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Willpower: All You Need To Achieve Your Goals? Or Overrated?

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. ]

The Verdict

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. 

Jillian Michaels, personal trainer on the television show The Biggest Loser Yells at a weight loss client.
Trainer Jillian Michaels formerly of The Biggest Loser.

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. 

A fuel gauge serves as a good analogy for willpower, and how it depletes when in tempting situations.

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. 

Donuts may be a big challenge to those who have a lack of willpower especially  those trying to lose weight by eating healthier.

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:

“It’s not about willpower. Good habits happen when we set ourselves up for success.” -Tara Parker-Pope of the New York Times Click To Tweet

#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!

Conclusion

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! 

~Clarissa

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!

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Author: clarissa.cabbage

Clarissa is a teacher, a coach, and an avid adventurer! Armed with a master's degree in Exercise and Wellness, she is on a mission to teach people how to build healthier habits that support the adventurous lifestyle of their dreams. There is nothing Clarissa is more passionate about than helping people get active and live their lives to the fullest!

48 Replies to “Willpower: All You Need To Achieve Your Goals? Or Overrated?

    1. Thanks for stopping by and reading Lauren! Setting unrealistic goals is a pretty common mistake. It’s good to set our sights high, because we are capable of achieving big things! But it is best if we set realistic timelines for that big goal so we can maintain the high levels of confidence which allow us to continue on and achieve more in the future. 💪🏼

  1. Interesting! If you want to achieve something, you have to stand your ground for your goals against all the obstacles or try not to put yourself on the arena too much. You have to set yourself and your surroundings for your goals and not merely rely on willpower. This is what most people don’t quite understand. Hope other people can read this as well.

    1. I hope so too Arcana! And I agree that unfortunately, willpower is greatly misunderstood. Thanks to this myth, so many people try to just “tough it out” and suffer when in reality, if they understood the research on willpower, they could spend their effort focusing on setting up an environment that would make doing their new habits much less painful! I just hope I can do my part to dispell some of these myths so that building a healthy lifestyle becomes a little more straight forward! Thanks so much for taking the time to comment! ❤️

  2. I feel like willpower is the root to get things done or to get to places we want to be. Willpower is one of the factors where it comes from within. I push myself a lot even though I don’t want to do things, or think I can’t. This is how you break your barriers! Thinking things through takes you far. Thanks for sharing all of these tips!

    Nancy ✨ exquisitely.me

    1. You’re welcome Nancy! Willpower is definitely important! We tend to be even more successful when we only have to use it on rare occasions. Thanks so much for coming by and taking the time to read!

  3. Thoughtful and insightful! This is very detailed and thorough. I didn’t ever really think about it willpower as being a myth. I get down on myself a lot because I don’t have enough self control (in my opinion). But everything you’ve said is so true. The method that really worked for me is breaking things down into small goals. It puts less pressure on myself and seems easier so I’m able to do them. Great post!

    1. Thank you Amna, I’m so glad you enjoyed it! You aren’t alone – most people feel that they don’t have enough self control or willpower and they end up feeling bad and beating themselves up about it. But I think the real problem is not having a good understanding of how willpower works, and setting ourselves up for failure by relying on it too much!

  4. This was really interesting to read. I’ll be honest, I totally fall into the group that has allowed this myth to sabotage some of my attempts in the past. Understanding this a little better, I’m going to shift my mindset moving forward!

  5. A lot of people do Britt – no shame there! Unfortunately that’s the problem with having widely believed misconceptions. I feel like there are SO many out there in the health and fitness industry. If I can even make a tiny dent in the amount of people that buy into them, I’ll be happy. Thanks so much for reading. I hope this helps you on your journey!

  6. Great post! I personally like the example of donuts. It’s a great example of how structuring your life is the best thing to avoid temptation. Actually, it’s one of the ways I avoid spending more money. I like to eat out a LOT. But if I have food I like at home, I’m less tempted because I eat at home before I go out. Therefore, I spend less on restaurants and spend less money overall.

    1. I’m glad you liked the examples! I am generally pretty good with my money, but eating out is definitely one of the things I love to do. It’s decreased a lot since covid-19 and the layoffs of course.

      But I think you make a really good point about structuring the environment helping with other types of habits like spending too! I can relate to spending less money out when I have good food at home. I feel guilty that it will go to waste and that keeps me from going out to eat when I’m really not feeling up to cooking.

      Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your experiences!

  7. This was so interesting. And using this theory in terms of temptation and willpower is so true. I try to eat healthily, and don’t really buy many unhealthy snacks. If I’m with other people and know they’ll have them, I’m far more likely to eat something I usually wouldn’t. However, when it comes to exercise, willpower is without a doubt the most important thing for me. Sometimes it’s the only thing that gets me through to the end! x

    Sophie

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it and found it relatable Sophie! I agree about willpower and getting started with exercise. If your motivation to exercise is low, it can definitely take some serious willpower to get the workout started. Although I find once I get started, it’s pretty easy willpower- wise to finish the workout. It can be a little less straight forward to set up your environment to decrease the willpower you need for exercise, but there are definitely ways to do it! I plan on writing a post on that in the future.

      Thank you for reading and sharing your experiences with us Sophie! 🙏❤️

    1. I am glad to hear that Kelly Diane! I hope it inspired some ideas about how you can go about achieving your goals and building new habits to make things a little easier for yourself. Thanks for reading!

  8. Interesting opinion. I think willpower is also required to keep yourself in that slow plan and to choose environment. It depends on how you look. But I know from my own example – week willpower… And when I look beck, my main achievements are thanks to luck 😉

    1. It definitely takes patience and motivation to build up gradually and be systematic about setting up your environment – No doubt!

      As far as luck – I like to think we create our own opportunities for good things to happen. I’d hate to wait around to get lucky when it comes to my habits and goals! Those aren’t things I’d like to leave up to chance.

      Thanks for stopping by and having a read! 🙏

    1. You’re welcome! I hope it helps you go about forming new habits in a way that are a little bit easier as opposed to just trying to “muscle through”! Thanks for stopping by to have a read.

  9. This is a really great post! I wonderthough, is it possible for your willpower to grow? Like, when you start eating healthy, it’s really hard at first, but it becomes easier the more you do it. I think exercising your willpower could be really beneficial, so that way you don’t have to avoid things in order to still hit your goals.

    1. That’s a fantastic question Lex! Some of the research articles I cited in this post looked at exactly that. There were two different studies, where they put people through a program designed to increase their willpower and self-control. One study showed no improvement at all after 6 weeks of focused training, and the other showed a small increase in short-term willpower, but no lasting effect on willpower levels long-term. So there may be some ability to improve willpower to a small extent, but the research hasn’t seen people be able to make huge improvements in terms of the amount of willpower. So, who knows! 🤷‍♀️ I’ll be interested to read what further research has to say.

      In my experience I have found that willpower might improve some over time? For example, with sweets. I have quite the sweet tooth, but if I have gone without sweets for quite awhile, I can see them out at parties and not feel like I want to eat them all. But that may be an effect of having gotten over the cravings as opposed to improving willpower over time. So many factors that go into this sort of thing!

      Either way, thanks so much for reading and raising this important question!

  10. Thank you for this post. I find that when it comes to nutrition I lack all willpower. I’ve been trying to form habits that don’t allow me to be in a position where I grab the donut or slice of pizza. I just read Atomic Habits by James Clear and it all makes so much sense.

    1. Yes, I love James Clear and his book Atomic Habits! He takes the same stance on willpower – people rely on it too much. He has a whole chapter in there dedicated to how to redesign your environment to avoid temptation so high levels of willpower are not necessary.

      When trying to overcome a problem, it’s best to play to your strengths. Willpower is NOT a strength of the human race in general, so it’s best not to rely on it heavily. As James Clear says, “It’s easier to avoid temptation than to resist it.”

      Thanks for reading Carrie!

  11. It’s easy to blame willpower, but in the end it does come down to how you approach things. When I take the time to make a plan for myself, I am much more successful at handling any curve balls and holding firm.

    1. Yes, mindset matters! If we tell ourselves that were just supposed to “tough it out” and that’s the way it is, it entirely changes our approach to forming a new habit. It doesn’t allow us to look for better solutions. Thanks for reading Pragati!

    1. Yes, we do all have willpower, it’s just that unfortunately, the amount of willpower that we have is finite. For that reason we need to make smart decisions about how we spend it. Think of it like making a budget for your finances! 💲💲

  12. I’ve never been very good with willpower. I used to beat myself up – and still do, on occasion – about my utter inability to stick to plans, or intentions I’d set up for myself. But of late, instead of telling myself over and over again that I have poor willpower, I try to focus on other things. Like, maybe journal about why I couldn’t do/achieve what I wanted to do. Or talk it over with a friend. Or reading something to inspire me. I’ve found that to be a better way of avoiding the same mistakes in the future. I can’t say it’s still a foolproof method, but personally for me, I think it’s a better way of treating my own, by not getting too hung up on my supposed low level of willpower. 🙂

    Lovely post as always, Clarissa!

    1. That is a fantastic way to deal with the situation Shirsha!

      If you believe the main problem is that you lack willpower (which you’re supposedly supposed to have unlimited stores of according to the myth), all there is to do when you fail is beat yourself up. There’s nothing to learn, nothing to improve on – all you can do is feel bad about yourself.

      BUT, if you can overcome the myth and understand that ALL humans by nature have low levels of willpower (not just you), then when you make a mistake, there is something you can do about it other than just believe you have some fatal flaw.

      Your examples are perfect! I especially like that you tried to journal or talk to a friend to try to find the root cause about what went wrong! This way you can learn from the mistake,fix the problem, and try to avoid it in the future.

      Thanks so much for reading and sharing your experiences Shirsha! ❤️

    1. I am glad to hear that Lisa! I like to base my articles on all the latest scientific research. Even more so in this series of posts which I’m calling “Myths & Misconceptions” I think it’s really important that all health, fitness, and nutrition advice be based in science but unfortunately there is so much misinformation out there that isn’t, and people trying to learn how to lead healthier lifestyles become confused and frustrated. It breaks my heart! 💔

    1. Yeah I’ve never been a fan of that phrase either Jenny. It’s a common misconceptions that willpower should be your main approach to achieving a a goal, when really, everything the research says tells us it should be out last line of defense.

      Thanks so much for reading, I hope this helps shed a little light on the willpower situation for you! ❤️

  13. This is a great article! I love how you included so many real life examples to make it relatable! Especially the donut example. I never thought about how willpower is more than just in the moment, but it’s all aspects of your life building up into that moment 😮

    1. You’re very welcome Larissa! I’m so glad you found it relatable. I think that most people are really not aware of the true nature of willpower and how it needs to be budgeted. I hope it’s given you a little insight so you can tackle your own goals! Thanks so much for reading. ❤️

  14. Such an interesting read. I definitely struggle with willpower especially when it comes to good. I go through waves of eating really well and weeks of snacking way too much.

    Thank you for the read!

    Kate | thelittlecrunch.co.uk

    1. It can be tough Kate, that’s for sure! Maybe you can give those ideas about rearranging your environment to make eating healthier a little easier so you don’t have to try and rely on willpower all the time! You’ve got this! 💪🏼❤️

  15. Really interesting post! I think it’s really important to start slow and build up. I know in the past I’ve gone head first into things and either burned out or just gave up too soon. I notice that when I take things slower and build up to my goals I’m more likely to reach them too. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks for reading Ellie! I’ve found that to be the rule rather than the exception. Every now and again there’s a person that dives in head first into the deep end and comes out successful. But for every one of those there are maybe 1,000 more who it doesn’t work for. As they say, slow and steady wins the race!

  16. I loved reading this post. So many true facts that made me stop and think. There are times that I do need to set small goals in order to slowly get to my bigger goal and times where I really think I should have had more willpower to do something. Then I kind of blame my priorities if I end up not following through. After reading this post I need to re-evaluate my strategies. Thank you for sharing
    Darina from daramiblog

    1. That’s great Darina! I’m glad this post made you stop and think. I hope it has given you some ideas for how to make going about achieving your habits a little easier rather than trying to “tough it out” all the time. Thanks so much for reading and sharing your experience with us!

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