Willpower goes by a lot of different names: self-control, self-discipline and self-restraint are just a few of them.
When it comes to goals in pretty much any area of life (health, fitness, nutrition, business, personal finances etc.) willpower has been touted as the silver bullet – the only thing you need to succeed. While the lack of willpower is often said to be the only thing standing between you and everything you’ve ever dreamed of.
If you just had enough willpower, you could lose that weight.
If you just had enough self-control you could save that money.
If you just had enough self-discipline, you could make it to the gym.
If you just had enough self-restraint, you could quit smoking.
But is it true, or is it a myth? Let’s dive in and find out!
Fact or Fiction?
The belief that we will be investigating in this post, is that willpower is the most important factor in achieving goals, and that it is the lack of willpower that is to blame for people being unsuccessful in establishing new healthy habits.“The idea that a little bit of discipline will solve all of our problems is deeply embedded in our culture.” -James Clear | Atomic Habits Click To Tweet
What Does The Science Say About Willpower?
Several important studies performed in 2016 found that in general, humans aren’t very good at willpower and resisting temptation. Scientists reported that even with targeted training designed to specifically to improve willpower, subjects did not improve on any measure of self-control.
The following quote from the book Atomic Habits by James Clear sums up the scientific research on willpower quite well:
“When scientists analyze people who appear to have tremendous self-control, it turns out those individuals aren’t all that different from those who are struggling. Instead, “disciplined” people are better at structuring their lives in a way that does not require heroic willpower and self-control. In other words, they simply spend less time in tempting situations. The people with the best self-control are typically the ones that need to use it the least. It’s easier to practice self-restraint when you don’t have to use it very often.”
[Learn more about the research on willpower. ]
So there we have it – science says willpower is not all you need to achieve your goals, and that it is not even the most important factor in achieving your goals. In short – willpower is overrated and people have a tendency to rely on it too much.
Now, does this mean that willpower plays no role in achieving our goals? No, of course not!
Remember, science has shown us that humans aren’t very good at willpower. And that’s okay! This just means that we should treat willpower as a precious resource and conserve it at all costs so we can use it in the moment that matters most.
In order to conserve our willpower – our first and primary goal should be to avoid tempting situations where large amounts of willpower will be required.
Let me say that again – avoiding tempting situations should be our first line of defense. Using our willpower should be our LAST line of defense.
Where Did The Willpower-Is-All-You-Need Myth Come From?
The origin of this myth is hard to track down. Some people believe that it dates all the way back to the story of Adam and Eve. In this biblical story of the original sin, Eve is said to have lacked the willpower to resist the temptation of the forbidden fruit.
Obviously it’s not possible to prove whether or not this is the true origin of the willpower myth, but it is easy to see that the myth is a big part of our modern day culture. You can see evidence of it in the health and fitness world everywhere from campaign slogans like Nike’s “Just do it.” to the rise in popularity of drill-sergeant like personal trainers.
What Is The Danger In Believing The Willpower-Is-All-You-Need Myth?
Okay, so now we have established that willpower is overrated when it comes to building healthier habits and goals in general – but why does that matter?
The danger in believing the willpower-is-all-you-need myth is that it changes our mindset and therefore our entire approach to forming new habits.
We have been told all our lives that we just need to “Be strong”, “Tough it out”, “Muscle through”, “Stop making excuses” and “Just do it.”
But by believing the myth, we don’t look for ways to make building habits easier on ourselves. By believing it is true, we unknowingly set ourselves up to fail.
The Willpower Tank: An Analogy For Understanding How Willpower Works
To get a better idea of how willpower works, we’ll use an analogy. Imagine that every person has a willpower tank inside of them. Like a gas tank, this internal willpower tank can be anywhere between full and empty.
Now imagine that any time someone is in a tempting situation the meter on the willpower tank starts to drop lower and lower as their willpower is used up. The meter drops because avoiding temptation takes up a lot of energy.
When the willpower tank is empty, the person will no longer be able to resist temptation.
However, there is one thing that is different about a willpower tank than a gas tank – and that is that you can’t just go to the gas station around the corner and fill up your willpower. It doesn’t work like that.
Remember, willpower is a precious resource and we have very little of it. The only way you can refill your willpower tank is to spend time in temptation-free situations so that it has time to regenerate.
So if you have a person that is constantly in tempting situations, their willpower tank will constantly be low and they will exhibit a lack of willpower, making it very difficult to resist temptations.
But if you have a person that is in tempting situations only rarely, their willpower tank will be allowed the necessary time to refill. These people are much better equipped to resist temptation on the rare occasions that they do face it.
Bill, Bob, And The Donuts: A Real Life Example
Now for a real life example – let’s look at two people who have the same goal. Bill and Bob are both trying to lose weight by eating healthier. They work for the same company which has a weekly Monday meeting with donuts, always donuts.
Being around the donuts at the meeting will begin to drain Bill and Bob’s precious stores of willpower as they struggle to avoid the temptation of eating the donuts.
But who do you think will last longer? To know, we’d have to look at how much of their time they spend in tempting situations.
When we do this, we find that Bill lives in a home where the rest of his family is on board with his weight loss goals. They agree not to bring junk food into the house, and they’ve decided to work on eating healthier home-cooked meals more often. Lucky for Bill, there is not a lot of temptation for him to break his new healthy eating habit!
However, Bob lives in a home where the rest of the family isn’t ready to get healthy yet. There is all kinds of junk food in the house at all times, and while the family eats a few meals at home, they often order take out or fast food. To stick to his own goals, Bob must resist the temptation of all of the unhealthy food in his house.
Now based on this, who do you think would be able to avoid the donuts at the meeting the longest?
If you said Bill – you’re most likely right. His home is relatively temptation-free so his willpower tank is given the chance to refill. He will have more stores of willpower available to fight the temptation of the donuts.
Bob on the other hand, is constantly surrounded by temptation. For this reason, his willpower tank has very little opportunity to refill and he will have very low stores of willpower available to resist the temptation. Poor Bob!
3 Things More Important Than Willpower For Achieving Your Goals
The rest of this post will discuss 3 things that are more important than willpower, and how they can make achieving your goals and habits easier so you don’t have to just “Tough it out”.
#1 – An Environment Set Up To Minimize Temptation
One of the best things you can do when trying to achieve a new habit is to remove things that tempt you to perform bad habits.“It’s easier to avoid temptation than to resist it.” -James Clear | Atomic Habits Click To Tweet
Remember, being constantly surrounded by temptations will drain precious stores of willpower whereas an environment that is relatively free of temptations allows the willpower tank to refill so that you are better prepared to handle temptations when you do face them.
For example, if we are trying to eat healthier, we could remove all the junk food from the house so that we can’t be tempted to eat it in a moment of weakness.
After removing temptation, we want to fill our environment with things that remind and encourage us to perform our good habits. Sticking with the eating healthy example, you could buy lots of healthy foods and snacks – for example fill a bowl full of fruit and set it on your kitchen counter.
Now you have added a significant barrier to eating junk food. Since it is no longer in your house, you can not just eat it out of habit. Instead, you will have to make a conscious decision to break your goal and eat junk food. Then you will have to go all the way to the store and buy said junk food.
For most people, on most occasions, these inconveniences are enough of a burden, that they won’t do it. They’ll simply recognize it as a moment of weakness and move on, sticking with their habit.
[See more examples of how to design an environment to make it easier to form a new habit.]
#2 – A Well Thought Out Plan
A good plan for when, where, and how you’ll work on your goals can help you avoid having to make choices when your willpower tank feels low.
By removing choice from the equation, you are much more likely to stick to the goal even when you are feeling less than motivated.
Check out the following resources on how to make a solid plan so you can steer clear of temptation:
- How to write clear goals that you can actually stick to.
- How to make time in your busy schedule for healthy habits.
- How to form an action plan and achieve your new goals.
#3 – The Willingness To Start Slow And Build Up
Smaller goals require less willpower to achieve than larger goals. By starting out slow, we are able to stay more consistent with our new habits until they become more automatic, and we build up our confidence levels.
Once the simple habit becomes ingrained, you can then build on it. Starting slow and building up from there keeps the amount of willpower needed to a minimum. This is good news since science has shown that humans aren’t great with willpower in the first place!
[Learn how to Harness the Power of Starting Small to Achieve Your Goals]
When Should You Use All That Willpower You Saved?
Now we have talked about 3 scientifically proven ways to help us conserve willpower at all costs! So what exactly are you saving all that willpower for?
I’m glad you asked! Your willpower stores should be used when you aren’t able to control your environment in order to avoid a tempting situation.
We’ll continue with the example of the eating healthy goal above. Let’s say it’s your favorite nephew’s third birthday party. You know there’s going to be cake and sweets, and probably lots of your favorite snacks laid out buffet style…
This is it! This is what we’ve been saving our willpower for! Not for every day situations. Not for every little thing. For special situations where you aren’t able to control your environment.“Self-control is a short-term strategy, not a long-term one.” -James Clear | Atomic Habits Click To Tweet
This type of situation should be the exception, not the rule. You should not be relying on nothing but willpower day in and day out to help you avoid temptation at home.
That would be absolute torture! It’s no wonder most people aren’t able to stick to their goals if they try and rely on willpower alone!
Willpower does play a role in habit formation, but most people rely on it far too heavily – a mistake that makes it very difficult for them to successfully form new habits.
Believing the myth that “all you need to achieve your goals is more willpower” is dangerous because it creates a mindset that sets people up for failure.
I’m here to tell you, there’s an easier way! You don’t need to suffer by just trying to “tough it out” all the time.
By understanding that willpower is an extremely limited resource, and trying to use it only as a last resort, you can put your focus on the factors that are scientifically proven to be more effective, such as:
- Creating an environment that decreases your exposure to temptation.
- Making solid plans so you don’t have to make decisions during times of weakness.
- Starting small to keep the amount of willpower needed at a minimum.
Now that you are aware of the true nature of willpower, you can set yourself up for success!
If you found this useful, please feel free to share it with any friends you think would benefit from it as well. Together, we can conquer the health and wellness myths out there on the internet and give people a fighting chance to achieve the healthy lifestyle they desire!
P.S. If you haven’t already, don’t forget to check out my new Free Resource Library for worksheets, templates, and checklists designed to help you build healthier habits!