How to increase willpower

Hi everyone,

Happy new year! This is a time for new resolutions so I thought I’d share tips from the book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. It’s written by a leading willpower researcher and a NYT science writer.

The nature of willpower

Willpower is finite: it depletes as we use it

Willpower is universal
: there is only one reservoir that we use for everything, not different types of willpower for different tasks

Glucose restores willpower
: sugar acts faster but protein and healthy foods are better

Willpower is like a muscle
: we gain more as we use it

Symptoms of willpower depletion
: irritability, strong emotions, going on mental autopilot. If you feel these after exertion, rest and restore glucose by eating

e.g.: Parole board judges are more likely to grant parole right after meals (10am and 1pm) because granting parole requires exercising more judgment. If you want people to change their mind, get them after a meal

Procrastination kills willpower
: it drains us over time, like a debt with interest

Impulsiveness is very bad
: pursuing immediate desires interrupts long-term goals and causes a lot of trouble: stress, disease, debt, crime

“The two strongest predictors of success are intelligence and self-control.”

Sleep, healthy food, exercise, and order
 increase willpower

e.g.: A made bed or a clean desk creates a cue that subtly reinforces discipline


Avoid temptation: resisting desires depletes willpower for other tasks. Put temptations like unhealthy foods and cigarettes out of sight

Avoid important decisions when depleted
: planning and judgment require more willpower than routine tasks and thus are best done when you’re fresh

Avoid multi-tasking
: it increases stress and doesn’t increase productivity or efficiency

Set goals
: they pull us in the right directions

Make a to-do list
: just the act of creating a plan and logging tasks reduces procrastination. The Zeigarnik effect is the drain of willpower by ignoring unfinished tasks

Baby steps
: focus on small improvements. They increase motivation and add up quickly

Reward success
: give yourself treats for accomplishing goals, including some limited indulgence

e.g.: if you avoid smoking for a month, invest the cigarette money you saved into a purchase you’d like

: adamantly committing to an action and mentally blocking alternatives reduces the willpower needed to act later

Track progress
: log your progress to recognize small successes and increase motivation. Tracking technology like FitBit and Mint can help

Recognize bad habits and create good ones
: routines sink in and make it harder or easier to act. Shaking up routines can change habits

Budget willpower like money
: choose to invest it in a few important things rather than expect to accomplish everything

Give yourself buffer
: we chronically underestimate the time to complete tasks. Use your history to predict your budget, then add buffer. It’s less stressful to complete fewer tasks than have many unfinished

Allow yourself setbacks
: progress on long-term goals is often two steps forward, one step back. Expecting perfection leads to drop-out

Postpone difficult temptations
: if something is hard to resist, tell yourself you can indulge in it later. This frees willpower and sometimes diffuses the desire. “Vice delayed can turn into vice denied.”

Structure procrastination
: if you really don’t want to do one task, trick yourself into doing a different important one

Set a time limit on chores
: time-bound tedious tasks so you at least start and gain momentum

Commit to the nothing alternative
: tell yourself to do either a chore or nothing. The nothing option becomes more painful than doing the chore

”You can sum up the research literature with a simple rule: the best way to reduce stress in your life is to stop screwing up.”


Our poor moms – how technology is still too damn hard

Yesterday I got a call from my mother that has been placed thousands of times to sons like me: “Mark, I can’t get the damn photos from my phone to my computer. Can you help me?”

I was tempted to say this ball is in Motorola’s court but since she birthed me, I felt obligated. For the next hour, I was reminded how bewildering technology can be to someone who did not grow up on it. Imagine you’re fifty and using a computer for the first time:

1. First we had to make the computer recognize her Motorola Cliq. The Motorola rep said she should just plug in the USB cable and click “my computer”, which is already confusing to a novice PC user but malpractice to a Mac owner like my mother.

Connecting the phone and computer launched two phone options: USB Drive and Share. Well, Share sounds promising – tapping through the menus, we realize that’s for sending photos via an internet data plan, which she doesn’t have. So we go with the oddly named USB Drive. This is where the photos are, but there’s no verb phrase like “Transfer photos.”

Poor interfaces use nouns. Good ones use verbs because that’s how consumers think. Engineers want to describe things, consumers want to do them.

2. “Nothing is happening”, she says. She says this a lot when we’re troubleshooting. I view her Macbook screen and she’s right, no apparent changes. I minimize four windows on her screen and there it is, a new dialog box that was hiding behind all the other windows. How would my mother know that was there?

3. Now we’re downloading the photos to her computer. As we talk via Skype, I notice her video window is at the smallest size. “Why don’t you full screen the video while we’re downloading?” “You can do that?” she asks. I show her a little icon with arrows pointing to the four corners. She clicks on it and “Wow! Now you’re all over my screen!”

The icon didn’t have text like “Full screen” and a newbie could reasonably think four outward arrows meant exit, or surround sound. Most tech novices don’t try to decode hieroglyphics and some are scared to experimentally click, just as most of us wouldn’t try either on an airplane dashboard. It’s all just filed in Stuff I Don’t Understand.

4. Now we have the photos on her computer. “I want to post my car on Craigslist. Where do I put the photo?” She’s used to click-and-drag so the concept of a web field that holds text which links to a photo is understandably bizarre. The whole separation of computer and internet can seem to a novice like brain and mind. Aren’t they the same thing?

The file upload button is named “Browse…”. Why Browse? My mother doesn’t want to casually explore her computer for exciting new photos; she has exactly one that she wants to find and upload.  When the photo is uploaded, the only confirmation she gets is a file location in the text field and Craigslist’s green O instead of a red X. A thumbnail is too fancy for the wizards at Craigslist.

We had a dozen issues like this – tech idiosyncrasies that anyone born after 1980 learned as native tongue, but everyone before is trying to deduce. What is a URL? When do I single-click and double-click? What’s the difference between downloading and installing? My mother had downloaded several programs that “weren’t working” because she never installed them. It took metaphors like “you brought the package into the house but didn’t open it” to explain.

My generation tends to snicker about our parents’ difficulty with technology, but the reality is that it is still too damn hard. We benefited from learning young. Technology forced our parents through arguably the fastest paradigm shift ever – physical to digital.

I often think about what shifts my generation will struggle with. Virtual reality? Neural implants? Already I am confused by the habits of teenagers. Why would you use Facebook’s inbox and texting when Gmail is so much better? Why would you send racy photos that are so easily forwarded? Why broadcast so much of your private life to a public world that will remember it, and maybe use it against you, forever?

This is what getting older feels like. Here’s hoping old age brings more wisdom than WTF.


12 thoughts on the strengths and weaknesses of TechCrunch50

Launching at TechCrunch50 was awesome. We met a ton of interesting people and it is already a boon for BreakThrough.

I sent the below feedback to Mike Arrington and Jason Calacanis. Jason encouraged me to post for the public, so here it is:


1. Fast internet
: if there is one thing a tech conference has to get right, I think it’s internet access. Otherwise it’s like a restaurant with great decor and service but terrible food. TC50 nailed it with fast ethernet and power cables at every seat. Absolutely the right place to spend big.

2. Great organization
: throughout the application, preparation, and presentation, we got clear instructions on what to do and when. It was like a Swiss train. Jason’s presentation prep was especially helpful.

3. Strong panelists
: a good mix of smart and entertaining people asking generally good questions. I want Yossi Vardi to host my next birthday party.

4. Press tags
: it was helpful to see the orange press tags so we knew who to approach. I didn’t see a color for investors; they should have been tagged green instead of the startups.

5. Decor
: banners, tables, music, visuals, and stage were all well designed. If the startups had to design their own signage, it would have looked like a drunken quilt.

Areas of improvement

1. Democratic judging
: I meant to post this before the awards so this couldn’t be seen as a response to how BreakThrough did, so please believe my feedback would be the same even if we won.

As a finalist, I was quite surprised that Jason said the winner was determined by he and Mike alone. I think a great thing about startups is their democratic spirit and judging early-stage ideas is such an art that I think many opinions are needed. I think this is why VCs usually require buy-in from all the partners to close a deal.

I would love to see the judging process become more transparent and democratic. Jason believes the panelists shouldn’t judge because they aren’t at every session and that audience metrics can be gamed, but I think these concerns can be addressed. I am sure some investors would like to listen to all of the pitches and complete judging forms; some watched most of the sessions anyway, and it would be a source of status for them. It would also help the startups get feedback.

I think TC50 can authenticate conference attendees and internet viewers enough that their feedback is fair. The on-site poker chips are a clever example. The winner could be determined by a combination of Jason, Mike, VCs, panelists, and audience. Even if these are gamed somewhat, like any crowdsourced app, I think more involvement is a net benefit for everyone.

It would also be nice to offer mini-awards for more companies; for example, $1,000 for each best-in-session, $5k for two runners-up, and $30k-$50k for the best-in-show.

2. Clearer metrics: Our and other startups didn’t seem to know exactly what presentations were judged on. Was it the strength of the idea, the presentation, product quality, probability of a high VC return? I am guessing it was a combination, but it wasn’t really clear and what is measured will determine how we present. It will also help the audience understand the results.

I don’t really have a strong opinion on which metrics to choose. Since we are mostly early-stage, my guess is we collectively care most about closing funding, so I think investor metrics are a natural way to go: large market, quality product, strong team, clear distribution, competitive advantage, business model.

It may take a little more time to show these, but I think it would be an extra minute or two well spent. I don’t think Sequoia’s billion-dollar potential should be the threshold; I think lower exit, higher-probability ventures like Y Combinator’s are just as valid.

I think it would be great to have panelists quantitatively score presentations like Olympic judges with large cards numbered 1-10. The score could be a simple combination of startup quality (per above) and presentation quality. That would help Jason zero in on judges that especially liked or disliked an idea, even if it didn’t affect the results.

I’d also like to see live, post-presentation scores from attendees and internet viewers via SMS and web. A company like Mozes or Polldaddy would likely be glad to help. Again, it wouldn’t have to affect the results, but it would make the judging more fun, democratic, and useful.

3. More focus on distribution, less on product
: As a product manager by training, I like and understand the conference’s focus on product, but I think the one thing that needs more attention is distribution strategy. Like Marc Andreessen and Reid Hoffman, I think there were a lot of startups with interesting ideas and good products but hinged on unclear or weak distribution strategies.

The web is so saturated that distribution is as or more important than product quality. The #1 feedback I heard about companies – including BreakThrough – was “great idea, but how do you get traction”? If startups don’t have time or license to focus on distribution, they really can’t put their best foot forward.


1. Investor booths: I think the startups would love to interact more with the investors present. I have seen VC booths at other conferences and I imagine many would be interested in one, even if they’re sometimes unstaffed or staffed by Associates.

2. Conference services
: two in particular would have been awesome: massage therapists and nap pods. I’m sure many founders were like me and running on little sleep. A quick nap or massage might have really helped people perk up. They could charge the vendors or attendees if they wanted.

3. Poker tournament
: as a way to unwind, I think a Monday night poker tournament would be fun. I know a lot of founders, including Jason, that like poker. Tournament directors at Bay 101 or Garden City could run it and TC50 could give the winner a sponsor prize or lunch with Vinod Khosla. Phil Hellmuth lives in Palo Alto if they want a star emcee.

4. Feedback collection
: TC50 could benefit from collecting on-site and online feedback during and right after the conference.

The whole process was awesome so I intend this feedback as ways to make it even more awesome.

How would you improve TC50 for next year? launches at TechCrunch50!

I am thrilled to announce that after three months of stealthiness, my new startup launched at the TechCrunch50 conference. We are BreakThrough, a site to connect mental health providers with clients for treatment via video, phone, and web. We focus on therapy and counseling but will also eventually enable medications when appropriate.

This is the article and video of our launch. We are excited to see the responses on Twitter were overwhelmingly positive.

I am now churning through the investor and press emails so forgive me if I am radio silent.  If you are interested in investing in, working at, or covering us, you can reach me at mark at breakthrough dot com.

Silicon Valley deserves its West Wing

TV loves dramatizing professions: CSI for forensics, Boston Legal for law, ER for medicine, Entourage for Hollywood, West Wing for politics, and so on. These are interesting venues to be sure, but as an entrepreneur living in Silicon Valley for eleven years, I have wondered: where is our TV series?

The Valley is a fascinating place with a host of interesting characters: entrepeneurs, CEOs, venture capitalists, angel investors, engineers, salespeople, bloggers, PR promoters, and more. Startups also have tons of story lines that can teach and entertain:

-The birth of a new idea
-Founders vs. venture capitalists and the struggle to raise money
-Founder vs. founder conflicts
-Angel investors vs. venture capitalists
-Engineers vs. marketers
-Extreme work hours
-Turbulent highs, lows, and uncertainty
-Small startups vs. big companies
-Social skills of engineers
-Useless businesspeople
-Deals and acquisitions
-Public relations disasters
-Innovating with little money
-Living with a lot of money
-Pursuing money vs. pursuing meaning (mercenaries vs. missionaries)
-Startup competition: copycats, sabotage, poaching, patents
-The difficulty of having relationships during startups
-The lack of women entrepreneurs
-The Valley’s underground drug culture
-The Valley’s Libertarian politics
-The process of going public
-Serial entrepreneurs

If I were a better fiction writer, I would write the screenplays myself, but I have sworn off content creation. Aaron Sorkin is reportedly writing a screenplay on the founding of Facebook. Aaron, are you listening?

The best way to network and fundraise is freemium

The most important resource in entrepreneurship is people: co-founders, engineers, investors, partners, and anyone else willing to help your cause. The adage that it’s not what you know but who you know is true.

How do you meet great people? Networking.

This guy knew how to network
This guy knew how to network

What is the best way to network? I’d say it’s a freemium model.

Freemium means offering something for free to show your value, then asking payment for extra value. In networking, too many people ask for what they want before demonstrating any value:

“I’m Chip Meekbottom, VP of Sales at Crapster, and I’d love to talk your ear off for two hours about our new doohickey.”

This is like trying to sleep with someone five minutes into the first date. It just causes shields up.

Better is to offer value first, and the best way to offer value is to understand needs:

“I’m Chip Meekbottom, what do you do?” “You sell enterprise hardware? Could you use contacts at Cisco? I know some folks there.”

Offering value first is not only kind, it creates goodwill and shows you are someone worth knowing. Once there’s a relationship, you are also more likely to receive reciprocity, though you shouldn’t demand or expect it.

What can you offer? There are several common needs that business people have:

-Potential clients and partners
-Good employees, especially engineers
-Investor contacts, especially for startups
-Product feedback
-Press awareness

The same is true for investors. Investors spend many of their meetings assaulted by strangers with lofty talk and requests. “Our team believes it can do X and wants $Y million.” Often the hardest decision for investors is execution risk: deciding whether an unproven team can do what it claims.

How can you reduce the perception of this risk? By showing competency as early as you can without asking for anything.

I setup investor meetings as soon as I can, even pre-prototype, to form the relationship and show value. I make any commitments I can of what we will build and when, then meet those milestones to demonstrate the team can execute. I also mention any interesting ideas or teams I’ve seen. It’s empathy for the investor’s dilemma; don’t pitch, show.

Even if you have no connections or value to offer a certain contact, just showing genuine interest in people makes them genuinely interested in you. As a side effect, asking nothing from someone who is frequently hounded piques interest. Ask a super attractive woman; the guys who are unfazed, confident in what they bring, and form a friendship first are more likely to be the keepers.

When I meet new folks or reconnect with old ones, I try to ask how I can be helpful. It’s good business, good karma, and feels good.

How can I be helpful to you?

Market risk is better than marketing risk

The traditional steps of startups are: find something people want, build it, tell them about it, then charge for it.

The internet has radically changed this. It is now easy enough to churn out experiments, and it’s cheap enough that you don’t need to charge much, if at all.

For a lot of web markets, the steps are now: build it, tell people about it, learn if they want it, then maybe charge for it. 

The hardest step of this is usually telling people about it. The downside of cheap and easy development is that others can do the same, cluttering the web with competitors for attention. It sounds counter-intuitive but it’s usually better to create a product with uncertain demand and killer marketing than a product with certain demand and costly marketing.

Succinctly, on the web, market risk is better than marketing risk. 

Market risk is uncertainty of whether people want your product:

-How many people want your product? 
-How much do they want it? 
-How much will they pay for it?
-How many times or how long?
-How fast is that demand growing?
-Is competition saturating demand? (This could be separated into competitive risk.) 

Marketing risk is uncertainty of whether people will learn about and try your product:

-Where can you reach your target users?
-How much will it cost to acquire a user?
-Is your product inherently viral or word-of-mouth viral? 
-Is it new and sexy or old and boring?
-Is it easy or hard to understand?

While an idea’s risks depend greatly on the details, they tend to fall today into a matrix:

[table id=2 /]

From worst to best types:

High market and marketing risk: these are the worst type of ideas. Not only are you unsure people want the product given alternatives, even if they do, it’s costly to get them using it. For instance, there are a ton of search engines, people are generally happy with their current one, and search isn’t viral. That’s why Microsoft is spending $100 million to market its new shiny toy. This type needs to be really useful and well-funded/well-marketed.

High marketing risk, low market risk: these are typically large and established markets where it’s clear people have a deep demand or like innovation, but they aren’t viral and have a lot of competitors. People will want porn, gambling, and dating until the end of time, but because these ideas monetize well, incumbents are well-funded and targeted marketing is expensive. If a marketplace gets initial users, more come and the network effect takes over, but getting initial users is often tough.

High market risk, low marketing risk: these are experimental ideas that are inherently viral or have strong word-of-mouth. When the Facebook platform launched, developers launched a flood of programs to figure out what would stick.  When Twitter launched, it was unclear people wanted it, but its virality took over once it was clear people did. If your idea is a unique twist of this type and can be created quickly, it’s worth trying.

Low marketing and market risk: this is the promised land. Niche services can often fill an ignored need and are cheaper to market due to fewer competitors and a focused audience. Copyrighted content is in high demand and goes viral, as it did on Youtube, but has high legal risk. 

If your idea has low market and marketing risk, it’s a good candidate to start today.