How To Prepare for Your Next Willpower Challenge

It’s 6:30am in the morning in Beijing and Michael Phelps wakes up to what will be his 3rd gold medal performance of the 2008 Summer Olympic games. He goes through his normal routine. He has his breakfast planned in advance. He eats exactly what he has before each of his previous competitions and what he will for the next 5 gold medal performances in front of him.  

After breakfast, he goes through the rest of his routine. A 45-minute warm-up swim, a long period of stretching - honing his focus by listening to the same hip-hop mix he has before all of the other competitions.  

If you were to ask Michael Phelps what he was thinking about at any point during this pre-competition routine, he would respond saying that he’s “not really thinking about anything.” And that’s exactly what he wants.  

Phelps is preparing to push his body harder than he’s ever pushed it before to achieve a world record. Any willpower he expends making decisions about what he’s going to eat, when he’s going to wake up, even what music he’s going to listen to, is now willpower that he can’t use to push himself through pressure and fatigue during the race. This is what helped Phelps become the winningest Olympian of all-time, and is something we can all learn from when we deal with our own willpower challenges. [1]


One of the biggest drains on our willpower is simply making decisions [2]. You get home from a long day at work, you open the fridge and see the ingredients of what you “should” be making for dinner. Then….you realize that the pizza place around the corner sounds a lot easier and a lot more delicious.

Then the internal debate ensues; weighing costs, benefits, and the emotional drain that you’ve put yourself under from your long, stressful day. This decision-making process actually drains your willpower, making the pizza the more likely winner with each passing moment.  

By simply planning what you’re going to eat and making the conscious decision beforehand, you remove this willpower-draining analysis of taste, ease, and indulgence. Whenever you know that you’re going to be tempted, make sure that you have a pre-loaded decision to help you pull through and make the right choice.


Throughout Michael’s preparation, his focus stays on the task at hand. Getting out of bed, eating breakfast, going through his warm-up, listening to his music; his mind is on each of those individual tasks, and not on the race. This prevents him from getting hit by another willpower-draining phenomenon - anxiety. [3]

So often we don’t achieve our willpower challenges because we over-think everything that could go wrong in the future.

I’m feeling tired, will I even be able to get a good workout tonight?

What if the interviewers for this job don’t like me?

What if I call this girl for a date and it’s awkward on the phone?

What if, what if, what if? We think about everything that could go wrong - and drain our willpower in the process - leaving us with less willpower when the actual workout, interview, call occurs. Instead, try to focus on the task at hand. Eventually the time will come when you will have to perform in the gym, in the interview or on the phone and you will have that much more energy and focus to take on the challenge.


Small wins are some of the most amazing things when it comes to willpower. They have an effect much greater than the accomplishment in itself because they help you build confidence. For Michael, each step in his routine was a small win. An early start to the day, a healthy breakfast, a successful warmup, all of these things helped to build his confidence. [1]

The same phenomenon can work for us in our own lives. If you have a big willpower challenge coming up, see if there is a way that you can build some small wins and gain confidence before taking it on.  

If you’re about to make a crucial sales call, first call one of your current clients to get a reorder.

If you’re about to make a big presentation in front of a new client, perform the presentation in front of your own staff to build confidence being in the spotlight.

If you’re dreading running a full 7 miles, just focus on getting the first 1 or 2 miles done.  With each mile completed, you’ll gain more confidence to get the next one done as well.


Michael Phelps and his coach knew what they were doing in preparation for competition - and there is a lot we can learn from them. Although we’re not all olympic athletes, we all want to perform at our best. So whether you’re preparing for a presentation or a big project, make sure you do the little things to give yourself more willpower!


  1. Duhigg, Charles. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. New York: Random House, 2012.
  2. Vohs, Kathleen D., Roy F. Baumeister, Brandon J. Schmeichel, Jean M. Twenge, Noelle M. Nelson, and Dianne M. Tice. "Making Choices Impairs Subsequent Self-control: A Limited-resource Account of Decision Making, Self-regulation, and Active Initiative." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 94.5 (2008): 883-98
  3. Baumeister, Roy F., Matthew Gailliot, C. Nathan Dewall, and Megan Oaten. "Self-Regulation and Personality: How Interventions Increase Regulatory Success, and How Depletion Moderates the Effects of Traits on Behavior." Journal of Personality 74.6 (2006): 1773-802.