Willpower Is Overrated

Oct 24, 2022
willpower is overrated

My job as a clinical psychologist comes with many perks - good coping skills, setting my own hours, witnessing others transform and blossom - but one of the true luxuries is that I get to hear the real deal inside scoop. People share with me the pain points they hide from everyone else...and that allows me to see just how very similar we truly are. 

I hate to break it to you, but you're not special. 

Whatever it is, I can pretty much guarantee that you're not the only one to struggle, to question, to doubt, to fear, or to fail. Whatever it is, I'm pretty sure it just makes you human.

"Why can't I just do it?" she tearfully asked me. 

"Because willpower is over-rated," I said.

If you've ever gotten frustrated with yourself for falling short of a goal or not being able to make the change you wanted, keep reading. 

  

What Is Willpower?

Part of the issue with relying on willpower is that a lot of people don't actually have a good understanding of what it is, and that sets them up to fail.

Merriam Webster defines willpower as "the ability to control one's own actions, emotions, and urges." And Merriam Webster is part of the problem.

Sidestepping the argument that we can't actually control our emotions or urges, only how we respond to them when they show up, this is a poor definition. It implies that if we have unwanted emotions or urges or if we don't have perfect behavioral control, then we lack willpower, which gets interpreted as a personal shortcoming.

Instead, let's go with Google Dictionary's version that holds that willpower is "control exerted to do something or restrain impulses." This is a much more accurate definition, and it starts to hint at why we can't rely on willpower.

 

Why Willpower is Over-rated

With a crestfallen face, "I'm lazy and weak," she concluded.

"No," I corrected. "You're human." 

I went on to explain that willpower is our ability to suppress, override, or basically veto an urge or impulse. It's a limited resource that gets used up as the day progresses. Think of it like gas in the tank or money in the bank. When you use it, it's gone and must be replenished. Willpower is not a character strength. Sure, some people may have more of it, just like some cars have bigger gas tanks and some people have bigger bank accounts. And just like some cars take more gas and some people have more bills than others, some of us have more urges and impulses to veto throughout the day. So running out of willpower and succumbing to an urge (for action or inaction) does not make you lazy or weak. It means that you're spent. 

Think of all of the urges and impulses you have to say no to throughout your day. No, desire to stay in bed. I have to get up now. No, urge to yell at the kids, I have to keep my cool right now. No, I can't hang up this zoom call or roll my eyes at my coworker or eat the gallon of ice cream or watch the entire season of that show or speed or interrupt or avoid that overwhelming task or delete my entire inbox or...Can you see just how many little (and big) demands are eating up your willpower bandwidth every day? Is it any wonder that there's not a lot of gas in the tank left for extra stuff, like changing a comforting habit or starting something that takes energy and effort? 

 

We Set Ourselves Up to Fail

Because we tend to misunderstand how willpower works and to overestimate how much we can rely it, we set ourselves up to fail.

We lie to ourselves, albeit unintentionallyWe promise ourselves I'll do this or I won't do that, and we drastically underestimate how much willpower it will take to override urges to the contrary and just much of this finite resource our Future Selves will have left. Fortunately, there are some things you can do to preserve or extend your willpower.

 

Build Your Willpower 

Like so many things in the world of psychological strength, willpower can be developed with repeated practice. Now, if we really want to get into the weeds, I'm not actually 100% sure that we increase our willpower so much as use habit formation to our advantage, cutting down on the need to exert willpower. Stay with me here.

Saying no to urges and impulses, especially if you say no to the same one repeatedly, can help you build new habits and shape your identity, which are going to look, on the surface, like increased willpower.

For example, if you continually resist the urge to avoid anxiety-provoking things, you build the habit of courage. Then you can rely on this habit, rather than sheer willpower, when triggers arise. And if you see yourself as someone who is brave, it's going to be easier for you to make that courageous choice. 

 

Use Personal Rules

I am a big fan of using personal rules to my advantage. These can cut down on unnecessary rumination and help you build that willpower muscle, so to speak. Personal rules are just blanket statements regarding what you do or don't do. For example, I don't drink soda. It's been so long now that it's just become a habit, which means I don't have to exert any willpower anymore to stick with that. In the beginning, however, it wasn't that easy. I was a dedicated Dr. Pepper-a-day kind of girl. So when I first gave up soda, it was tough. If I started to debate in my head, "Do I want that sweet nectar of the gods or not?" it took a lot more effort (willpower) to choose water instead. I figured out that if I short-circuited the internal debate by shutting it down with a quick "I don't drink soda, end of discussion," it was a lot easier, and my success rate went way up.

I used a similar tactic several years ago when training for my first (and only) 10k. I was using one of those couch to race apps to direct my training efforts, but I did not enjoy running. Within about 30 seconds of starting, my mind would start saying things about how hard it was, how much I didn't want to be doing this, reasons why it would be ok to walk instead. I found that shutting all of that noise down with a rule "I run until the app says stop" made the whole experience much more bearable. I didn't have to deal with the mental weight of those unhelpful thoughts, and I actually ended up being able to run farther with significantly less effort.

Think about the things that you already do...once you go through a lot of internal debate, struggle, or procrastination. Try using that as fuel to set your own personal rules. Are you someone who deliberates over whether you should accept an invitation from a friend? Just commit then use the rule "I follow through with commitments" when your mind wants to talk you out of going. Similarly do you dread going to the doctor but know that you'll end up keeping the appointment? Just set the rule "I don't avoid appointments" and shut down the mental debate as soon as it starts. Bottom line, the internal back-and-forth is a major zap on your willpower and, if you go down that mental path, you're likely to lose. Fortunately, you can choose not to go there. While that may cost a little willpower up front, it's much less than what it takes to reel back in when you've gone way down the dread and debate rabbit hole.  

 

Design Your Way to Success 

Design your environment and/or your schedule to increase your chances of successes without overly relying on willpower to get you there. For example, I don't keep cheese in my house. It calls to me from the kitchen, sometimes a soft whisper, "Eat me," sometimes a demanding shout, "I"m here!" And I almost always lose the moderation battle (the last time I brought a wheel of brie home, it didn't survive one sitting...I was alone.). You can take my route and just not bring temptations into the house. It's an easier willpower ask to just skip that section at the grocery store than to override the call from the fridge all day long. 

Get creative here. How can you design your daily experience to help you resist urges and impulses without having to rely on willpower to do so? Can you:

 - Delete the time-suck apps from your phone? 

 - Commit to plans in advance so you're not deciding in the moment? 

 - Meal prep on Sundays so you have healthy easy options throughout the week ready to go? 

 - Plan the tasks that take energy, effort, or the ones you dread for early in the day when you have more willpower available?

 - Minimize distractions to prevent urges from getting triggered in the first place? E.g., put your phone on do not disturb or turn off notifications (every time you see that little red circle with a number in it, you have to resist the urge to check your email on your phone).

 - Create a commitment device? This is something that essentially forces your Future Self to stick with a decision your Present Self is making. 

 - Keep all of the equipment needed for a task or activity together and easily accessible? For example, laying your art supplies out so can more easily get started on that project, packing your gym bag and putting it in the passenger seat of the car, setting that book on your pillow so you can read a few minutes before bed? 

Keep in mind the limits of willpower and try not to set yourself up to fail by relying on it too much. We're all human, though, and we will inevitably get swindled into thinking willpower alone will be enough. When that happens, please be kind to yourself, then find a new way forward. 

 

"I bought a book on willpower, but I only got halfway through it."
- Stewart Lee Beck

 

Written by Dr. Ashley Smith

Peak Mind Co-founder

 

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