Is Trying To Increase Willpower Actually Holding You Back?

fighting temptation

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Could trying to increase willpower actually be holding you back in reaching your goals?

The thing about willpower is that it is a finite resource.  It’s like a muscle and it gets fatigued.

Have you ever noticed that you are more likely to hit the biscuit tin or break your diet at the end of a long and tiring day?

You turn down the chocolates at work and the birthday cake, but then your willpower runs out…

Arriving home hungry and tired, BOOM your hand is in the biscuit tin!

Many people think they fail because they lack the necessary willpower.  They beat themselves up and tell them themselves that they must do better.  They feel jealous of others, wonder why they seem to have more willpower than them.

Here’s why you shouldn’t be so hard on yourself….

is this one critical mistake stopping you reaching your goal (1)

The Science Bit

There’s a thing called bounded rationality which talks about human beings not always making rational decisions.  We are constrained by all kinds of things, time and the information available to us for example.

We are also constrained by the primitive part of the brain which takes over if we are tired, hungry or fed up (pass me the biscuit tin…)

A survey by the American Psychological Association reported that Americans state lack of willpower as the number one reason for not fulfilling their goals

It is, of course, possible to strengthen willpower like any other muscle, but to rely on it solely would be perhaps foolish.

That’s not to say that you should discount willpower altogether.  You may well find that your willpower is better in the morning for example so you can plan around this. 

If your goal is to exercise 3 times a week, then you may well find it easier to plan to do this earlier in the day.  Leave it till the evening and the willpower you have already used during the day to not lose your rag at work or to turn down the cake will make it harder for you to stick to your exercise goal.

Related post: 11 Awesome Ways To Crack Your Personal Fitness Online

What Can I Do Instead Of Trying To Increase Willpower?

As I say, don’t give up on willpower altogether.  You can work on strengthening the muscle to increase willpower but there is a better way to achieve lasting change.

I recently read this brilliant book on how to change anything.  The book talks about ‘6 sources of influence’ and how all 6 of these need to align in order to have lasting change.

I’ve been intrigued in my own case as to how I finally managed to overcome my ‘wine o’clock’ habit back in early 2018 after years of trying to cut back.   Had I suddenly found an additional resource of willpower from somewhere?

As I read through the book, it struck me that the 6 things described in the book had all aligned for me.  Because of this that I had finally managed to change.

Here is a quick summary of the 6 points along with what I did for each in my own case as an example.  The fantastic thing about this is that you can apply it to any change you want to make. 

No more struggling to increase willpower.  Yay!

1.  Personal Motivation

mutiple whys and question marks on blue background

First of all, think about why you want to achieve your goal.   Then write this down and put it somewhere you can refer to it easily.

For example, with my wine o’clock habit, I wrote down my whys for wanting to cut back on alcohol (i.e. better sleep, less anxiety, lose weight, save money) and referred back to them when I was feeling tempted.

You could do similar if, for example, you are trying to lose weight.  Your ‘whys’ will be personal to you but could include things such as wanting to look good for your holiday or wanting to be able to run around more with your kids.  Try to be as specific as you can.  (Check out my handy guide on how to create ‘SMART’ goals for help with this).

Once you have your ‘whys’ list, stick it somewhere prominent where you can see it.

Now, you may be thinking that that’s all very well, but what about the times when you know exactly WHY you should change, but you still want to eat the chocolate?

Here’s one tactic you could try and which I used to good effect with my alcohol example.

Try ‘playing it forward’.  Really imagine how you will feel after eating the chocolate?  What longer-term benefit is it going to give you?  What impact will it have on your longer-term goal?

In my case, although the alcohol may have relaxed me for half an hour, if I fast-forwarded to feeling tired and hungover the next day and how disappointed in myself I would feel, then this would help.

2.  Increase Your Ability

woman reading book

Photo by Lucrezia Carnelos on Unsplash

Learn any new skills you need to achieve your goal. Read up on the skills other people have learned to reach the same goal you are trying to achieve.  What can you learn from them?

In my alcohol example,  I educated myself on the effects of alcohol and also the techniques of breaking the habit with the brilliant books Alcohol Explained by William Porter and This Naked Mind by Annie Grace

Again if you were trying to lose weight you might want to learn more about calorie values of different foods, food labelling or find out about interesting vegetables you haven’t tried before.

It’s also useful to come up with a plan for how you will deal with your most tempting situations.  Do you need to learn any new skills to see the plan through?

For example, in my case, I made a plan for how to deal with peer pressure.  Instead of waiting for the tempting situation to arise, I contacted those I thought may encourage me to ‘have just the one’ in advance and explained to them that I was on the challenge.  To do this, I found out how others in the same situation had worded the news and followed that same format.

Finally, make sure you practice your new skills to make them stick.

3.  Find Your ‘Tribe’

group of hands and feet

Image by Henning Westerkamp from Pixabay

Surround yourself with people who are trying to reach the same goal.  It’s also a good idea to distance yourself, for a while at least, from those who are trying to derail you.

With my alcohol example, I did found my tribe by joining a group called One Year No Beer who run 30, 90 and 365-day challenges to help people to take a break from alcohol.  One Year No Beer also has a Facebook group which I joined along with lots of other people on the same challenge.

I leant heavily on the group in the early days of the challenge for support.  It was useful to know that there were others having the same struggles as me and also to gain support from those further along with the challenge.  It also gave me a sense of accountability.  I didn’t want to let anyone down!

In these days of social media, there is no shortage of online groups that you can join for support.  You may need to experiment a bit until you find the one for you, but when you do then I’d definitely recommend leaning on them as much as you need.

4.  Get Support

Once you have found your ‘tribe’ make sure you keep in contact with them and ask for help when you need it.

It’s also a good time to have conversations with loved ones and ask for their support and for them to cheer you on.

You could also look for a coach or a mentor who has experience in reaching a similar goal.  

5.  Reward Yourself (In Moderation)

Think about how you can give yourself small rewards along the way.

For example, in my case, I used the money I’d saved from spending it on bottles of wine to treat myself to a spa day.

woman wearing blue robe lying with cucumber on eye

Photo by Adrian Motroc on Unsplash

It’s important, however, to not solely rely on this method.  Research has shown people can tend to go back to their old ways once they have obtained the reward.

I also found the ‘reverse incentive’ of paying money to join the One Year No Beer program spurred me on.  I didn’t like the thought of paying for something and then not making the most of it.  Of course, this doesn’t work for everyone (think of all those un-used gym memberships) but it could be something to think about.

You could also make your challenge into a game.  Set yourself small milestones and celebrate (in a healthy way of course) when you meet them.

6.  Control Your Space

Make small changes in your environment to remove any temptations which could derail you from your goal.

For example, in my case, I got rid of any alcohol in the house.  I also had fun researching and stocking up on alcohol-free drinks.

If your goal is to lose a stone, then remove any tempting foods that aren’t going to help you and replace them with some tasty, healthier alternatives. 

Summing Up

Trying to increase willpower could be holding you back from making lasting change.  Willpower is like a muscle so it can be strengthened and improved upon.  However, to really rock your goals, be sure to follow the 6 points I’ve outlined above.

To summarise:

  • Find out and record your ‘whys’
  • Increase your ability
  • Find your tribe
  • Get support
  • Reward yourself
  • Control your space

I’d love to hear what your goals are and how you are going to implement these 6 steps.  Let me know in the comments so that I can support you by cheering you on!

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  1. Alex Grace

    Great advice! I think you’re right in that our reliance on willpower alone will not always be enough to keep us aligned to our goals. The practical tips you’ve given will definitely be helpful in supporting us stick with it. I particularly liked your point about increasing your ability – knowledge is power, after all! Thanks x

  2. Geraldine

    I didn’t realize there was so much science to this haha, I didn’t think of this at all! Analyzing the “why” and finding others to rub energy off each other definitely is helpful in reaching our goals.
    Thanks for sharing this Alison!

  3. Su

    Great blog post, loved the little treats you give yourself as a reward and to replace the temptations with alternatives. I think when we get rid of what we don’t want we leave a space for them to come right back in!

  4. Vasundhra

    There’s a proper term to this behavior? So cool! I love behaviorial/psychological information. Thanks for the book recommendation, I’ll definitely check it out!

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