The Myth of Determination and Will-Power

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It happens too often where I find myself disappointed I didn’t get that ONE THING done today. I told myself that I was going to get it done today finally, and I am still not done. I was supposed to post a few items for sale on Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace, and the items are still sitting in my living room floor. What happened?!

I’ll tell you what happened — we’ve been thinking about this entirely wrong. I shouldn’t be disappointed that I didn’t post the items for sale. Rather, I should be disappointed I didn’t setup my day to make it easy to do so.

In this article we’ll explore why people hit the snooze button and can’t get up. My goal is by the end of this series, you’ll be waking up with no more than 1 snooze!

Don’t Fall For the Lie of Self-Will

Myth: That with enough [inspiration/motivation/self-will/determination], then we can do anything.

  • In a nutshell, it’s a myth because it’s really habits and structuring our life such that it’s easy to do the “good” thing while avoiding the “bad” thing.

Let’s hammer this home:

  • “When we repeat an action over and over again in a given context and then get a reward when you do that, you are learning very slowly and incrementally to associate that context with that behavior.” — Wendy Wood, a psychology professor at the University of Southern California
  • “Some thinkers hold that it is by nature that people become good, others that it is by habit, and others that it is by instruction.” Aristotle, in the Nicomachean Ethics, concluded that habits were responsible.
  • Marketers flatter us with slogans like “Just Do It” (Nike) and “Declare Your Path” (New Balance) because it reinforces the myth that will power is the key. Don’t fall for it! [2]
  • A brain scan of someone learning a task shows activity in the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus, aka conscious decision-making. With repetition of a task, brain activity moves into areas of the putamen and the basal ganglia, deep in what Wood calls “the rudimentary machinery of our minds.” There, a task is turned into a habit. [2]
  • A few tweaks to our environment may enable us to emulate people who seem more disciplined. [2]
  • “People who score high on self-control questionnaires may owe their apparent virtue to situational factors rather than to sheer fortitude.” [2]

Oh No, Another Article on Forming Habits?!

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With the corona virus, it surprises me that the best advice is to wash our hands. Really, that’s it?! Surely there’s something more we can do to help prevent the spread of it! Then you start thinking about, how often do people really wash their hands? I notice it most when I’m at an airport restroom and the amount of guys that just walk out. Yikes!

Whether it’s washing our hands, stop hitting the snooze button, or going for an evening walk, let’s make it happen by designing our lifestyle and not relying on will-power.

Bonus: Why Lex Luthor is evil.

Soooooo many articles on how to form healthy habits, but that’s not going to stop me! I’ll try to break down what works for me and keep it super simple.

But first, let’s agree that:

  • Breaking bad habits lies not in resolve but in restructuring our environment in ways that sustain good behaviors. [2]
  • If we can make bad habits more inconvenient, then inertia can carry us in the direction of virtue, without ever requiring us to be strong. [2]
  • Key lies not in breaking a habit through will power but in replacing one habit with another. [2]

Ok, now for the techniques that work:

  • “Temptation bundling” or pairing — Combining the healthy habit you dread with something you love. Example is only allow yourself to watch your favorite show while exercising, like while on the treadmill.
  • Fresh start effect — When you have a major routine change, like a new job or new living situation, incorporate in a good habit. Because you’re learning a whole new routine, it’ll be easier to fold in a new habit at the same time.
  • Allow yourself reserves — You know you’re going to fail sometimes, such as missing the gym or snoozing one too many time. Think of it like your reserves and an allowance to mess up a few times. Don’t be hard on yourself and just get back to it next time.
  • Friction — Make it incredible hard to do the bad habit, and super easy to do the good habit. For example, don’t have any cookies or chips in the house at all. Also, pack your gym bag and leave it in the car — always. That way you don’t have an excuse.

Now tell yourself you will do one of the above. Which one do you like the most?

What is Sleep Inertia, and Why You Should Care

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I’ve done several things over the past couple years to change my sleep habit. First, I make sure I get 7 hours of sleep every night. I’m lucky my job doesn’t have a set start time, so whatever time I goto bed, I set my alarm for 7 hours later. (In the past, I would push through with like 6 hours or so and then I’d be dragging by Friday. With my 7 hour sleep routine, I’m consistent throughout the week and I don’t need “recovery” sleep on the weekend.) Secondly, I allow myself one snooze only, and I count 10 breathes and get out of bed. It’s now routine and I try hard to not think, “should I get up or not.” In this instance, I do the Nike and “just do it.”

Ever heard of ‘sleep inertia?’ I didn’t.

  • Sleep inertia is the feeling of grogginess that many people have when they get up in the morning. This state usually only lasts for around 15 to 30 minutes as your mind and body gradually become more alert. [8]
  • Waking abruptly leads to a period of grogginess called sleep inertia. [5]

Ok, so sleep inertia is fancy talk for morning grogginess. Why do we care?

  • “Hitting the snooze button can actually make sleep inertia worse,” says Elika Kormeili, a clinical psychologist specializing in sleep. “It will leave you dragging throughout the day.” [5]

The takeaway: Snoozing too many times in the morning literally makes you more cranky and less productive the rest of the day. Big penalty!

Bonus reasons why not to snooze:

  • When the alarm goes off, the sleeper has to go through the process of deciding whether this is the time to really get up or whether it is okay to snooze one more time. When an intellectual process is required to figure out whether it is really time to get up, the whole process becomes annoying and tiring. A long term effect could be having a hard time falling asleep. [6]
  • If you want a better memory, don’t use the snooze [7]

Stop Snoozing + Good Habits = Real Power

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Can you believe what’s going on in the news?! Tesla stock is up, corona virus have people trapped on a cruise ship, Trump, Democratic candidates, and the news never stops.

I’ve gotten into a bad habit of perusing the news before going to bed. That kills prob 10 minutes of earlier sleep I could have gotten. Time to take my own advice about making it harder to read the news before bedtime (hide or delete the app!), and make it easier to do the good habit (stack of books and comics on my night stand).

So, now we know that multiple snooze alarms leads to worse grogginess, which leads to a bad feeling all day, and perhaps worst of all, potentially less ability to fall asleep at night! That was my fear-driven technique to get you to snooze less! Haha.

The best advice I read that’s simple is to get about 15 minutes of sunlight or bright light exposure to stop the production of melatonin, drink a large glass of water, and don’t think, just get started with your day. [7]

With what we learned about habit forming, we should look for ways to make it easy. For example, get a glass of water next to your night stand or bathroom, ready to drink as soon as you wake up. Leave the blinds open and let the natural sunlight come in. Make it a trigger that once you start debating if you should get up or not, instead realize you’re already thinking and therefore already awake! Stop fooling yourself!

Germans and Japanese — Productive as heck.

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Why is it that we think of Germans and Japanese people as super productive and disciplined? Hopefully we aren’t racist and there are facts behind this thinking!

I’m asking this question, because they are doing something culturally that makes them that way. If it can be learned, then perhaps we can learn from it too.

We’ve been talking forming good habits and hitting the snooze button less. Let’s dig deeper into their culture to expand the way we think.

Erin Meyer, author of “The Culture Map,” states:

  • Scheduling scale (i.e. promptness vs. flexibility on time) is profoundly affected by a number of historic factors that shape the ways people live, work, think, and interact with one another. There’s a clear link between this cultural pattern and Germany’s place in history as one of the first countries in the world to become heavily industrialized. [9]
  • In both Germany and Japan, compared to other countries, their systems always run on time. Trains arrive on time, traffic lights are predictable, etc. This allows you to carry out your day’s plan much more smoothly. Punctuality is part of the Japanese society’s “foundation”. [11]

According some folk’s observations:

  • Japanese children are taught, from the beginning, that they belong to a family, a neighborhood, a country, and along the way, many other groups, so whatever they do represents that family. If the child misbehaves, that reflects badly on the whole family. This sense of responsibility is one aspect of discipline. [13]

Today’s takeaway: You don’t just disappoint yourself, you disappoint your entire family and everyone that depends on you. Having good habits and a routine is the foundation. Fail to do so, and you don’t just fail yourself, you fail everybody around you. Whoa, no pressure!


  1. Creatures Of Habit: How Habits Shape Who We Are — And Who We Become by Shankar Vedantam
  2. Can Brain Science Help Us Break Bad Habits? by Jerome Groopman
  3. Fresh Starts, Guilty Pleasures And Other Pro Tips For Sticking To Good Habits by L. Carol Ritchie
  4. The Pull of the Past: When Do Habits Persist Despite Conflict With Motives by David T. Neal, Wendy Wood, Mengju Wu, and David Kurlander
  5. 5 Things That Happen When You Hit The Snooze Button by Sleep Number Blog
  6. Never Hit the Snooze Button by Fredric Neuman M.D.
  7. Reasons to Skip the Snooze Button by Michael J Breus Ph.D.
  8. Why pressing snooze button isn’t good for body or brain by Sabrina Barr
  9. From Switzerland to Nigeria, here are the most and least punctual countries by Erin Meyer, “The Culture Map”
  10. These 8 Scales Reveal Everything You Should Know About Different Cultures by Gus Lubin
  11. Cultural differences between Germany and Japan by Daniel Beiter, Exchange Student from the University of Augsburg (Germany)
  12. Japan and Germany: worlds apart and yet so similar by Hugh Cortazzi
  13. Why are the Japanese so disciplined?

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