Perfecting Perseverance

By on October 18, 2017

Willpower, in the form of “ganbare” is so woven into the fabric of Japanese life that it is difficult to navigate a day in Japan without hearing this term. Ganbaru or ganbatte means “give it your best” or“ to stubbornly persevere” and follow through doggedly until you finish.

In Japan, children learn the power of perseverance early. Because they know that the university they attend determines their lifetime economic prospects, they work insanely hard beginning in elementary school to ensure they enter a good university. Giving up is not an option.

In the west, the lack of willpower is commonly cited in the west as the cause of a failure to achieve one’s goals in life. Whether caused by a lower population density that mitigates the need to compete for limited opportunities, the modern ideal that childhood is meant for play and kids should be insulated from hard work until adulthood, or the media propagated myth that get-rich-quick schemes work, and that all you need to do to become an “internet millionaire” is to throw up a Youtube channel, the end result is the same: our willpower muscle is weak.

So how can those of us who didn’t grow up immersed in gambaru perfect our power to persevere in pursuit of our goals? Ask yourself these three questions:

Is it purposeful?

It is easier to engage willpower and perseverance when there are consequences as serious as a lifetime of limited career options on the line. Smaller goals to lose weight, save money, or get in better shape have far lower stakes, so his makes it more difficult to persist. A sense of urgency is another important factor for engaging willpower. Japanese children know they must start work early to get into a good university. By contrast, many goals that require the engagement of willpower are “deadline optional” and have no real consequences if not met. If you don’t meet your goal to lose 10 pounds by Christmas, the consquence is minimal. You go on with life as you always have.
The power to persist comes from having a goal that is meaningful, has a real deadline and offers and imminent/significant reward or consequence. When goals are linked to something that truly matters to you, you’re more motivated to persist through the challenges of getting there.
If you’ve been unsuccessfully trying to kick your daily Starbucks habit, for example, be curious about what purpose it would serve. It could help you lose weight, get into work earlier to impress the boss, or save enough money for a tropical vacation. A colleague of mine finally kicked his latte habit when he stopped seeing it as a weight loss strategy and started seeing it as a way fund the annual Mexican vacation he never seemed to be able to afford.

Is it effective?

Goals take time to achieve. Progress can feel slow and have a “two steps forward, one step back” rhythm that is demoralizing. If you’re on a diet, you’ll “cheat”. If you’re training for a sport, you won’t know how good you are until you compete. This doubt about the effectiveness of your approach destroys willpower. Stop and take time to research all possible solutions before you commit to one. Resist fads. Do your due diligence before committing. The confidence you will have in your chosen strategy will make it easier to stick to your plan long enough to see results.

Is it efficient?

The final secret to hacking your willpower is to consider whether your solution is as efficient as it could be, i.e. does it get maximum results for minimum time and effort. An approach to weight management called Intermittent Fasting, is a perfect example of optimal effectiveness and efficiency. As a working mom, I have struggled to stick to diet plans for one key reason: they all required more time than my normal eating habits did. Adding extra meal prep time added more stress to my life than the extra pounds did, so the motivation to stick to these plans simply wasn’t there. When a friend who had lost a bunch of weight told me about Intermittent Fasting and a book called The Obesity Code by Dr. Jason Fung, I instantly knew it would work for me. Why? It was based on solid science, it had a history of quick results, and, most importantly, it would require less food prep time than my regular routine. If something seems inefficient, it makes more sense to stop and figure out how to optimize it rather than stubbornly pushing through.
We all have a lot of demands on our time and energy, so seeking efficiency also involves looking at things like the minimum effective dose required to get results. When it comes to experiencing the health and energy benefits of exercise, for example, many experts suggest that you need as little as 20 minutes per day. The willpower required to motivate yourself to do just 20 minutes of exercise is significantly less than that requires for a full-on workout of 60-90 minutes.

If you’ve lost faith in your own willpower and your ability to persevere in achieving your goals, the final tip I have for you is this: Do less.

Pick one goal that really matters, apply the above tips, and dig in and ganbatte your way to success.

About Andrea Jacques

Andrea Jacques is the founder of Kyosei Consulting and the author of Wabi-Sabi Wisdom: Inspiration for an Authentic Life (available on She has spent more than 20 years developing the potential of people and businesses worldwide, five of which were in Japan. A dynamic speaker, coach, and facilitator, her work integrates spiritual insight with top-tier leadership, wellness and sustainability consulting to help individuals and organizations build thriving, purpose-driven cultures where employees know their work truly matters. She can be contacted through her website at

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