I used to think that if I had more willpower I would achieve all sorts of noble goals. From writing that book to going to bed on time, I’d get all my goals done if I had more willpower. But I was way wrong, and so are you if you still believe that.
We’re learning from neuroscientists and behavioral experts that willpower is fickle, it’s draining bit by bit throughout the day so you have less of it in the afternoons and evenings, and most of us don’t understand it well enough to let it work for us.
Since I’m going to try and convince you to forget willpower, you should know what it really is: you at your best.
Willpower is another way of saying self-control (so I’ll be using the terms interchangeably) in this little willpower backstory.
- It takes work to develop willpower. And just like you can’t expect to be a great basketball player after just a few games, you shouldn’t expect to be a willpower-pro without putting in the time.
- You and I have more self-control when we’re self-aware and paying attention. Meaning, when we’re not operating on autopilot, tried, or under too much stress.
- Our willpower is at its peak when we start anything: On January 1st, on the first day of your diet, the beginning of a new relationship, and the start of a new day. At the start of things, we’re hopeful and full of high ideals. We tell ourselves, “This is gonna be my year!!!” and “I’m doing it this time!“
- Because willpower is emotion-driven, you’ll have more of it when you’re feeling good and less 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, for example.
- Psychologists call willpower a renewable resource (much like your cell phone battery). And like your phone, you may need to recharge your willpower battery during the day.
- If you skimp on sleep, you shouldn’t expect to have much willpower at all. That’s like forgetting to charge your phone overnight.
- Willpower is a human thing… and because you’re human, you should expect you (and your willpower) to be imperfect.
This virtue we call willpower is just another way of saying you at your best. In order to stick to any goal, you and I must work with the imperfect people we are now (not the best version of ourselves we hope to become). We must find strategies to help the current version of ourselves succeed and stop driving ourselves sick worrying about how much willpower we have or don’t have. We must ask ourselves: How can I succeed at this goal/task/you name it, in spite of myself?
To which my answer is, There are all sorts of ways, dear human.
1. Get your goals done early
When you get your goals or healthy habits in early in the day, you first, get them out of the way. You start the day having ticked off something important from your to-do list. Second, 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 getting 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. No amount of willpower could help me juggle my competing priorities in the evenings and my tired drained energy couldn’t will me to care about my fat ass when I’m driving home after a tiring workday.
2. Support Yourself
Because doing well is so link to our emotions, doing everything we can to support ourselves is a better habit to develop. Supporting yourself helps you keep your emotions steady. Remember our life isn’t all about work. You can’t defer living until you’re successful. Make time for fun and games, entertainment, beauty treats, and the other things that help you feel good and you’ll be in the mood more often to do what you need to get done. Here are some of the ways I support myself.
- Time management. I used to be a world-class procrastinator, but I’ve learned that that doesn’t work for me. Plus, it’s not a good look. I now manage my time in a variety of ways. I will give myself an extra 10-15 minutes for my morning commute. With this extra time, I can avoid the highway and take the local more scenic route to work. As I’m jamming in my car to my Diplo or Major Lazer playlist, I’ll look over at some poor sucker totally stressing out because traffic isn’t moving. I’ll pick out my clothes from the night before. For the hour that I’m on the treadmill, I might listen to a podcast or get some work done. I have a ton of easy-peasy time management tricks, all because I learned to value time and learned to work with it instead of complaining that I don’t have enough.
- Sleep. I can’t stress enough how important rest is to our productivity and success. It’s huge!!! If sleep deprivation is a constant for you, you’ll NEVER ever be successful at goals that require self-control, like weight management. Sleep deprivation makes you more emotionally sensitive and reactive so one way to make willpower irrelevant is to be rested so you can be clear-headed.
- Recharge. When your phone’s battery is around 10%, you know you’re at a critical level and need to charge it. If you’re smart, you charge it even sooner as a precaution. I recharge myself about the same time every afternoon. I’ll do things like go outside for a little sunshine, have positive pep-talks, listen to music, eat a high-protein snack, re-apply my lipstick, have some retail therapy, get my nails or hair done, or leave work early.
- Ask for help. I’m a coach and I always hire a coach to help me with projects and things I don’t do well and when the stakes are high. I do that because I know I do better with a little help. And I always say yes when I’m offered free help that someone else can do well enough to get it done.
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 label, you may remind yourself to stay away from the thing you have little control over.
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, you start making choices like getting up 30 minutes earlier to exercise. If that requires re-working your TV watching schedule to get to bed earlier, you’ll do that. You’ll do whatever it takes. No willpower needed, just real 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
It will be easier to keep your newly organized closet organized if you add a hook behind the bedroom door to hang up your clothes when you get home. And to have more control over your diet, removing the junk food from your kitchen will remove the temptation. To willpower-proof your environment is to set yourself up for success. You will make it easier for you to do the right thing when the healthier options are just as convenient.
You don’t want to rely on willpower or some perfect (future) version of yourself to stick to your goals and good intentions. But you can use habits and strategies to rack up more wins now that you know willpower is just you at your stable best. So 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. She believes the way we live affects everything we do, especially our motivation.