John Wooden, the renowned basketball coach once said, “Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do. This advice beautifully captures how I want you to think about willpower after reading this post. Another takeaway I’m hoping you have is that we’re all beginners when we start anything. By virtue of being a beginner, you’re going to suck before you get better. That includes how much willpower (a skill) you have.
It’s a myth that if we had more willpower we’d be killing it and getting all sorts of amazing things accomplished. If you think about it, what we’re telling ourselves (and reinforcing) with this false narrative is that only some future more disciplined version of ourselves can accomplish the things we want to do.
By telling yourself this story, you let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do. You can work on going to bed by 10 pm without ever thinking about willpower. And you can get in shape, eat better, and accomplish many of your goals by working around willpower. You do this by relying on habits like getting your goals done early in the day instead.
I’ll share that and other ways to bypass willpower later on but first, let’s have a quick willpower lesson. Because understanding what it is, will help you forget about it.
Willpower is another way of saying self-control (so I’ll be using the terms interchangeably).
- It takes work to develop willpower. Just as 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.
- 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 will be less emotional and more focused when you’re paying attention and not operating on autopilot, tried, or under stress. This means, doing new things requires a beginner’s attention.
- Willpower has a lot to do with timing. It’s 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).
- Psychologists call willpower a “renewable resource.” Like your cell phone battery (another renewable resource), your willpower loses juice over time and with heavy use. You could start the day fully charged but you will likely need to recharge your willpower and your 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.
- 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.
- Willpower is a human skill… and because you’re human, you should expect that you (and your willpower) will be imperfect.
To summarize our willpower lesson: Forget that you don’t have a lot of willpower when it comes to certain goals like eating better but eat better anyway by approaching that goal as a beginner.
Take the beginner’s approach to your goal and if you’d like, consider these your “training wheels” to help you reach your goal.
1. Get your goals done early
When you get to your goals or healthy habits 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 would have helped me juggle my competing priorities in the evenings. No amount of willpower “willed” me to care about my fat arse when I’m driving home bone-tired after a long day. Getting it done first thing meant I no longer had to fight with a practical obstacle to me getting to the gym.
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 do other things that help me feel good like curating my Major Lazer playlists, getting enough sleep, and asking for help. My good friend count on her pet, a small team of entrepreneurs, and her hubby for her support. Support comes in many forms, and we all need it.
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 are 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. Simple. The label helps me find a solution that 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!” Once you apply that level of commitment to working out, for example, you start making choices like getting up 30 minutes earlier to exercise. Your body follows your mind. No willpower needed, just total commitment and the expectation that you’re going to suck when you start out.
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
To help you keep your closet organized, a good organizer will do more than organize your closet. A good organizer will also add a hook behind your bedroom door for you to hang your clothes when you get home. She will create easy-to-access storage for your laundry basket, use mobile organizers for storage where helpful, and can do a bunch of other things to make it easier for you to do the right thing day in and day out. You can willpower-proof your environment to help you eat healthier too by not only removing the junk food from your pantry but setting up a whole system geared around you and how you live.
You don’t need to rely on willpower to get some great things done and shouldn’t. This version of you can do small things well and build on them. In fact, you need to. The only way we become more disciplined is by failing many times (as beginners do), then adjusting as we learn better until we become pros.
So don’t worry about what you don’t have (heaps of willpower) and work with what you do have (a ton of strategies to bypass your willpower deficit).
The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal
Organize Tomorrow Today by Jason Selk, Tom Bartow, et al
Christine is a Life Strategist and Emotional Health Coach living in Los Angeles. She's big on meditation and believes in systems and routines, and in personalizing everything you do to help you get where you want to be.