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Why Willpower Doesn't Work

  • April 3, 2023

We often think of willpower as the ability to control our actions, emotions or urges. It's the control we exert to do something or to restrain from a certain impulse.

Willpower is often seen as a key factor in achieving goals and making positive changes in our lives. We're told to just "use our willpower" to resist temptation and push through challenges. But the truth is, relying on willpower alone isn't always the most effective strategy. Let's dive into why willpower doesn't work and what you can do instead to accomplish your goals.

Have you noticed how much harder it can be to make a good choice at the end of a long day? Whether you're deciding on what to eat, wear, or do, our brains are making more than 35,000 decisions daily, according to Eva Krockow of the University of Leicester, UK. Even if subconsciously, these choices can wear us down! 

One of the main issues with willpower is that it's a finite resource. It's like a muscle that can become fatigued with use. This means that the more we rely on it, the more drained it becomes. And when our willpower is depleted, we're more likely to give in to temptation and make poor decisions.

Another reason why willpower may not be effective is that it can be influenced by external factors, such as our environment and the people we interact with.

For example, if we are trying to eat a healthy diet but are constantly surrounded by unhealthy food options, we might not be able to choose wisely. Similarly, the presence of friends or peers who engage in behaviors that go against our goals can also make it more difficult to maintain our resolve. Or if you're tired at the end of a long day, it can be much harder to make healthy decisions. 

This means that even if we have the best intentions, we may not have the mental energy to follow through on our goals.

Finally, relying too heavily on willpower can also lead to feelings of stress and self-criticism when we inevitably slip up or make mistakes. This can create a negative feedback loop, as the stress and self-doubt caused by our lack of willpower can further erode our discipline and make it even harder to make positive changes.

So, if willpower alone isn't the most effective strategy for achieving our goals, what can we do instead?

  1.  Create rituals and habits - One approach is to try to minimize the need for self-control in the first place by setting up our environment and daily habits in a way that supports our goals.

    For example, if we are trying to eat a healthier diet, we might keep healthy snacks on hand and avoid keeping unhealthy foods in the house. Or instead of relying on willpower to go to the gym every day, we can create a habit of exercising at the same time every day. This way, we don't have to use up our willpower to make the decision to exercise – it becomes a natural part of our routine.

  2. Create a supportive environment - Another way to strengthen our self-control is to create a supportive environment. This can include things like removing temptations from our sight, setting clear boundaries for ourselves, and finding accountability partners and a community of like-minded people with similar goals.

  3. Make goal achievement enjoyable - This can make it easier to sustain our motivation and stay on track. You might set smaller, more achievable goals so you can experience wins more frequently. Maybe you reward yourself each time you meet a milestone to mark progress. Or you celebrate your wins with your supportive community.

While willpower can certainly be a helpful tool, it's not always the most reliable way to achieve our goals. Instead of relying on self-control alone, we can set ourselves up for success by building habits, creating a supportive environment, finding ways to make the process of achieving our goals more enjoyable, and being kind to ourselves when we inevitably make mistakes. By taking a more holistic approach, we can increase our chances of making lasting positive changes in our lives.

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