Why willpower doesn’t always work.

Picture of tools

Willpower or won’t power?
Courtesy of Pixabay.com

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.

Staying in touch with David Joel Miller.

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For more information about my writing journey, my books, and other creative activities, please subscribe to my blog at davidjoelmillerwriter.com

Seven David Joel Miller Books are available on Amazon now! And more are on the way.

For these and my upcoming books, please visit my Amazon Author Page – David Joel Miller

For information about my work in mental health, substance abuse, and having a happy life, please check out counselorssoapbox.com

For videos, see: Counselorssoapbox YouTube Video Channel

Whatever happened to self-control?

By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.


Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com

Is self-control a lost art?

Self-control is not something you’re automatically born with.  The ability to control yourself is something that develops over time.  As often as we hear about a lack of Self-control you would think that the growing and development of Self-control was a lost art.

Newborn infants are remarkable for their lack of self-control.  Babies cry whenever they want something, and they are totally irresponsible when it comes to eliminating their waste products.  What does it take for these infants to grow into people who have some amount of Self-control?

Parents are the best teachers of self-control.

In the early stages of life, parents have to provide the control that children are lacking within themselves.  Parents who do not make an effort to control their children teach that child that they cannot be controlled. If the child cannot be controlled by the parents, then how could they possibly control themselves?

Increasingly we see young people, and even those into middle life, who have somehow concluded that Self-control was something you were either born with or will never have.  They have convinced themselves that they cannot control themselves.

How is that related to addiction whose hallmark is the loss of control?

Can you see how all people who lack self-control in the small, day-to-day items would be at an extra risk of developing an addiction?  People who find it difficult to resist the urge for more food, to spend more money, or to behave in responsible ways, are likely to find drugs and alcohol impossible to control.

Those who are low in Self-control give the job of Self-control up to someone or something that can readily control them.  Addictions like to control their victims.  People with poor impulse control frequently get convicted of a crime.  If you can’t control yourself often the state is willing to appoint a probation officer or parole agent who will take over the job of controlling you.

Which is in control – the mind or the body?

Some people struggle to determine where their lack of control resides.  Should their mind and their thoughts control them?  Or is it the body that is in control?  This false dichotomy, that there are two parts to us, the mind, and the body, makes it difficult to learn Self-control.

Our mind, those things we are thinking about, has a huge impact on how our body feels those things.  Our body, those physical sensations of hunger, thirst, and being tired, strongly influence how our mind thinks.

Willpower is a skill that you can grow and exercise.

Willpower is not some separate thing that you have or do not have.  If you feel you’re short on willpower don’t blame your genes and at this point, it’s too late to blame your parents.  Begin the process of growing your own willpower.

Willpower comes from our feelings and our thinking.

For more on this topic, willpower, and it’s closely related cousin won’t-power, check out the other posts on willpower at counselorssoapbox.com

Staying connected with David Joel Miller

Seven David Joel Miller Books are available now!

My newest book is now available. It was my opportunity to try on a new genre. I’ve been working on this book for several years, but now seem like the right time to publish it.

Story Bureau.

Story Bureau is a thrilling Dystopian Post-Apocalyptic adventure in the Surviving the Apocalypse series.

Baldwin struggles to survive life in a post-apocalyptic world where the government controls everything.

As society collapses and his family gets plunged into poverty, Baldwin takes a job in the capital city, working for a government agency called the Story Bureau. He discovers the Story Bureau is not a benign news outlet but a sinister government plot to manipulate society.

Bumps on the Road of Life. Whether you struggle with anxiety, depression, low motivation, or addiction, you can recover. Bumps on the Road of Life is the story of how people get off track and how to get your life out of the ditch.

Dark Family Secrets: Doris wants to get her life back, but small-town prejudice could shatter her dreams.

Casino Robbery Arthur Mitchell escapes the trauma of watching his girlfriend die. But the killers know he’s a witness and want him dead.

Planned Accidents  The second Arthur Mitchell and Plutus mystery.

Letters from the Dead: The third in the Arthur Mitchell mystery series.

What would you do if you found a letter to a detective describing a crime and you knew the writer and detective were dead, and you could be next?

Sasquatch. Three things about us, you should know. One, we have seen the past. Two, we’re trapped there. Three, I don’t know if we’ll ever get back to our own time.

For these and my upcoming books; please visit my Author Page – David Joel Miller

Want the latest blog posts as they publish? Subscribe to this blog.

For videos, see: Counselorssoapbox YouTube Video Channel