The Frame of Reference—How Your Outlook Affects Your Willpower

350 miles of pain and suffering.

That’s what Joe De Sena and his three teammates were looking at as they approached the starting line of the 2001 International Raid UkatakThe Raid Ukatak is an adventure race held in Quebec, Canada, in the middle of the winter.

Despite the challenge, Joe’s team was ready and willing to endure torture.

This was Joe’s first real test of his willpower. He was not much of an athlete, especially compared to his teammates who all had decades of experience, so in order to make it through the race, he would have to rely on his mental strength much more than his physical strength.

The race began with him and his team iceboating down the Saint Lawrence River. It was so cold that they may as well have been in the Arctic. Floating ice would constantly knock into their boat, sending the team overboard and into the freezing river.

Without any dry clothes to change into, they had to simply endure the pain of being wet and frozen. And this was just the beginning of the six-day race! 

After the Saint Lawrence, they hiked for two days in snow that was knee-deep. This was so tiring that Joe needed to ignore every human impulse to stop and rest. He had to silence the shouting of his primitive brain in order to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

Then he started to literally lose his mind.

He saw members of his family, he saw fast food restaurants, and he smelled the delicious aroma of a cheeseburger—despite the fact that the nearest McDonalds was hundreds of miles away. He was half mad, and he wasn’t even at the halfway point!

So how did he and his team not only persevere through the next 150-plus miles of the race, but also become one of the first teams to cross the finish line? [1]


To make it through the rest of the race, Joe thought about an explorer named Ernest Shackleton.

In 1912, Shackleton led an expedition of fifty-six men to be the first to cross Antarctica. From the very beginning, the expedition was doomed. Shackleton’s ship crashed into ice hundreds of miles from the shores of Antarctica.

He and his crew spent over a year trying to get home, traveling over 1,000 miles in temperatures much colder than those in Canada, in a place where nobody could help them. Compared to that situation, Joe's journey to the end of the race didn’t seem so bad.

If Shackleton was able to make it, Joe thought, there’s no reason why we can’t.

When Joe thought of Shackleton, he changed his frame of reference. And doing so vastly increased his willpower to keep going.


My guess is you’re probably not going to be freezing cold in the Canadian winter anytime soon, so how can you use the frame of reference in your life?

Imagine you come face-to-face with the opportunity to make an impulse $100 purchase.

Immediately, your whole body feels like it’s in panic mode. The temptation to buy seems like it’s too much to bear.  Part of you is telling yourself that you deserve it, another part is reminding you of your plan to stick to your budget this month.

Almost everyone in this situation gives into the temptation. And almost all those people regret it when they get their credit card bill.

However, one study found that participants that faced this dilemma were much more likely to avoid the impulse buy if they asked themselves a simple question.

”Would I accept one hundred dollars to NOT buy this?”

This seems obvious. Shouldn’t everyone realize that saving the $100 is the exact same thing as getting $100 dollars to not buy something?

The answer is no. Because if you believe you are saving $100 you will still consider the impulse purchase as a reward. However, if you shift your frame of reference to getting $100 dollars as a "gift" for not buying that thing, now the $100 is the reward.

So your impulsive, emotional, primitive brain that motivates you to seek short-term rewards now wants you to get that $100 for not making the purchase just as badly as your long-term, rational, modern brain wants to you to save it. [3]


This experiment shows how powerful a simple change in your frame of reference can be. But there are obviously more ways to capture its power than simply by saving money.

Here are some other proven ways to change your frame of reference and increase your willpower:


Several years ago, I really struggled with developing an exercise habit. I would exercise every single day for a week, then crash–leading me to skip a day, then another, then another…

I would then follow this with several weeks of doing nothing, before repeating the cycle by going to gym every single day again.

I was able to finally break this cycle when I signed up for a Spartan Race. I’m extremely competitive. So once I signed up, I wanted to do as well as I could in the race.

Instantly, my frame of reference for workouts completely changed. Rather than the trip to the gym being an obligation that I “had to” do, it became an opportunity to get faster and stronger for the upcoming race.

Whatever your goal, you probably set a plan that you “have to” follow. You see working towards it as an obligation and are therefore more tempted to procrastinate it as I did.

However if you can shift your frame of reference to see working toward your goal as an opportunity to learn more, become healthier, and become the person you really want to be, it will require much less willpower to make progress. [4]


When facing a challenge to your willpower, it is very easy to lose sight of the big picture.

Your short-term, impulsive, primitive brain can make it feel like saying "no" to a dessert or impulse purchase will be the end of the world. While also convincing you that saying "yes" to relaxation or staying in your comfort zone will be the key to happiness.

By doing this, it is making it harder for you to see that your future self will feel the consequences of your decisions today (good or bad). That’s why it is so easy to procrastinate and feel like you can always make up for it tomorrow.

However, if you can shift your frame of reference to your future self, it will help you immensely in overcoming your current willpower challenge.

Sticking with my gym example, whenever I want to skip the gym in the morning, I think to myself:

“At 8 AM I’m going to be sitting at my computer, rested, relaxed and starting my work day. At that time, I can either be proud of myself for choosing to go to the gym right now, or regretting the fact that I didn’t."

That simple shift in my frame of reference allows me to identify with my future self and see the benefits of exercising more clearly. This gives me that extra edge I need to make the right decision and lace up my running shoes.


It is very easy to constantly look inward when it comes to willpower. This could be by trying to justify taking the easy way out, or motivating yourself to rise to the challenge. This is why using another’s perspective on your challenge can help you make the right decision.

There are 2 ways you can do this effectively: 

The first, is using the same technique as Joe DeSena by thinking about how a hero or inspiration to you overcame a similar challenge.

Not only does this give you extra inspiration and motivation, but thinking about their story reminds you that the task you're working towards is attainable. That might just be enough to give you the rush of willpower and belief you need.

The second way, is to think about what advice your friends, family, or your mentor would give you to help you achieve a goal. Shifting your frame of reference to their perspective can help give you more clarity and accountability on your challenge.

For example, an alcoholic will be much more likely to quit drinking if he thinks about how his drinking impacts his family.

Also, someone who tried and failed at something will be much more likely pull himself together and try again if he thinks about the advice his best friend would give him–rather than beating himself up and feeling hopeless. 

The biggest reason why these two methods work, is because they allow you to see your challenge for what it is, rather than what your primitive brain is building it up to be. [5]


How you view a situation matters. If you see working towards your goal as an opportunity rather than an obligation, you're going to be much more likely to achieve it.

If you see your future self as a real person that will have to deal with the consequences of your actions right now–good or bad–you're going to be much more likely to ensure they're good.

And if you can see your challenge through the eyes of one of your heroes, family members, or friends, you will be much more likely to see your challenge for what it is–not what your short-term, emotional, primitive brain is building it up to be.

Whatever your next willpower challenge is, ensure you're approaching it with the right frame of reference.