Home » Forget willpower! Rely on these habits instead
Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do. John Wooden
I used to tell myself that if I had “more willpower” I would be killing it with my goals. I would be writing that book, going to bed on time, and checking off a lot more on my to-do list… if I only had more willpower.
You may be telling yourself the same willpower-victim story right now. But if you think about it, what we’re telling ourselves (and reinforcing) with this narrative is that only some future more disciplined version of ourselves can accomplish the things we want to do. What if that isn’t the case?
What if while our willpower muscle is still as puny as Captain America’s before his transformation, we can achieve goals like creating better bedtime hygiene and at least, start writing that book.
By relying on habits like getting your goals done early in the day, you can. And you’ll do that when you understand how willpower works: like a muscle, it develops with practice.
Willpower is another way of saying self-control (so I’ll be using the terms interchangeably).
- It takes work to develop willpower. Just like you wouldn’t expect to be a great basketball player after a few practice games, you shouldn’t expect to be a willpower-pro overnight.
- You and I have more self-control when we’re paying attention and not operating on autopilot, tried, or under stress.
- Our willpower is at its peak when we start anything: At the beginning of the day, the first day of your diet, the beginning of a new relationship, and on January 1st.
- Because willpower is driven by our emotions, you’ll have more of it when you’re feeling good and less of it when you’re not.
- You’ll have more self-control over some things than others. You may be able to say no to an overbearing mother, but not to a donut, or vice versa.
- Psychologists call willpower a renewable resource. Your cell phone battery is too. And like your phone, you could start the day fully charged and need to recharge your willpower battery in the afternoon.
- If you skimp on sleep, you shouldn’t expect to have much willpower at all. That’s like forgetting to charge your phone overnight.
- Discipline and willpower are largely about being able to rely on yourself to keep your word. You grind away at your willpower and confidence when you constantly cheat yourself.
- Willpower is a human thing… and because you’re human, you should expect you (and your willpower) to be imperfect.
Here are some habits to focus on instead of willpower:
1. Get your goals done early
When you get your goals or healthy habits done early in the day, you get them out of the way. You start the day having ticked off something important from your to-do list. And because you won’t want to sabotage your hard work later in the day, you’ll be less tempted by other unhealthy habits. I changed my exercise game completely when I started going to the gym by 6:00 a.m. Now that I exercise first thing in the morning, I exercise at least 95% of the time vs. around 60% of the time before. No amount of willpower helped me juggle my competing priorities in the evenings. No amount of willpower could will me to care about my fat arse when I’m driving home bone-tired after a long hard day at work.
2. Support Yourself
Because doing well is linked to our emotions, I do everything I can to support myself and keep my energy (and emotions) up. I make time for fun and games, beauty treats, and the things that help me feel good. My Major Lazer playlists, sleep, and asking for help are some of my emotional aids. And I’ve learned something useful about sleep deprivation that I think everyone needs to know: If you’re usually sleep-deprived, you’ll NEVER ever be successful at goals that require self-control, like weight management. Ever. That’s because sleep deprivation makes you more emotionally sensitive and reactive. We all tend to mess up when we’re stressed.
3. Think of yourself as an addict
I’m in the business of encouraging people and will never tell anyone to give themselves disparaging labels, but there’s a reason people who haven’t had a drink in 10 years label themselves alcoholics. They do it because this reminds them that they should be diligent around alcohol. The truth is, when it comes to certain foods and cravings, many people ARE addicts and would benefit from labeling themselves as addicts. With this awareness, you’re more likely to remember to stay away from the thing you have little control over. I call myself a sugar-addict and lean toward a Keto diet to help keep me honest. It works.
4. Fully commit to your goal
A mental shift happens when you FULLY commit to your goals. It’s a lot like taking your relationship with your bae from casual to committed. When you really (and fully) commit you’re saying, “This is important to me and I’m going to stop half-assing it!” When you apply that commitment to working out, for example, you start making choices like getting up 30 minutes earlier to exercise. If it means re-working your TV watching so you can get to bed earlier, you’ll do that. You’ll do whatever it takes. No willpower needed, just total commitment.
Meditation can help you stick to just about any goal you’re working on. It lets you have more patience with yourself when you slip up, more awareness so you see problems before they happen, and you’ll be giving yourself kinder self-talk so your mood and energy can stay stable.
6. Willpower-proof your environment
Let’s say you had an organizer come and organize your closets for you. A good organizer will create storage for you, will add a hook behind your bedroom door to hang your clothes when you get home. That’s what it means to willpower-proof your environment. If you’re dieting or trying to eat healthier, removing junk food from your kitchen will remove the temptation. This type of common-sense willpower-proofing is helpful with any habit you’re working on.
My advice: if something is a hassle for you, find a workaround. If willpower is a challenge for you, do the same. You don’t want to rely on some perfectly disciplined version of yourself to stick to your goals and good intentions. That’s a lot of work if you haven’t developed a disciplined mind yet. Use habits and strategies like the ones here to rack up more wins.
Stop worrying about what you don’t have (heaps of willpower) and work with what you do have (a ton of strategies to game life!).
The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal
Organize Tomorrow Today by Jason Selk, Tom Bartow, et al
Christine is a lifestyle coach living in Los Angeles. Using systems, routines, and some psychological trickery, she can help almost anyone hack their mind and life for greater productivity. Email email@example.com to find out if she's available for one-on-one work.