The year was 1519 and Hernán Cortés, with some 600 Spanish soldiers, landed on a vast inland plateau called Mexico.
The Spanish conquistador and his men were about to embark on a conquest of an empire that hoarded some of the world’s greatest treasure. But, with only 600 unarmored men, conquering an empire as vast as Mexico was a mission that was destined for failure.
This was even more clear by taking a look at the history of Europeans invading Mexico. Many armies with more soldiers and more resources had tried and failed to conquer the empire in the past.
So Cortés devised a revolutionary strategy.
He devised a plan that would make up for his army's lack of resources by increasing the courage and mental strength of each one of his soldiers.
As the army marched inland to face their enemies, Cortés ordered his men to “Burn the boats.”
It was a decision that should have backfired. For if Cortés and his men were on the brink of defeat, they would have absolutely no chance to escape and save their lives.
Remarkably, though, the command to burn the boats had the opposite effect on his men. Now, they were left with only 2 choices — succeed, or die. And succeed they did.
Cortés became the first man in 600 years to conquer Mexico. Despite his lack of resources, he and his men conquered the empire – because they left themselves no other choice. 
WHY BURNING THE BOATS WORKS
When I first started Willpowered, I had 6 months worth of savings that I used to get it off the ground. After 5 months, I had gained some traction, but not enough to make a living off of it.
So I had 30 days to figure out how I was going to provide enough value through Willpowered in order to turn it into a living.
Up until that point I had been working hard, but it wasn’t until that last 30 days that something else took over me. Before then, I always had something of a “boat” to escape with. I had enough money to pay for next month’s expenses, so I still “had time” to figure things out.
But when my 6th month’s rent check was cashed, it felt like someone had just burned my last boat. There was no fallback anymore. I had to either figure out a way to turn my dream of Willpowered into a living, or begin the search for a job in the corporate world once again.
I chose to turn my dream into a living.
As soon I made that decision, I became incredibly focused. I couldn’t worry about fears of cold-calling people, I couldn’t worry about posting articles that would reveal my vulnerability and I couldn’t worry about what was happening in sports or TV. I was solely focused on paying the bills for next month.
All of my focus, all of my creativity, indeed all of my willpower, was focused on turning my dream into a living. My brain could no longer make excuses, so it was devoting all my energy to solving the problem. 
This is why burning your boats works. In a typical situation, your brain will exert its energy toward both working toward your goal, as well as thinking about all of the other things that you could be doing with your time.
When you burn your boats, however, it knows that it has to focus all of its energy on accomplishing you goal. So you are essentially operating with at least twice as many mental resources devoted to your success.
BURNING BOATS IN DAILY LIFE
In order to gain this focus, energy and willpower it is not necessary that you have something as dramatic as a life and death situation or an inability to pay rent next month.
Here are some ways that you can burn your boats and achieve your goals in everyday life:
THE NOTHING ALTERNATIVE
Raymond Chandler, author of The Big Sleep, came to a realization one day that every time he procrastinated, it was because he found some other type of productive activity to do.
Instead of writing, he would read the newspaper, read books by other authors, write letters, or some other positive thing. This made him feel better about his decision to procrastinate, but it meant that work was not getting done. 
But rather than impose disciplinary measures on himself to never procrastinate again; he decided to give himself the power of the “nothing alternative”.
During the time he set to work, he could either spend that time writing, or sit there doing nothing.
He stopped himself from procrastinating by burning the ships of all the other positive work he could do at that time. If he really could not think of anything to write, he could look out the window, stand on his head or get lost in his own thoughts, but he could not actually do anything.
So the next time you know that you need to get something done, burn your ship of all other positive activities. Either work, or do nothing. This will give you more focus and energy to accomplish the thing that you should be working on.
MAKE IT HARD TO QUIT
In the spring of 2014, I was training for a 13.5 mile Spartan Race in Monterrey, California. The event would be over 2 hours of running up and down a mountain while also doing about 30 obstacles along the way.
In order to train for it, I had to do runs of up to 16 miles (over 25km) even on weekdays. After a long day of work, a 16-mile run can seem completely overwhelming.
So I never focused on the full 16 miles. My goal was to simply make it 8 miles away from my home. Then I had no choice, I could either run or walk the 8 miles back, but I had to get home somehow! Quitting entirely was not an option.
Compare that to running on a treadmill. On a treadmill your means of quitting is always right there. All you need to do is hit the “stop” button, get off the treadmill and hit the showers.
This same method could be applied to going to the library to study rather than in your home. If you are already at the library, your means of quitting aren’t as easy as simply turning on your TV in your home.
You could also apply it to dieting by getting rid of all of the unhealthy food in your home. Your means of “quitting” your diet are harder when you need to make a trip to the store, rather than just open up a cupboard.
With your goal, see what you can do to make quitting more difficult. Get rid of things you know will tempt or distract you. Or put yourself in a position where you are forced to succeed - as I did by running 8 miles away from my home.
CREATE BRIGHT LINES
One summer day, while still recovering from his alcohol problem, Eric Clapton drove past a pub and began to crave drink.
"My selective memory told me that standing at the bar in a pub on a summer's evening with a long, tall glass of lager and lime was heaven. I chose not to remember the nights which I had sat with a bottle of vodka, a gram of coke, and a shotgun, contemplating suicide." 
On that day, Clapton relapsed. He promised himself that he would merely drink "in moderation", but ended up on the same path as before. Binge drinking, doing hard drugs and contemplating suicide.
The reason - besides the physical addictive qualities of alcohol - is because "in moderation" is vague. What is "moderation"? 2 drinks? 4? Clapton could convince himself that any amount of drinks were "in moderation" until of course he was on an all-out binge.
To avoid this fate, he had to draw a bright line - no drinking at all.
A bright line is a clear limit or benchmark that you will not cross under any circumstances. When you have a bright line that you truly believe in and adhere to, your brain will do everything it can to stick to it.
You can do whatever you want for exercise, but not matter what you will spend 30 minutes exercising on Monday, Wednesday and Friday
You may write something that never gets published, but no matter what you will write 1,000 words today.
These uncompromisable bright lines allow our brains to achieve the same level of focus as the burning the ships. Because you have only one option, (you cannot cross the bright line!) your brain focuses on ensuring that you have healthy food for breakfast, make time for exercising on Mondays and get all 1,000 words written.
Your brain often spends a lot of time thinking up reasons why "Plan A" cannot be achieved. So it will divert precious focus and energy coming up with excuses that distract you from completing your goal.
When you eliminate the possibility of a "Plan B", your brain will begin to use all of its focus, energy and willpower ensuring that "Plan A" is accomplished. To do this, you do not need to do something as drastic as making it a life and death situation.
Simply giving yourself a nothing alternative, making it harder to quit or creating a bright line will give you the willpower you need to accomplish your goal. That is, as long as you avoid the temptation of creating a Plan B.
- Singarayar, K. (2009). About BurningBoats.com. from http://burningboats.com/about-burningboatscom/
- Heath, C., & Heath, D. (2013). Decisive. New York: Crown Business.
- Baumeister, R., & Tierney, J. (2011). Willpower: Rediscovering the greatest human strength. New York: Penguin Press.