing to think about – if we DID have a primary question, what would be the most empowering?

      And if you don’t already have one, how much better could life be if you created/practiced one?

  8. Went from having food coma about to pass out on my bed without taking a shower or brushing my teeth to pushing myself to take that cold shower in the middle of the night, brushed my teeth, scrubbed my face and now I feel more energized than ever writing this post. How did I do it? From what I learned in the article, I asked myself a simple question over and over. “How great will it feel immediately after I FINISH showering, brushing my teeth, and washing my face?” Now I feel even better than I had imagined. Thank you for writing this article!

  9. Hi Peter,

    “If behavior is the proverbial boulder …. then your thoughts are a mighty lever. When applied with precision, they can change everything.”

    I can’t agree more. Reminded me of a saying by Archimedes, “Give me a lever and I can move the world” or something along those lines (please pardon my memory).

    “The secret to behavior-change is asking better questions.”

    You nailed it for me at this point of the article.

    Well, time to ask better questions as far as I am concerned. That’s my net take away from this wonderful article.

    P.S: During my college years i stumbled upon a book called “What to say when you talk to yourself” by Shad Helmstetter where he touched upon the subject of your article. And Peter, your article just reinforced in me a few tips that i took away from that great book as well. And made me realize that I still have quite a way to go before i am good at “What/how to answer when you ask questions to yourself.” Thank you Peter for making me realize that there is much more room for improvement. And that realization is a liberation, really.

    1. Hey Wilson,

      You’re welcome man. It’s always great (I think) when something you learn in present reinforces and reminds you of important lessons from the past. If we could all just act on 10% of what we read, we’d be super rockstars… and what you’re describing is a step it that direction. Rock on!

  10. Peter,
    Wow, it’s taken me this long to get to this article, but thank you! This is stuff I’ve intellectually known for awhile, yet somehow never applied it (fully) to myself. I’ve long asked practical questions (“how can I make more money at…”) but have not put the emotional or “fun” component into it. I’m going to try this this week, and see what happens.



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