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The Myth of Willpower

There's no such thing as willpower.

It's a statement that usually raises a few eyebrows because it's something that most of us refer to quite regularly: 

"I'd love to commit to it but I just don't have the willpower" 

"I tried to resist the temptation but I didn't have the willpower" 

"I wish I had his willpower"  

 

Which sounds reasonable until you think about what willpower actually means 

  • It's not a hormone or a chemical 
  • A doctor couldn't tell you where in the body it is located 
  • It can't be extracted or replicated in pill form 
  • So is it like a piggy bank and once it's spent we have none left? 
  • Or is it like a muscle that can be strengthened with practice? 
  • How much of it do you have and how you know? 
  • More importantly, how do you get more of it? 

 

The problem with willpower

Even if willpower did exist, it's a pretty rubbish strategy for getting anything done. Here's why: 

It feels awful to use because it almost always involves battling against yourself. It's usually accompanied by a feeling of guilt or uselessness which drains valuable energy which could be used for other things. 

It is in shortest supply when you need it most. This seems like mother nature's cruellest joke. We've all experienced willpower at some point so in theory we all have some. So why does it evade us when we were doing so well? 

It seems to be exhaustible. We can employ willpower for a period of time but when the pressure is off we slip back into our old habits just as if the willpower never happened. 

Why do we have it on some occasions and not on others? Think about a time in your life when you did something hard. Something physically and mentally exhausting, maybe even unpleasant but you just got on and did it without agonising over it. 

If you have young children in your family how much self discipline does it require to care for them? I'm guessing not much. You don’t really think about it despite the fact that it can be stressful, frantic, physically hard and you may well be up to your elbows in another human being's excretions several times a day. Yet for most people that doesn't require willpower-you just get on with it and probably even enjoy it. Why was willpower so easy to come by then but not on other occasions when you need it? 

  

It's not about toughening up

Now I'm not saying willpower doesn't exist to make anyone feel bad. In fact, quite the opposite, I'm hoping if you accept that it's a myth you'll be released from the guilt of not being disciplined enough and you can stop being hard on yourself. 

You hear some people say; 

 "Oh just get on with it" or "Quit complaining and just do it" 

Which usually prompts the sarcastic response "oh thanks, I hadn't thought of that before" or something more strongly worded. It's a tried and tested approach proven not work. Telling someone to just "get on with it" doesn't help. 

It's not about habits either. The theory goes that you make yourself do a little bit one day at a time and build up your activity until you're in the habit, which is fine apart from the fact it's hard to get started if you feel you lack the willpower in the first place. 

I also come across people trying to trick themselves into doing something like volunteering to drive to a pub so you know they won't have a drink when they want to stay sober. In the short term this might get results but it doesn't change your behaviour long term and it probably won't make the task any more desirable to you. 

 

So what is willpower? 

The clue lies in a wonderful phrase I heard a friend say once. She said: 

"I just need the willpower to do the things I want to do". 

Read that again. Why would you need willpower to do something you want to do? 

And there is your answer. Either: 

  • You don't really want to do it. 
  • Or you do want to do it but you want to not do it even more. 

A willpower battle is simply a conflict, we are literally battling our own will. There's a benefit to doing something, there's also a benefit to not doing it. Whichever is the most compelling will win the battle. 

Let's say you are on a health kick and you tell yourself you're going to eat healthily this month and not drink any alcohol. You really want to lose a few pounds and you are committed to this. You've agreed to go to a restaurant with friends but there are healthy options and you figure you don’t need to drink anything alcoholic. 

However when you get there someone asks if you want to share a bottle of wine and without thinking you say "yes". And that's it from there you go the whole hog and you order starter, main and dessert. Afterwards you're thinking "why did I do that? I was going to be so good. Why did I cave in?". 

You may have had a compelling reason to make healthy decisions, and you really do want the benefits of healthy habits.  However you really wanted to not make those decisions too. Take a moment to think about the possible reasons you have for not making those decisions in this situation.  

  • To fit in 
  • Avoid comments 
  • Not having to justifying yourself 
  • Don’t want to be left out 
  • Worried you won't have fun 
  • You don’t get to go out often 
  • You're paying the money, might as well make the most of it 
  • I want to treat myself  
  • A whole host of other reasons 

There are as many answers as there are people. Whatever your reason for not doing what you intended to do it was more powerful than your reason for doing it. 

Try it for yourself

The next time you find yourself needing willpower to do something you want to do. Ask yourself: 

  • What's do I gain from not doing it?  
  • What would I lose by doing it? 

Chances are the reason is more emotional than logical. It might not make any practical sense but it's telling you to pay attention to something. You're not weak. You're not broken. In fact you're doing exactly what you want to do. Perhaps not what you think you ought to do but it's certainly what part of you needs or wants.  

If the thing you want isn't as compelling as the reasons not to do it you'll either not do it or really battle with yourself along the way. You just need to decide, in the grand scheme of your things what is more important to you? 

What are your thoughts? Does willpower exist? How do you deal with a perceived lack of willpower?

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