Why Willpower Doesn’t Work Long-term
Have you ever gotten mad at yourself for not following through on a goal? Maybe you failed to make good on a plan or fell short on a promise you made to yourself; maybe you couldn’t quite get yourself to break a bad habit or start a new, good one – either way you found yourself wondering why…
Why couldn’t I get it done – again?
Why don’t I have more willpower?
Situations like these can cause us to blame ourselves, as a lack of willpower can feel like a personal stain on our character. If we’re not careful, we can end up feeling defeated and powerless – unable to create for ourselves those things which we desire.
Willpower – our ability to control ourselves and determine our own actions – is often misunderstood. Touted as a primary driver of success, willpower is typically seen, not as an ingredient in success, but the main ingredient. And it’s true, willpower is important, but the way we use our willpower is even more important!
Imagine the following scenarios –
In scenario one – we decide to begin eating a healthier diet. One with lots of veggies and without sugar or processed food. Our previous diet had no restrictions, and we just felt like it was time to make some changes before our bad food choices caught up to us.
In scenario two – we decide we’d like to learn a new language. We’re taking a trip in six months, and we’d love to be able to speak in the native tongue once we’re there.
In each scenario we’ve made a decision – to eat healthier and to learn a new language. Given the information provided, one of these scenarios will require more willpower than the other, and therefore will take more effort to follow through on, over time.
If we look at the first scenario, we have our desire to eat a more balanced, healthy diet because of the pressure we feel to maintain long-term health. While the pressure to keep ourselves healthy is ever-present, if we’re generally healthy already, it isn’t targeted enough or strong enough to keep us away from temptation over time. Because the pressure isn’t strong enough we’ll need to lean more on our willpower to stay the course.
In the second scenario, we have a few things at play: our desire to learn a new language, our desire to have an amazing trip that allows us to converse in the native tongue and the external pressure of a six-month deadline. Unlike the first scenario, this scenario has plenty of pressure pushing us to our goal. This pressure gives the goal a higher priority in our lives. This pressure, which holds over our head, as a lever of power, the risk of us finding ourselves in a situation we ultimately do not want, feeds us with the high amounts of motivation needed to reach our goal.
So what’s the problem with willpower?
Willpower is an oppositional force. We exert it when we have to keep our inconvenient, inappropriate and unproductive tendencies in check. And we all have inconvenient, inappropriate and unproductive tendencies, just imagine the unfortunate circumstance of finding yourself in an ice-cream shop while on a diet…
The problem is when we make willpower, which should be our last line of defense our main line of defense. This is problematic because as an oppositional force it takes effort and strength to hold its position and it can only hold that position for so long before it buckles. Willpower is limited and therefore should not be what we rely upon indefinitely. This is especially true the longer it takes to reach a goal.
Use willpower to reenergize and refuel desire.
Willpower should be treated like a gas tank running on ‘E.’ We’re still driving, but we’re now aware that the most important thing for us to do is find a gas station and fill up the tank! If we keep driving on ‘E’, we may get to where we’re going, but the chances are high that we’ll stop short of our destination. And with willpower, it’s much the same. If all we have is willpower it may get us where we’re going, it may not, but it’s high risk and inefficient. Instead of willpower, we should rely on our passion, inspiration, and motivation to get us to our destination while our willpower should ensure we’re always inspired and motivated and full of passion.
So now the question is, what motivates you?