Grow Mindset

Forget willpower. Rely on this instead!


Many people believe that if they only had more willpower they would be able to achieve all sorts of noble goals. That’s not necessarily true. Because your willpower level changes throughout the day, is heavily influenced by how you’re feeling and because you’re human, you can mess up no matter how much willpower you have.

What we need is to better understand willpower. Once you do and understand yourself too, you can use yours better or make willpower irrelevant.

The nature of willpower

They say knowledge is power, and in this case, knowledge is willpower. So let’s learn a little more about this virtue we think is keeping us from our goals.

  • Willpower is another way of saying self-control. If you haven’t worked at it, you can’t expect to be a pro at willpower any more than you can expect to be a great basketball player after just a few games.
  • You have more self-control when you’re self-aware and paying attention, i.e., not operating on autopilot.
  • Willpower is strongest at beginnings such as January 1st, your birthday, the beginning of a new relationship, and the start of a new day. As you get further along in the day or your goal, it wanes.
  • It’s driven by emotions. You will have more self-control when you’re feeling good than when you’re not.
  • A little success today strengthens future willpower while failure and setbacks will instill self-doubt and weaken tomorrow’s willpower.
  • Like every human that has ever lived, you will have more self-control over some things than others. You may be able to say no to your mother, but not to a donut.
  • Psychologists call willpower a renewable resource. Like your cell phone, you may need to recharge (renew) your willpower battery during the day.
  • And speaking of renewing it, if you skim on sleep your willpower batteries won’t be fully charged for the day ahead.
  • Outside forces affect willpower. In fact, it’s my firm (unscientific) belief that TV watching lowers it. And we know that peer pressure influence behavior, as does rewards and acknowledgment.
  • Because willpower wanes as the day goes on, you may find it harder to resist the donut at 4:30 in the afternoon than at breakfast.

Understand YOUR nature

To be successful with any goal or personal development work, it’s important to understand yourself and work with the person you are now. When you do that, you can figure out what gets in your way of doing the things you want to do and find/devise strategies to help yourself.

  • How do you manage your time? Are you always late or do you leave yourself enough travel time?
  • How do you respond to annoying events throughout the day like someone cutting you off in traffic?
  • Do you have healthy habits? Did you have protein with breakfast? Did you even eat breakfast? Do you routinely go to bed on time or are you staying up till midnight to watch TV? What are you watching?
  • Do you put things away after you use them? Fact: Disorganized people are constantly running late.
  • Are you able to delay gratification and resist short-term temptations—in general?
  • Are you energized by people? Even some self-described “loners” feel better after spending time with others.

Some habits will be easy to change. For example, carpooling to work is a fairly easy change to make to your morning routine. It would force you to be on time, help you make friends, and reduce your commuting stress. But other habits like getting organized and learning to delay gratification may take a bit longer to change. If only you had more willpower, right?

Don’t rely on willpower! Work with the person you are now and find strategies to help yourself, in spite of yourself. Here are a few strategies that are more reliable than willpower.

1. Get your goals done early

Do your goals or healthy habits early in the day. You will get it out of the way and because you won’t want to sabotage your hard work later in the day, you’ll be less tempted by other unhealthy habits.

2. Support Yourself

Help yourself perform better by avoiding avoidable stress. Two great habits for avoiding avoidable stress are time management and rest.

I can’t stress enough how important rest is to productivity and success. With sleep deprivation, and especially if it’s a constant in your life, you’ll be more emotionally sensitive or reactive. Rest, on the other hand, lets you fully charge your batteries putting you in a better mood and giving you more impulse control.

Think you can’t just change your sleep routine? I think you can with a simple one-week sleep challenge:

With good time management, you’ll factor in extra time for your morning commute. You will do this because you know that stalled trains or traffic jams are stressors for you and because stress lowers your willpower, supporting yourself means doing what’s within your power to minimize stress.

Then there’s what you can do during the day to support yourself.

Just like you recharge your phone when the battery is around 10%, if you get in the habit of monitoring your emotions, you can recharge your own batteries before your energy gets critically low: A little sunshine at lunchtime… positive pep-talks… exercise… a cold drink on a hot day… music… a protein snack… drinking water… reapplying lipstick… stepping out of the office to get your nails or hair done are just a few of the ways to recharge your willpower battery during the day.

Asking for help is yet another way to support yourself. I’m a coach and I never undertake certain goals without hiring a coach. That’s because I know I do better with help. I feel less overwhelmed and more accountable when others are watching. Most people do.

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 because it reminds them they have to be diligent around alcohol. It reminds them that the consequences of falling off the wagon are great.

The truth is, when it comes to certain foods and cravings, many people are addicts and would benefit from labeling themselves as addicts. Staying away from the thing you have little control over may be easier than dealing with the consequences of indulging in those vices.

4. Commit to your goal

Think of it like taking your relationship with your bae from casual to committed. When you commit you’re saying, “This is important to me and I’m going to stop half-assing it!” You will spend the money to hire a coach if it will help. You’ll see a doctor to rule out a medical issue. You will get up 30 minutes earlier to exercise or will re-work your TV watching schedule to get to bed by 11 at night. A mental shift happens when you REALLY commit to your goals.

For this level of commitment, you need a compelling reason why your goal or interest is important to you. I use the phrase Know Your Why as the call-to-action necessary to create innate motivation. When you have this type of motivation, you’ll rarely need willpower.

5. Meditate

Meditation can help you stick to just about any goal today while it helps you develop more self-control for tomorrow. It lets you have more patience with yourself when you slip up, more awareness so you see problems before they happen, and kinder self-talk.

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. This willpower-proofing sets up your environment for you to succeed. It makes it easier for you to do the right thing or make healthier options more attractive.

You don’t want to rely on willpower or some perfect (future) version of yourself to stick to your goals and good intentions. You will have more wins if you understand the nature of willpower and your own nature (as you are today), then work with both for better results.

Willpower is fickle and you’re human. These are good reasons not to rely on it alone.


Recommended Reading

The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal

Organize Tomorrow Today by Jason SelkTom Bartow, et al


About the Author

Christine is a lifestyle coach who believes the way we live affects everything we do, especially our motivation. She's also a mindful living educator living in Los Angeles, California.

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