Why Relying On Willpower Will Fail You
With 9 Tips To Enjoy Positive Change
There I was, tucking into that third slice of cheesecake. It had been a long day and I had worked hard all week. Tomorrow was my day off and I was tired. I had told myself that I wouldn’t keep doing this. I needed to loose weight and get healthier but there I was having gone back for ANOTHER slice. But it’s okay, I’m tired and that means my willpower is weaker than normal. And I really have worked hard all week, I deserve this relaxation. Sat in front of the T.V. feeling full but still eating, I fool myself into believing that this IS what I really want and that I DO deserve it, even though I’m already aware of the regret and disapproval I’m feeling about my choices.
It’s important to be nice to yourself though and I know that willpower is limited, I can only do so much so I may as well forgive myself, go with it and try again tomorrow…
Except that’s simply not true. It’s all a myth and a great way to justify my choices. Hey, It leads to extra cheesecake so it can’t be all bad, right?
This is a familiar story. It may not be about food, maybe it’s quitting smoking, eating healthily or cutting out other bad habits. If you find yourself relying on willpower and struggling, there is another way. I know there is because it has worked for me and countless clients I have worked with.
What is willpower?
When people speak about willpower they are likely talking about it as a kind of determination to NOT do something. It’s something that takes energy and is required for you to ‘win’ a battle against some kind of drive, urge or habit. This is a very traditional way of looking at willpower but it’s based on the theory of ‘ego-depletion’ which gained scientific popularity in the 90s but is actually a bit outdated and inaccurate.
Willpower And Ego-Depletion
Ego-depletion is probably not a new idea to you, even if you’ve not heard it called that before. It’s simply the idea that as we go through the day we exhaust our limited mental energy reserve requited to maintain our self control and without it we run out of willpower. It makes sense, right? You can see how this would lead to bingeing on cheesecake at the end of a ‘long’ day.
There was a study conducted where subjects in a room with a plate of fresh cookies and a plate of radishes were instructed, as they waited for a puzzle, to eat either ONLY radishes or ONLY cookies. Not eating cookies being used as a way to ‘drain’ people’s resistance/willpower. The subjects were then asked to complete an impossible puzzle, Those who restricted themselves to only radishes gave up on the puzzle much quicker than those who had eaten the cookies.
It was concluded that this proved that we have a limited supply of willpower and that it depletes and decreases with overuse. Subjects had ‘used up’ all their will power by not eating to cookies and so gave up more quickly on the puzzle. Those that ate the cookies lasted longer as they had more willpower to commit to the task.
This study was a good one and the results have been supported in a number of studies and meta-analyses. There has been much further study based upon these findings BUT…
This has all be brought into question and a number of studies attempting to replicate the effects have not been able to do so. The initial meta-studies didn’t account for studies that weren’t published and there have been a number of other concerns. Correlation (a link between two things) doesn’t always mean that one thing causes the other. BELIEVING that you can exhaust your willpower, however, has a great deal of influence over your decisions.
It turns out that this belief can be harmful in itself.
Set Yourself Up To Succeed
So if this traditional view of willpower and ego-depletion is so harmful – not least because you are effectively setting yourself up for failure, then what should you do instead?
I’ll break this down into some simple steps that can make it a lot easier to change your habits but before I do, let’s not gloss over the importance of the above. Realising that willpower doesn’t work in the way we think it does has the potential to be empowering in itself. We can free ourselves from being restricted by this limiting belief that we may not have even realised was holding us back. Isn’t that freeing in itself?
A New Way Of Thinking About Willpower
If we are no longer thinking about willpower as a limited energy which will ‘run out’ then we need a new way of thinking about it.
Willpower is more like an emotion. You can run out of Joy or sadness. You can’t have used up so much anger in the day that you have no choice but to smile at someone for punching you in the face. Much like other emotions, your beliefs and thoughts, your surroundings and circumstances and your chosen responses all work together to influence your willpower at any given moment.
If I don’t want to write a blog that I’ve been meaning to write, I’l easily find myself procrastinating and scrolling thorough Facebook. As with any other emotional state, it’s important to recognise how you are feeling. This gives you the chance to question and understand why you are feeling that way and what influences are acting upon you. It could be stress, hunger, boredom, or any number of other things that are acting upon you to influence how and why you are feeling that way.
If I’m writing something that excites me, I don’t find myself running out of willpower to complete it or struggling to stay off social media. I just get stuck into what I’m doing and get lost in it. Before I know it, an hour or three have flown by and I’m still going.
Forget about willpower and setting yourself up for a fight and start creating the right positive influences around yourself and being more aware of what is having an impact on how you feel in that moment.
What To Rely On Instead Of Willpower
Here are some things you can do that will make it far easier to change your habits.
Focus On DOING Rather Than NOT DOING
If you spend your time and energy focusing on the things you DON’T want to be doing then don’t be surprised if you find yourself in a constant battle to not do it. Instead decide what you DO want to be doing instead. What activity can you replace the unwanted behaviour with that moves you closer to your goal rather than further from it. Make it enjoyable, make it something that you WANT to be doing.
Change The Way You Think
You can’t directly control how you feel, or even what you think in any given moment. You CAN influence yourself to think differently about things and in doing so, how you feel in certain situations. Remind yourself of your new outlook on willpower and use your new understanding to explore new thoughts and behaviours that support you better.
Believe In Yourself
Building your self belief will make it far easier to change your habits. This isn’t done through beating yourself up but through BUILDING yourself up. Remember to celebrate your wins and victories, look at what you HAVE achieved and know that you don’t need to fight yourself to get to the results you are working towards. You can and WILL get there, one step at a time.
Be Nicer To Yourself
The language you use and the way you talk about and to yourself have a huge impact on your ability to achieve positive change. Think about the way you talk to yourself and what changes you can make to be nicer to yourself. (Check back here soon for a post on how to do this better).
Make It Easy
Just because willpower doesn’t work the way we thought it did, doesn’t mean you should just leave things to chance and attempt to make you decisions when you have least energy and are at greatest risk. If you know that getting home from work has traditionally been a weak point for your healthy eating or that moment after a meal is when you are most likely to crave a smoke those are the times to target most. What can you do to replace the behaviours in those moments and what can you do IN ADVANCE to make those times easier for yourself?
Make It A Priority
There’s often so much going on in our busy modern lives that even the most basic self care can take a back seat. If you really want to make a change, make it a priority. What can you do first thing in the morning that builds a positive change? Start the day with it as a priority and it’s easier to maintain it. Plan around your new habit rather than trying to fit the change around everything else. MAKE it work. Decide in advance that it matters enough to do this.
Sometimes just the act of telling the world that you are making a change can be enough to feel like you have some positive pressure to make it work. Use social media to make it public. Scary but powerful. Or find accountability though friends and family. Maybe a daily or weekly check-in with someone else who has a similar goal or wants accountability for their own goals could suit you well.
Mindset Is Everything
Your mindset around the changes you want to make plays a huge part in how easy it is to succeed. There are a number of things that you can to to maintain and improve on that including meditation, mindfulness and related things. You may find Relax Club to be an invaluable tool in helping you maintain your mindset and enjoy positive change. Find out more here.
Of course, working one-to-one with a professional therapist with a wealth of experience in empowering people to enjoy positive change isn’t necessary for you. It could make things a lot quicker and easier for you though. If you’d like to find out more about how I can help you speed up the process and enjoy it more, book a free chat with me here.
Know Someone who could benefit from this blog post? Why not share it with them and help them to embrace positive change without the constant willpower battle.