Why willpower doesn’t always work.
By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Counselor.
How much do you rely on willpower?
Often people tell me they’re planning to make a change in their life. We’re almost to the end of the year, and many people are making New Year’s resolutions. We go through this process every year. What I know is that in a little more than a week, we will be into the new year, and already many of those resolutions will have fallen by the wayside. How come just using your willpower doesn’t get you there?
Willpower is a tool.
Willpower is one tool you should have in your toolbox, but it shouldn’t be the only one. Willpower can definitely help you get certain things accomplished. But there are plenty of times when applying more willpower to the situation won’t work. It’s like having only one size wrench in your toolbox. Sometimes you need jeweler’s pliers, and sometimes you need a pipe wrench. Sometimes you shouldn’t be applying a wrench to something at all.
There’s a difference between willpower and won’t power.
Not knowing the difference between these two skills is the equivalent of picking the wrong tool for a job. Willpower works more like a hammer and breaks through resistance. Won’t power operates more like a seatbelt. Sometimes we need to use a third tool which goes by the name of “habit.”
What is willpower, and what is it useful for?
Willpower is the ability to force yourself to do something difficult or painful for a benefit that is far off in the future. For example, if you want to be a great athlete or even a moderately good athlete, you have to get up early and get to practice. Willpower will make you do it even when you’d rather stay in bed.
I use willpower when I get up in the morning and clean my cat’s litter box. I don’t really look forward to cleaning litter boxes. But I know I have to do it; otherwise, my office will smell. Using willpower is the right tool to apply to these kinds of situations.
Won’t power is a different skill.
When I walk by the kitchen, I hear the chocolate cake calling to me. “David, come have another piece of chocolate cake.” For the purists out there, I don’t actually hear voices, but thought pops into my head just as reliably as if the cake was talking to me.
Won’t power is the ability to not do something pleasant now for a benefit off in the future. Most people with addictions suffer from a lack of won’t power along with a lot of other problems. Won’t power is the ability to say no to the cravings even though drinking you’re using right now might relieve your discomfort and make you feel a lot better.
Won’t power involves surfing the waves of craving.
When you have the urge to do something right now that would be pleasant, or that would reduce your discomfort won’t power is the skill you need to apply. Cravings to do something right now that you know may cause you problems in the future are like waves on the ocean. They come up sometimes gradually and sometimes rapidly. As the wave rises, it can feel like it’s going to overwhelm you, but if you apply your won’t power, some people describe this as their stubbornness, and you don’t give in to temptation; eventually, the wave of craving subsides.
There’s a third tool you may need in your life.
When we look at people’s efforts to use willpower to get themselves to go to the gym and exercise, we find that willpower is an unreliable tool. The willpower you need to get up off the couch, pack your gym bag, and go out and get in your car to drive to the gym is substantial.
But once you arrive at the gym and walk through the door, it takes relatively little willpower to change into your gym clothes and start exercising. One way we reduce the amount of willpower needed to engage in any exercise program, or any other self-improvement program for that matter, is habit.
The more times you get up and go to the gym, the easier it gets to remember to do it each day. I think of it as like sanding down a rough board. The more you stand, the smoother the board gets. The more you engage in a habit, the more likely you are to continue that behavior.
Want to make it easier to remember to go to the gym?
Make use of the tool of habit. Start planning the next day’s activities at night before you go to bed. Pack your gym bag and put it in the trunk of your car. I don’t recommend leaving it where it can be seen because that helps other people create the habit of stealing your stuff. Maybe leaving it in front of the front door, so you have to trip over it on your way out, will work for you.
Watch out for serial correlation.
Serial correlation is something I learned back in business school. Fast-food restaurants and big-box stores still factor this into their planning, even if they don’t call it that. If you go into a restaurant to redeem a coupon three weeks in a row, you’re probably a regular customer. This can work for you in the case of going to the gym or walking, or any other positive activity.
We also see serial correlation working in the opposite direction. If you miss a day at the gym, it becomes much harder to go the next day. Skip going to the gym several days in a row, and you’ve created the new habit of staying home.
Habits are another important topic.
Habits influence humans a whole lot more than we often think. Many people have habits they aren’t even aware of unless someone else points it out to them. If you decide to embark on a self-improvement program in the new year, spend some time looking at habits. Study how you create them and how you break them and why they’re built into the human thinking system. I’ll try to help you out with this with a couple of blog posts in the new year about habits.
Does David Joel Miller see clients for counseling and coaching?
Yes, I do. I can see private pay clients if they live in California, where I am licensed. If you’re interested in information about that, please email me or use the contact me form.
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