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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Productivity

5 Secrets to Building Willpower, According to an FBI Agent Who Did It

The FBI Academy’s Fitness Test required a minimum of 50 pushups, and I only got 49 in before the whistle blew. My training class moved as a group to the next test—pull ups. But I felt defeated. I already knew I hadn’t passed; so why continue?

Disappointed with myself, I prepared to sit it out. But my coach told me to get up and finish the competition. It took more strength than I thought I had in me to continue. And not just continue, but compete as hard as possible for two more hours knowing that I had no real chance of passing.

This wouldn’t be the last time the FBI Academy pushed me through obstacles. Obstacles that I never thought I would be able to get through, at least not on the first try. But from those experiences I learned that just attempting to do it prepares you for success—if not this time, then next time.

That’s called willpower. And here are the five secrets I learned about harnessing it from my personal experience.

1. Keep an Eye on Your Goal

To activate your willpower, you must remind yourself why something is important to you. If you’re engaged in meaningless tasks or jobs, willpower will not save you. (That’s why it’s so hard to find time for that project you absolutely hate.) In my case, I knew I wanted to become an FBI Agent and that gave me a purpose, every single day.

2. Avoid Shortcuts

The FBI Academy is located on the Marine Corp Base in Quantico, Virginia. (Yes, Quantico, like the hit show on TV right now.) One of the running trails made several sharp turns, and since I was among the last in the pack, I had the “screw it” attitude and started literally cutting corners in order to shorten my run.

Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) my coach saw me, made me go back, and take the extra few steps to take the corner properly. Meaning my shortcuts only added more time to the whole thing. Lesson learned.

3. Train Your Brain

Meditation may sound a bit touch-feely for the average FBI agent, but I first learned about the importance of emptying my mind and pushing away unwanted thoughts in firearms training. The best shooters are those who can enter a zen moment and focus entirely on the target in front of them.

Few would describe shooting a gun as a meditative moment, and yet the same principles apply: Control your thoughts so you can choose your focal point. Do this again and again—and that mediation will build willpower.

4. Practice Persistence

By forcing me to finish the fitness test even though I’d already failed, my coach drilled an important mantra into my head: “I will not quit. If I get knocked down, I will get up and keep at it. No matter how many times. I have what it takes to make it.”

Throughout my time at the academy, I regularly faced the unknown and came across challenges that seemed impossible. And no, I couldn’t always see the finish line. But practicing persistence forced me to develop successful strategies to keep moving forward—no matter what.

5. Change Your Mindset—as Often as Necessary

Once a credible terrorist threat or crime comes to the attention of the FBI, the case is assigned to an agent who investigates to determine whether the threat is credible. The preliminary investigation expires within 90 days and if no corroborating evidence can be found, the case is closed.

When under the gun to produce results, it was essential that I maintain a flexible and agile mindset. New obstacles often require new ways of thinking, and plodding away using the same old approach often does not solve new puzzles or problems. Often, it is sheer willpower that would keep me moving ahead when the path was murky, uncertain, and void of easy answers.

Everyone has those moments when they’re not quite sure they’ll be able to finish that FBI Academy Test, or more likely a tough project at the office. But, if you take anything from this article, take this: You’re stronger than you think you are and you can do this.

Photo of woman staring courtesy of Shutterstock.