Playing Offense - What People With The Most Willpower Do Differently

In the legendary tale, The Odyssey, the hero Odysseus is a man of great strength.

He takes on many challenges throughout his travels. He fights a cyclops, sails through treacherous winds and faces deceitful individuals. Despite his heroism, though, Odysseus is ultimately just a man – with the same weaknesses as the rest of us.

At one point, he and his men sail past an island that is inhabited by Sirens. Sirens were beautiful yet dangerous creatures that lured sailors with their enchanting music. Under the spell of these Sirens, men would hopelessly sail their ships towards the island of the Sirens and crash their boats on the shores. 

Knowing this cruel fate of men who came before him, Odysseus was smart enough to plan ahead. He instructed his men to wear earplugs so they would not be enchanted by the Siren’s song. Then the men tied Odysseus to the ship so he would be physically unable to be lured to steer the ship towards the Sirens.

These men knew that relying upon their willpower alone to resist the Sirens would not be enough to save them. So they made sure that they could not give in to their temptation. Rather than playing defense against the Sirens spell, Odysseus and his men played offense. [1


When researchers came across a group of people in the Netherlands who seemingly had unstoppable willpower, they thought they must be saints. They ate extremely healthy, exercised regularly, hardly procrastinated and reported more confidence and less stress than almost everyone around them. These people, it seemed, would probably even be able to resist the calls of the Sirens!

But that was not the case. Many of them reported that if they were to get behind a bar stool, they would never leave. Others reported that they were unable to resist sweets whenever they were around. It seemed that these "saints" were prone to the same temptations as the rest of us. [2]

So what was their secret?

The secret, it turned out, was that these people simply did not put themselves in those situations. Their lifestyles were well-organized to prevent having to look temptation in the face. They took a page out of Odysseus’ book and tied themselves to the ship to make sure that they could not give in.

These people played offense. They thought about what might tempt them in the future – whether it was alcohol, sweets, or distractions from work – and set themselves up to avoid them. They were seemingly willpower super heroes because they almost never had to use it.  


When we think about willpower, we typically think about playing defense. We think about seeing the temptation in front of us and summoning the willpower to resist it. 

Most of us do not take the approach of Odysseus or the people in this study. We do not plan on how we are going to resist the temptation ahead of time. We do not think to identify the situations where we are tempted to veer away from our goals and set ourselves up to resist them. 

Rather than using our willpower to work on a project a little bit each day, we procrastinate until the last minute and depend on it for a rush of productivity at the end.  

Rather than using our willpower to push our shopping cart passed the cookie and candy section of the grocery store, we depend on it to keep us in check when it is dessert time.

To get the most out of our limited willpower, this is the opposite of what we should be doing. Our willpower acts like a muscle. The more that we use it throughout the day, the less energy we will have to use it for other, perhaps more important, tasks.

The more you can avoid temptations – rather than resist them – the more you will be able to conserve your willpower, decrease your level of stress and improve your productivity. And the best way to do that is to play offense. [3


So how do we shift our perspective from defense to offense?  

Here are the steps you can take to begin to avoid temptations and make it easier to accomplish your goals:


Self-awareness is the first step toward self-improvement. Be honest with what truly challenges your willpower. Make a list of things and situations that you encounter on a regular basis that test you. At this point you just want to identify the challenges. 

For example, my list contains cleaning my apartment, setting up a regular to-do list, resisting peanut butter and writing 2,000 words a day. 


Next, come up with realistic ways that you can either avoid the challenge, or make it easier to accomplish it. What can you do to make the “bad” behaviors hard and the “good” behaviors easy?

For example, researchers have found that if you have a hard time resisting a certain food, you should keep it out of the house. The simple annoyance of having to get into your car and go to the store can be the difference in making the ultimate choice to resist.

By the same method, you are also more likely to make it to the gym in the morning if you pack your gym bag the night before. That simple step can make it that much easier for you to summon the motivation to go. [4]


“The hardest part about going to the gym is simply making the decision to go.” – Robert Kyosaki.

Simply making a decision drains our willpower. We use up valuable mental energy contemplating the excuses to give in, versus the benefits of staying strong. The more we spend time deciding, the more our willpower will be drained; making it more likely we will give in. [5]

We can overcome this problem by making a pre-commitment. If we decide that no matter what we will make it to the gym, then we can focus our willpower on getting the task done, rather than contemplating whether or not to do it.  

The best way to do this is to create a simple “if x, then y” commitment. For example, “if I am at the grocery store, then I will not go down the cookie and candy isle.”

If you make a commitment like this beforehand, you will find it much easier to avoid the temptation because you are simply adhering the decision you previously made. This will help you avoid the classic internal debate between your 2 minds.


Human beings are incredibly optimistic. We naturally see the future with bright eyes and our future selves with incredible willpower. This leads us to create unrealistic plans through what is called the "planning fallacy".

When it is Sunday and we are planning to go running on Monday, Wednesday and Friday this week, we overestimate the willpower we will have. We do not think about the fact that on Friday we will be burnt out from a week's worth of work, and it will be extra hard to put our running shoes on.

It is these precise moments that we “hear the Sirens call” to skip our run and hit the couch instead. And if we overestimate our willpower in these situations, we will be doomed to follow the call to the couch.

You must recognize this natural tendency to assume the best and override it. Remember, even the great hero Odysseus knew that willpower alone would not be enough to save him. 

To play the best offense, you must assume that you will feel tired and stressed in the future and plan for the worst. What can you do to ensure that even when you are the most tempted, you will still be able to stay strong?


The way to get the most out of your willpower is to avoid having to use it. There are countless temptations and challenges out there that seek to detract us from our long-term goals. The more of these challenges that we can proactively avoid, the more willpower we will have to take on those that we cannot avoid.

We can take a lesson from Odysseus by recognizing that we need to plan ahead for the weak moments we will face. Instead of relying on your willpower to save you at the last second, use it to play offense. Recognize your challenges, make plans, pre-commit and remember that your future self is only human. Then you might just be able to get through your own "call of the Sirens".


  1. Bloom, H. (1996). Homer's Odyssey. New York: Chelsea House.
  2. Ridder, D., Lensvelt-Mulders, G., Finkenauer, C., Stok, F., & Baumeister, R. (2011). Taking Stock of Self-Control: A Meta-Analysis of How Trait Self-Control Relates to a Wide Range of Behaviors. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 76-99.
  3. Crescioni, A., Ehrlinger, J., Alquist, J., Conlon, K., Baumeister, R., Schatschneider, C., & Dutton, G. (2013). High trait self-control predicts positive health behaviors and success in weight loss. Journal of Health Psychology, 750-759.
  4. Patterson, Kerry, Grenny J., Maxfield, D., McMillan, R., & Switzler, A. Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success.
  5. Baumeister, R., Bratslavsky, E., Muraven, M., & Tice, D. (1998). Ego Depletion: Is The Active Self A Limited Resource? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1252-1265.