The Extraordinary Power of Perspective – How Your Point of View Affects Your Willpower

“I’ve done 20 Ironman Traithlons, who needs this?”

Said Joe DeSena, founder of The Spartan Race, as he was in the middle of doing the Utah Ironman Triathlon. Joe is renowned for pushing his body to the limit, but this time he felt like he had pushed his body as far as it could possibly go. [1]

He had completed the 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of biking and was 10 miles into the 26.2-mile run. But then his body decided that it had enough. He became so nauseous that he had to walk over to an ambulance where he started vomiting uncontrollably. 

Joe was about to declare defeat and take his spot on the “Did Not Finish” list. After all, what did he have left to prove? He had already finished the Ironman Triathlon 20 times before this! What would it matter if he finished it a 21st time?

Then he saw a woman with only one leg run by him. When he saw this woman pushing herself through a physical feat that many 2-legged people don’t even try, it changed his perspective. 

He was no longer feeling sorry for himself. He was no longer viewing the final 16.2 miles of the race as something that was not worth doing. Seeing this woman gave Joe the strength he needed to start running again.

She was a source of inspiration to him. Despite his pain, despite his nausea, despite his body telling him to STOP, for the final 16.2 miles of the race, he was able to keep pace and cross the finish line with her.


How did Joe DeSena do this? He was vomiting uncontrollably! 

How did he find the strength to not only finish the race, but to keep pace with this woman? What was it about her that seemed to change DeSena’s outlook so much that he was able to overcome all of his natural instincts to quit? The answer lies in the power of our perspective. 

When it comes to achieving our goals, few of us stop to consider the power of our point of view.

We believe that making it to the gym will be just as hard whether we see it as an obligation or we see it as an opportunity.

We believe that quitting drinking will be just as difficult whether we are doing it through court-ordered AA meetings or we are doing it to be a better role model for our kids.

But this is not the case. Our point of view in accomplishing our goals is one of the key factors that determine whether or not we will see them through to completion.


According to health psychologist, Kelly McGonigal, there are 3 different types of willpower that we use to exert our self-control. Each type uses a different part of the brain and uses varying degrees of our mental energy. [2]

The first is “I Will Power”. This is what you use to push yourself out of bed in the morning, push yourself to go to the gym, and get around to cleaning out your garage.

The second is “I Won’t Power”. This is what you use to resist tempting foods, say “no” to another glass of wine and stick to a budget.

The third is “I Want Power”. This is where true motivation and inspiration reside. This is what you use to show up early to work because you truly believe in the purpose of your job. This is what you use when you watch a motivational video and begin to believe in yourself. And this is what Joe DeSena used to push himself through the final 16.2 miles of the Utah Ironman. 

Both I Will Power and I Won’t Power require a lot of mental energy for us to use. They drain our willpower and leave us feeling tired after the task is complete. I Want Power, on the other hand, requires almost no mental energy. [3]

As anyone who has been truly inspired can attest to, this deep, purposeful, motivation actually leaves us feeling more energized.

Usually our brains are wired to conserve energy. When we begin exerting ourselves too much, our brain will begin to send messages to our body to stop, rest and replenish. But the brain will begin sending these messages well before it is actually running low on energy. This was a survival mechanism used by our ancestors when food and shelter were hard to come by, and we had to conserve our energy in order to survive. 

Today, however, we can choose to override this natural response by convincing the brain that the energy we are expending is “worth it”. If we are fighting for a purpose that is important enough, our brain will stop sending these messages to our body to shut down.  

Then it will actually start fueling our muscles with the abundance of energy we have stored. This is why Joe DeSena was able to shift so quickly from vomiting uncontrollably to running another 16.2 miles. [4]


You do not need to see something as inspiring as a one-legged woman finishing the Ironman to change your perspective. Research shows that simply by changing your language, you can shift your mindset and tap into your I Want Power.

Here are 2 simple ways your can reframe your perspective to achieve your goals:


When we set a plan to accomplish our goals, many of us begin to set a plan that we “have to” follow. We want to become more fit, so we “have to” go to the gym 3 times per week. Then when our friends invite us out after work, we politely decline claiming that we “have to” go to the gym.

Your brain is subconsciously paying attention to cues like this. By saying that you “have to” do it, you are saying that there are better things that you want to be doing with your time, but you're restricted by a plan you set weeks or months ago.

When you view this plan as an obligation that you “have to” do, your brain will begin to motivate you to skip it – especially when you are low on willpower. It wants to take the easy way out and it will begin coming up with excuses why you should take a break today and resume your plan tomorrow.

However, this motivation gets completely switched by changing your perspective to “get to”. You get to go to the gym today and improve your health and fitness. You get to go to work today and earn money to pay for the lifestyle that you enjoy. You get to order a salad for lunch instead of pizza and feel good about yourself afterward.

Try this simple technique the next time you feel like you “have to” do something to achieve a long-term goal. You will be amazed at just how much of a difference this shift in perspective will make!


When you’re watching your waist-line how often do you resist temptations by saying “I can’t eat _____”?

If you’re like most people, that is probably your most common response. But is it possible that saying “I can’t” might actually increase the likelihood that you will eat it?

Researchers at Boston College wanted to find out. So they brought a group of undergraduate students into the lab to test if they could be influenced simply by the way they said “no” to temptation. [5]

They separated the students into 2 groups. Both groups were dieters with the intentions of cutting out sweets. They were both offered Hershey’s Kisses and asked to resist the temptation to eat them overnight. 

One group was given the instruction to resist by saying “I can’t eat chocolate” and the other was given the instruction to say, “I don’t eat chocolate”. Then they were supposed to bring back the same Hershey’s Kisses the next day to prove that they had indeed resisted the temptation (the researchers marked the Kisses to ensure that nobody cheated by bringing in different ones).

The next day, only 39% of those who said, “I can’t eat chocolate” were able to resist the temptation. While 62% of those who said “I don’t eat chocolate” were able stay strong!

This experiment has been repeated many times over with different age groups and temptations and always with similar results. The bottom line, saying “I don’t” works almost twice as well as saying “I can’t”!

Just like with “get to” and “have to”, saying “I don’t” rather than “I can’t” shifts your perspective. Think about what you’re really saying when you use, “I can’t”. You’re saying that you would eat the chocolate, but there is some outside reason that is preventing you from indulging. It doesn’t matter if that outside reason is an experiment or a diet plan, you see it as some factor that is preventing you from having what you really want.

“I don’t”, however, changes your perspective to that of a person who simply does not eat chocolate (or whatever your vice may be). You begin to identify yourself as someone who eats healthy and the craving for your vices begins to subside. 


Your perspective is one of the most important factors in achieving your goals. When your goal becomes an obligation rather than an opportunity, your brain has to use much more mental energy in order to achieve it. 

If you change your perspective, however, you can take advantage of the vast reservoir of willpower you have at your disposal. Having the right perspective will allow you to use your I Want Power, which energizes you, rather than drains you. 

Find the purpose or inspiration that will give you the right perspective in achieving your goals. Then use the powerful language listed above to help you stick to your plans and see your goals for what they really are - an opportunity. 


  1. Helm, Burt. "Joe De Sena's Spartan Empire." N.p., 21 Apr. 2014. Web.
  2. McGonigal, K. (2012) The Willpower Instinct: How Self-control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It. New York: Avery.
  3. Suchy, Yana. "Executive Functioning: Overview, Assessment, and Research Issues for Non-Neuropsychologists." Annals of Behavioral Medicine 37.2 (2009): 106-16
  4. Job, V., Dweck, C. & Walton, G. (2010) Ego Depletion--Is It All in Your Head?: Implicit Theories About Willpower Affect Self-Regulation. Psychological Science 21.11 1686-693. Web.
  5. Patrick, V., & Hagtvedt, H. (2012) "I Don’t” versus “I Can’t”: When Empowered Refusal Motivates Goal-Directed Behavior. Journal of Consumer Research 39.2: 371-81