Building the Willingness Muscle

Most of us want to feel great in our skins, be living the happiest and most fulfilling lives possible, and reduce the amount of suffering that we experience. But in order to have those things, we need to do some quite uncomfortable personal growth work. Such work can test our levels of willingness. 

The author Mark Manson puts it this way:

“Everything sucks, some of the time. If you want to be a professional artist, but you aren’t willing to see your work rejected hundreds, if not thousands, of times, then you’re done before you start. If you want to be a hotshot court lawyer, but can’t stand the eighty-hour workweeks, then I’ve got bad news for you.

Because if you love and want something enough—whatever it is—then you don’t really mind eating the shit sandwich that comes with it. So what’s your favorite flavor of shit sandwich?”

I think we all know that every single pursuit, no matter how fun or awesome, comes with its own side serving of misery. Running your own business; becoming a parent; buying a house: optimism bias leads us to focus excessively on the pleasure aspects, when really our attention should be on the pain – specifically, the type of pain we will need to sustain.

Because when it comes to establishing goals that are meaningful to us and that we have a hope of achieving, the important question isn’t what we want – it is what we are willing to do to go after the sometimes distant rewards. 

This article, based on an exercise from the book the Happiness Trap, offers is about how to honestly evaluate your willingness.

using a willingness and action plan

Assessing our willingness at the outset of a plan or intention helps us to appraise realistically our prospects of succeeding with the thing. A Willingness and Action plan is a tool you can use. 

Trot out the answers to the following questions:

  1. My goal is to…
  2. The values underlying my goal are…
  3. The thoughts, feelings, sensations and urges I’m willing to have in order to achieve this goal are…
  4. It would be useful to remind myself that…
  5. I can break this goal down into smaller steps, such as…
  6. The smallest, easiest step I can begin with is…
  7. The time, day, and date that I will take that first step is…

Here’s an example of how this works:

  1. My goal is to… write a book. 
  2. The values underlying my book are…crystallising everything I’ve learned about personal development in the past five years (self realisation and creativity), helping others (love and contribution). 
  3. The thoughts etc that I am willing to have to achieve the goal are… boredom, feeling like I’m wasting my time, tiredness, feeling trapped, hopelessness, loneliness, FOMO, uncertainty and insecurity. 
  4. It would be useful to remind myself that… I’m not my thoughts or feelings. 
  5. I can break this goal into smaller steps, such as…working on my book on the first hour of each day.
  6. The smallest, easiest step I can begin with is…writing a sentence. 
  7. The time, day and date is… right here right now. 

Writing this all down is useful, because it helps you to see what you are going to be up against. You are preparing for the demons you’ll face on the voyage.

planning for roadblocks ahead

Even when we are willing, there will still be bad days. It’s therefore a good idea to have a plan for the moments when willingness is tested. 

Taking the example above, some days working on book feels like an uphill battle and everything I am writing is terrible. On those days, I have some useful mantras and self-talk, along the lines of trusting the process, having patience, etc. I’m realistic about expecting those bad days, being aware of other writers’ creative process. I know how to encourage myself and keep it going. Whatever your goal is, you’ll need a similar skill. 


Along with selecting the right goals, the secret to success in our endeavours is willingness. In other words, having the self knowledge and awareness to recognise when we have a realistic prospect of achieving what we set out to do. It is about setting aside unwarranted optimism as well as negativity and limiting beliefs and going ‘well look, this is what this is going to take, am I likely to be able to commit to this?’

The better we are at anticipating obstacles to our progress, the greater our chances of overcoming those hurdles. And in doing so, our lives are sprinkled with these moments of incredible wellbeing. 

The good news is, jumping those hurdles gets easier. Because each minor victory gives us a little more confidence, and helps to define us in the eyes of the only person whose opinion is relevant.