Willpower, determination, and self-control aren't things you either possess... or don't possess.

Sure, some people may seem more self-disciplined. Some people may seem to be better at resisting temptation. But that's not because they were born with some certain special something inside them -- instead, they've found ways to increase their level of determination and self-control.

But don't just take my word for it. Take it from a guy who really knows.

"Self-control is like a muscle; the more you exercise it, the stronger it gets. Every time you avoid something that tempts you, you strengthen your resolve to resist future temptations.

"This is an important principle to understand because it's such a powerful tool for success. In almost any area in which you want to achieve something worthwhile -- in your career, relationships, finances, or health -- one of the most effective personality traits is being able to delay gratification."

Success is based on a number of factors: Intelligence, experience, talent, education all play a part...but often what separates success from failure is perseverance.

Keep going and you still have a chance to succeed; quit, and all hope is lost.

So when the going gets tough and the odds seem long, how do you deal with the sense of doubt that starts to chip away at your motivation and willpower

Good question. So I asked Joe to find out the answers.

We'll start with the basics of developing greater self-control. Here, in Joe's words, is a three-step process:

1. Make discomfort your friend.

It sounds simple, but the process starts with learning that discomfort isn't so bad. You just need to go through a series of things that put you in a little bit of discomfort, that make you uncomfortable... and come out the other side. Then you realize it wasn't so bad after all. But if you don't have that comparison, if don't have that reference point in your mind... then you don't have the confidence to know you can do it.

Fear of the unknown is what typically breaks people.  Let's say I ask you to fast for 2 days. (More on that in a moment.) When you're done, you realize you can actually go 2 days without food.

So the next time you decide to pass on dessert... it's no big deal.

The key is to do something big and uncomfortable to stretch the rubber band of your mind. That's how you realize you're capable of so much more than you thought.

2. Get an accountability partner.

Your accountability partner could be a person. Or it could be a device that tracks specific data.

While wearables, etc. are definitely popular, a person is obviously better: People tend to perform a lot better on delaying gratification when they have someone to hold them accountable. (Just make sure they hold you accountable to your process, not your end goal.)

3. Draw a line in the sand.

Put a date on your calendar that marks an upcoming event: You're going to get married, you're going to run 100 miles, you're going to start a business... something that requires the habit changes you need to make. Some people find they constantly need to put things on the calendar to spark change. 

The calendar -- and the event -- becomes your "Why?" 

It's so easy, in our environment, for things to be easy. Everything around us nudges us towards easier, simpler, faster, etc. We're conditioned to look for easy.

But now you're asking yourself to do something hard. Why would you do that?

That's why you need a "Why?"

In a world (yes, I sound like a movie trailer) where "groundbreaking" gets all the attention, what you're saying is hardly new. 

Absolutely not. They're age-old principles, not a radical new four-hour workweek.

But if you master the principles of self-control and discipline, just like monks have for hundreds of years before you, you will conquer whatever you want to conquer in life.

Take me. I've been on the planet almost 50 years. Over 1 million people a year come through our system. Thousands of people worked for us, I've made lots of friends... and I've never come across someone who said, "You know, I wish I had drank more last night." Or, "I wish I had eaten more dessert last night." Or, "I wish I hadn't gone to college."

So I see it as the reverse of regrets. People say I'm intense, but I don't want to have a moment where I think, "I wish I had gotten up earlier." Or, "I wish I hadn't drank last night." Or, "I wish I hadn't wasted yesterday." 

The key is to take this moment, right now, and do everything you can to make sure you're farther ahead in the moments that follow. At its simplest form, that's all self-control is: Maximizing this moment so you can then squeeze everything possible out of your future moments... and have no regrets.

There's a saying that we all must choose between two pains: The pain of discipline or the pain of regret.

I was telling my friends that when I was nineteen. Some weren't going to college and I told them they should. They thought it was too late. I said, "Four years are going to go by and you'll look back and wish you had..." and they did.

Most pre-teens aren't thinking about working. I started a business. I worked as a pre-teen, as a teenager, while I was in college... people told me I should be having more fun. I thought, "I'm gong to have a lot of fun later because I'm putting in the time now." 

It's hard to have that kind of perspective when you're a kid. It's often hard when you're an adult.

True, but self-control is something even kids can start to develop.

Take my son. I did a version of the Stanford marshmallow experiment with him. I put a scoop of ice cream in front of him and said, "Jack, here's 1 scoop. You can have it now if you want... or if you wait a few minutes, I'll give you 2."

Keep in mind he's seven years old.

So he sits there for a few seconds and then looks at me and says, "How long do I have to wait to get 15 scoops?"

That's the greatest answer ever. Everyone wants 15 scoops -- right now -- and they get mad if they don't get 15. 

But if you don't put in the work, you won't even get 1. Much less 15.

Here's What Happened When I Decided to Exercise My Self-Control Muscle

Joe talking to me about developing greater willpower and self-control is definitely preaching to the choir. After all, I've done 100,000 push-ups just to see how the experience would change me.

Even so, when he mentioned fasting for 2 days, that gave me pause. I've fasted for about 30 hours. (Can you say "colonoscopy"?) But not for 48 hours. What would that be like?

I decided to find out. 

And predictably, it kinda sucked. I got hungry. I felt a little weak, especially on the second day. 

But it wasn't the end of the world. 

And here's the thing. A few people predicted that when the 48 hours were up I would go crazy, scarfing down all the foods I would surely dream of eating when the hunger pangs were at their worst. Pasta. Pizza. Ice cream. (My personal food Achilles heel.) 

But that didn't happen. I had a piece of grilled chicken and some rice. I knew from experience that since my stomach had shrunk I wouldn't be able to eat a lot at first.

Plus, the idea of shoveling down a pint of ice cream sounded... icky. Here I had gone for two days without eating; the thought of going to the opposite extreme and wolfing down something I usually tried to avoid sounded even worse than usual.

Why? Because I had flexed my self-control muscles -- and they were stronger.

Which is exactly what happens when you do something hard and uncomfortable: You crank your internal limits to a higher level. You automatically set your own bar higher simply because you know you're capable of more.

And when you realize you're capable of more... that is the first step towards achieving more.

If you want to achieve goals you've only dreamed of, check out The Spartan Way. It's a practical, real-world guide to developing the mindset and skills you need. 

Two-day fasts not required.

Published on: Sep 4, 2018
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.