Willpower is Limited. Here’s One Way to Work Without It

How a Forcing Function Drives Productivity

Herbert Lui
Published in
6 min readDec 9, 2015


“Self-control (at least mine) is overrated.” — Tim Ferriss, interview with Lifehacker

Your decisions and self-control draw from the same pool of resources. This is why Obama only wears two types of suits and builds so many routines into his life. He wants to save his decision making power for the most important decisions and to stay level-headed as much as possible.

Willpower is not reliable. Systems are. When you use your willpower to plan and put together a system, you’re investing in more consistent output. You also have a foundation to regularly build on top of.

Systems sound complicated. They can actually be quite simple. For example, my brain clicked when a client used the term, “forcing function.” He explained it as part of his company’s culture and system. Forcing functions help my client keep his team motivated. His team stays accountable to goals with minimal management.

I hadn’t realized it yet, but I had recently implemented a forcing function into my life. It was really useful. For those of you like myself, who dislike building character, systems like forcing functions don’t require self-control. They just take good ol’ fashioned thinking and implementation.

For me, I noticed a problem when I realized I wasn’t writing as much as I used to. I was publishing a piece monthly. I decided this level of quantity wasn’t enough for me to improve as a writer, or for readers to take my writing seriously.

My forcing function for Q4 2015: Publishing one post on Medium.com per week.

It was that simple. There’d be no constraint on subject matter.

Prior to implementing this forcing function, the freedom was actually challenging. I was theoretically free to be as original I’d like. As a result, I became pretentious with my ideas. I found that I had a shortage of publish-worthy ideas, which slowed down my writing.

Here’s how that simple forcing function affected many other parts of my life:

I Read More

Writing one piece a week forces me to read more and pay attention. It forces me to take notes, to read comparatively, and absorb as much information from different books and people as possible. Learning which parts of a book to take note of and which not to (not too much and not too little — it has to be just right). I realized my daily commute gave me 80 minutes per day to read.

When I was writing for Lifehacker, I learned a lot of psych, productivity, and general life skills that I wouldn’t have otherwise. Writing twelve short articles a week and two long ones also forced me to pick up a reading system, which I still use today.

I Think More Critically

Thinking is a large part of reading. It means taking time to connect the dots. Writing forces me to do this, because I can’t write about something I haven’t thought about. I ask, and answer, questions like:

  • Why is this important to the reader?
  • Why is this important to me?
  • What parts of this do I agree with? What parts don’t I agree with?
  • How is this different from what people are doing or believing now? Or is it obvious?
  • How should I explain it properly?
  • How can this improve someone’s life?
  • What three things can they do after reading my post to improve their lives?
  • Who do I know might find these three things useful? Can I ask them what they think of what I’m writing?

Whoever said, “The dullest pencil is better than the sharpest memory,” is totally correct. Not just because it’s way easier to read something a recall it than to rely purely on recollection, but also because concepts become much easier to work with when they’re tangible than when they’re stuck in concept form.

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These are stories I explored in the previous Prototype newsletter. If they sound interesting, sign up today.

I Write and Speak More Clearly

“When actors compliment each other, for example, they often say, “I like your choices.” They know that if a colleague has arrived at a beautiful moment, it’s because in rehearsal the actor tried it twenty different ways, then chose the one perfect moment. The same is true for us.” — Robert McKee, Story, 76

Even amidst the reading and thinking, publishing one piece per week actually improves my writing. I’m forced to write in ways that people not only understand, but also are interested in. I also find new ways of getting people to read the work I just published. This isn’t out of obligation. I actually feel compelled to do it, since I put so much work into writing it.

I also build my own filter and radar for what might be a potent topic to publish and what’s not, as well as a framework for why. I develop a taste for framing topics in a way that is relevant to the reader.

The writer’s job is to combine and communicate thoughts. Even though they might not be original, the communication is in the way most honest to the writer, and most convincing and credible to the reader.

“But [StarCraft] wasn’t necessarily a first big idea. We found it along the highway. Which I would say is often really true about ideas that come to define these games and their narratives. You find it along the way. You don’t always start with the big idea. It shapes over time as the game shapes over time.”

Chris Metzen, Senior Vice President of Story and Franchise Development at Blizzard Entertainment

More importantly, I can see which of these posts resonate with readers. These insights serve as reference points for where I should invest my time and energy into deeper, longer-form, work.

What’s Your Forcing Function?

I haven’t gotten to the point where I need reinforcement or stakes yet, but if I fail consistently I’d try something like stickK.

You don’t need to admonish yourself or be frustrated with your lack of self-discipline. It’s okay. You’re human. Commit to a goal that will force you to build the other habits you like (and remove old ones you don’t), and execute ruthlessly on that.

In addition to all these benefits, I notice and observe more. My marketing improves. I’m way less distracted. All this came from committing to write once a week. In a way, it’s similar to a keystone habit. When you commit to a forcing function, you also benefit from the rest of the behavior that comes along the way.

Herbert Lui is the Creative Director at Wonder Shuttle, a marketing agency that crafts stories through content. Their most recent product is the content canvas. It’s a framework that marketers and strategists use to create useful, contagious, content.

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Herbert Lui

Covering the psychology of creative work for content creators, professionals, hobbyists, and independents. Author of Creative Doing: https://www.holloway.com/cd