On the go? Listen to the audio version of this article here:
Willpower is overrated.
I know this sounds controversial, but it is something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit for the past decade.
As an addiction counselor, former personal trainer, and avid writer on the topic of motivation, I’ve seen how most people assume willpower is the key to success. Although it can be helpful, I think it’s highly overrated.
Popular self-help media messages depict strong willpower as the key to overcoming adversity and achieving success. We often hear words like “grind” and “hustle,” making it seem like the only thing stopping you from being a super fit billionaire is your willpower.
Although willpower is necessary, the concept is overrated because it neglects the psychology of motivation. Merely focusing on willpower ignores external factors, unmet needs, one’s core values, and the power of motivational momentum through small steps.
As described in my article on how to find motivation, there are many ingredients involved in motivation beyond just willpower. By neglecting these other ingredients and relying on willpower alone, you may find yourself having difficulties maintaining long-term motivation. This often leads to beating yourself up for not having enough willpower, further reducing your level of motivation.
Let’s break down the psychology of willpower, then connect it to the broader psychology of motivation. I’ll then explore practical steps to help you stop relying on willpower and start getting the results you want.
What is Willpower
According to a summary by the American Psychological Association, willpower can be defined as the following:
- The ability to delay gratification, resisting short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals
- The capacity to override an unwanted thought, feeling, or impulse
- The ability to employ a “cool” cognitive system of behavior rather than a “hot” emotional system
- Conscious, effortful regulation of the self by the self
- A limited resource capable of being depleted
In other words, willpower is the ability to forgo short-term gratification for a long-term benefit.
Although there is some debate regarding the nature of willpower, leading willpower researcher Roy Baumeister defines it as a limited resource.
This means willpower can be depleted. Like a phone battery, the more you use it, the faster it depletes. Regaining willpower requires recharging it over time. Unlike simply plugging in your phone, your willpower can be recharged by not facing as many situations where you need to use it.
Recharging willpower is easier said than done. From getting out of bed in the morning, resisting those candies at work, sitting through a boring meeting, then driving past your favorite fast-food restaurants on the way home, daily life constantly draws on your willpower.
Willpower is overrated because it is a finite resource, and when it is your only tool, it quickly depletes, leaving you vulnerable. Like going on a five-day hiking trip without a physical map, compass, battery backup, and expecting to rely on your phone’s GPS the whole time, you’ll likely be food for the bears.
How to Use Less Willpower
As an addiction counselor, I work with clients on how to use less willpower rather than more. If willpower were enough, the client would have probably already figured it out. Having yet another person lecture you about willpower is the last thing you need.
This approach does not diminish the need for willpower altogether. Instead, it recognizes willpower as a valuable finite resource that must be carefully managed.
This approach makes recovery feel much easier than trying to “white knuckle” your way through every day, constantly feeling exhausted for having to resist a particular substance or behavior.
So how do you use less willpower? Here are the main areas I consider when working with my clients:
- Meet your physical needs
- Remove environmental triggers
- Plan ahead
- Create habits
- Observe cravings
- Find your “why”
- Reframe the benefit of the behavior
Let’s take a closer look at each of these areas so you can apply them to your own goals and increase the odds of success.
Meet Your Physical Needs
Without fueling yourself physically, everything in your day takes a lot more willpower. From waking up in the morning to doing work throughout the day and trying to resist urges along the way, everything is more difficult.
Like waking up to your phone only having a 25% charge, you’ll have a difficult time getting through the day, especially if you need to use it a lot.
The three main areas to consider regarding meeting your physical needs are sleep, nutrition, and physical activity.
As a former personal trainer, it is tempting for me to delve into specific requirements for each area, but as an addiction counselor, I know that will be unhelpful. Most people know a few small things they could change to make a significant difference in these areas.
The key here is progress, not perfection. We often try to figure out the perfect diet, exercise routine, or sleep schedule, giving up when we fail to live up to these perfectionistic standards.
Since the goal here is to use less willpower, striving for perfection only uses more willpower. Like getting your phone battery to 100% each night, but having to keep your screen on all day at full brightness, running every app, the effort becomes counterproductive.
Rather than trying to do it perfectly or not do it at all, consider small practical changes. For some people, it means focusing on carving out extra time for sleep. For others, it might mean replacing a sugary beverage with an alternative.
What one thing can you change that would have the most significant impact on your physical health? Then, what is the easiest way you can incorporate this into your routine?
By having a stronger physical foundation, your willpower burns much more efficiently throughout the day, making everything easier.
Remove Environmental Triggers
Environmental triggers are things that remind you of a behavior you want to discontinue. In most cases, it’s impossible to remove all of them, but like meeting your physical needs, sometimes “good enough” is better than perfection.
When it comes to environmental triggers, the three main areas to consider are people, places, and things.
Other people have a powerful influence on our behavior. A 2008 study found that among smokers, persons were 67% more likely to quit if their spouse quits and 36% more likely to quit if a friend quits. The same researchers conducted another study in 2007, finding a person’s chances of becoming obese increase by 57% if a friend becomes obese.
Although this does not mean we should cut out anyone who isn’t perfect and be alone forever, it might be worth considering the influence of those around you.
In my work with clients trying to stop an illicit substance, it can often mean cutting out some individuals or distancing themselves from others. When it comes to managing alcohol use, it usually involves having personal boundaries with certain people, letting them know your intentions so that they don’t bring wine when you invite them over.
Certain places can also be an environmental trigger. For example, are you having to drive past your favorite fast-food restaurant every day? If you are trying to stop drinking alcohol, are you ready to be in environments where alcohol is present?
The key is to consider what places are putting an unnecessary strain on your willpower and what alternative places might be better for now.
Another area to consider is the things you can change in your environment. Simply having a specific temptation in sight can be a constant drain on your willpower. If you constantly have to resist that glass jar of cookies on the counter, it might be worth keeping them in the pantry. Still too much of a drain on your willpower? It might be worth keeping them out of the house altogether.
This is particularly useful in addiction counseling and does vary depending on the strength of the addiction. For someone who has been addicted to crystal meth—probably the strongest psychologically addictive substance—it is nearly impossible to maintain abstinence if it’s still in your environment.
For other things like alcohol, cannabis, and gambling, it’s nearly impossible to remove all triggers since we live in a culture full of constant reminders.
The purpose of managing environmental triggers is to reduce the load on your willpower, not complete avoidance. Trying to avoid all triggers can also be counterproductive if it uses more willpower to think about it constantly.
What one thing can you change in your environment that would remove a significant strain on your willpower?
This one thing does not even need to be related to the behavior you are trying to change. According to Baumeister’s research on willpower, depleting it in one area translates to depletion in all areas. For example, if your goal is to go to the gym in the evening, you’re less likely to go if you’re depleting your willpower all day resisting the chocolate cake sitting on the table.
Willpower is a finite fuel, and it is important to use it as sparingly as possible. Assuming you can’t remove all environmental triggers, let’s delve further into ways you can plan for riskier situations so that you can use less willpower.
Planning for riskier situations allows you to use less willpower because you do not have to use mental energy when it’s more difficult.
Working with clients, this is a major part of relapse prevention for persons in early recovery. For example, if someone has decided to stop drinking alcohol, we would plan for how they will manage situations at an upcoming event where alcohol is present.
Whatever the situation, picture how it might look. Who will be there? What will they likely do? In the past, what would likely happen?
When planning ahead, here are some things to consider:
- Are you ready to even be in this environment at this point?
- What alternative environment might be less risky?
- Who will you associate with?
- What will you say or do when a temptation arises?
- Do you need to communicate personal boundaries beforehand?
- How will you communicate personal boundaries?
- What unexpected risks could arise?
- How could you maintain accountability?
Beyond planning what to say or do, it may be helpful to build accountability into your plan.
For example, if you don’t want to stay out too late, you can schedule a meeting for the following morning. If you want to go to the gym, you can schedule a time to meet a friend there. Or, if you don’t want to consume alcohol, you could offer to be the designated driver.
Like everything in this article, it’s about managing risk. No amount of planning can guarantee a specific outcome. Maybe you don’t say the thing you wanted to say, encounter an unforeseen risk, or stay too late and miss the meeting you scheduled the next morning.
Again, it’s about progress, not perfection.
Speaking of progress, let’s look at how you can create incremental progress over time, using as little willpower as possible.
Habits make progress easier because you can operate on auto-pilot rather than having to make decisions all the time.
Baumeister’s concept of willpower involves something called “decision fatigue.” This means each decision throughout the day depletes some willpower. The more decisions you need to make, the less willpower you have left to make smart decisions.
The psychology of decision fatigue can be seen in grocery store checkout isles. Having to make several decisions while you shop, you have less willpower left over when checking out and are more likely to buy the candy bar impulsively.
Therefore, to optimize willpower, consider ways to reduce the number of decisions you make in a day.
Although we cannot function without making decisions, many of these decisions are unnecessary. Having to decide whether or not you’ll go to the gym each day takes up unnecessary willpower. So how do you reduce your decision-making load?
Creating habits allows you to make fewer daily decisions, allowing you to use willpower more efficiently. Rather than constantly choosing each meal, moment to exercise, and time to sleep, having a routine allows you to flow between tasks in your day on relative autopilot.
Living on autopilot can be detrimental if you’ve built unhealthy habits, but it can be helpful when intentionally structuring your day based on healthy things you want to incorporate.
The key here is to start small and slowly add things into your daily routine. Large disruptive changes to your situation make it less likely to stick over time. Long-term change starts slow, building motivational momentum over time, based on small intentional changes.
In the previous section, we discussed removing unhelpful triggers. But when it comes to building healthy habits, you’ll need to incorporate helpful triggers into your environment.
Here’s an example of a morning routine filled with helpful triggers:
- The multivitamin next to your toothbrush triggers taking it after brushing teeth.
- The book next to the coffee machine triggers reading a chapter while drinking coffee.
- The gym clothes out on dresser triggers putting them on, which triggers morning exercise.
- The pre-prepped healthy/ tasty meal container in fridge triggers post-workout meal.
- Specific tabs pre-opened in your browser trigger the type of work you had prioritized
- The water bottle on your desk triggers regular hydration
Intentionally adding triggers into your environment to create healthy habits allows you to offload the need to constantly think about healthy decisions, making them much easier and natural throughout the day.
The trick is to incorporate one thing at a time, adjusting the trigger or habit, if necessary. This is a process also referred to as habit stacking, where you build new habits by stacking them on top of old ones. This process takes time and patience to figure out what works for you.
“Change might not be fast, and it isn’t always easy. But with time and effort, almost any habit can be reshaped.”― Charles Duhigg
Like everything else in this article, it’s about progress, not perfection. Sometimes it’ll work; other times, the new habit won’t quite fit. Rather than the more common all/nothing approach to behavior change, it is important to have compassion for yourself throughout the process.
Observe Your Cravings
When faced with cravings for a particular substance or behavior, it is tempting to resist them, telling yourself, “No! Don’t think about it!”
Unfortunately, “what you resist persists,” as stated by the great psychologist Carl Jung.
For example, if you try not to think of a purple elephant, you’ll most likely keep thinking of a purple elephant.
But really, try to stop thinking of a purple elephant!
If you keep thinking of it, something terrible will happen.
So it’s very important that you stop thinking about it.
Are you finding it hard not to think of the thing you’re resisting?
This is especially relevant when it comes to resisting everyday things we are trying to stop doing. For example, if you are trying to stop drinking alcohol and are constantly resisting the thought of drinking, it only allows the thought to persist even stronger.
So what is the alternative?
Resisting your cravings makes it more likely you’ll quickly burn through all your willpower then act on them when they continue to persist. Accepting the cravings gives you the freedom to choose how you want to act.
Like being in a constant tug-of-war with your cravings, the harder you pull, the harder it pulls back. Caught in this battle, you find it hard to focus on other things that matter in your life. You can continue to white-knuckle it indefinitely, but the cravings keep you trapped.
The craving has power over you until you decide to drop the rope and refuse to participate in the tug-of-war.
Here is a quick way to take an observational perspective toward your craving rather than a resistant perspective:
- Where are the specific sensations in your body associated with this craving?
- Describe the specific characteristics of the feeling as if you were a researcher analyzing its unique features.
- How would you describe it if it were to have a color or texture?
- Bring your attention to the breath, and with each breath in, make space in that part of your body for the craving.
- Feel each inhalation of air holding space for the craving, allowing it to be there.
Once you’ve observed and accepted the craving, you are freer to make a values-oriented decision on how you want to act.
Many people fear that coming into contact with it makes it more real. In reality, avoiding it doesn’t make it any less real. Like if you find yourself standing on quicksand, resisting and struggling doesn’t make it any less dangerous. If anything, you’re more likely to sink. Instead, laying down on the quicksand (increasing contact) is the safer route, allowing you to increase your weight distribution across the surface of the sand.
Here is a visual example of this metaphorical process:
The end of that clip has another relevant counterintuitive metaphor: closing the distance between yourself and an assailant can decrease their power.
Acceptance does not mean giving up. Instead, it means increasing contact with the perceived threat so that it has less power over you. This is the basis of exposure therapy and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), two of the most powerful techniques used in the field.
For more on how to do ACT, you can check out my article here.
Find Your “Why”
Having a reason why you’re deciding to change is a core ingredient of motivation. Since willpower is about resisting things, it can be uninspiring.
Consider this example: what goal is more inspiring? 1) Not consuming alcohol this evening or 2) spending quality time with your family? Although both are compatible goals, the former focuses on what you’re not going to do, whereas the latter focuses on what you want to do instead.
A 2020 study on new years resolutions finds that you’re more likely to stick to goals focused on what you want vs. goals focused on what you don’t want:
“Approach-oriented goals are more successful than avoidance-oriented goals.”
When talking to a client who says they want to stop drinking, I mentally classify that as only part of what they’re looking for. I’ll usually pivot from this avoidance-oriented goal by asking the following types of questions:
- You don’t want to do x, so what do you want?
- If you could stop doing x, what would that allow you to do?
- What matters to you/what’s important to you?
These types of questions facilitate discussion around approach-oriented goals, which are far more inspiring, giving a source of motivation that is deeper than willpower.
Willpower is used to obtain avoidance-oriented goals, whereas values-based inspiration provides a deeper source of motivation, drawing you forward.
As Friedrich Nietzsche said:
“One who has a ‘why’ to live for can endure almost any ‘how.’”
We often get stuck dwelling on the how without giving enough attention to why we want something.
This is common among individuals who use a lot of “should” statements. When I start to hear a lot of “shoulds,” I’ll go back to the questions I posed above until the “should” becomes a genuine “want.”
For more on how to find motivation, you can check out my article here.
Reframe the Behavior’s Benefit
As an addiction counselor, one of the most common things I’ve come across is glorifying the substance or behavior beyond its actual reward value.
Although drinking, gambling, or a substance may have once been a source of entertainment, many people in a state of addiction do not find it fun anymore. Instead, it can feel like enslavement.
In my article on what addiction feels like, Stephanie describes her experience in the following words:
“The pleasure is actually short-lived. It happens when we use but only lasts a few minutes. We feel the warm hug or the rush the substance gives us, but five minutes later, we feel nothing except the need/ want for another dose. We feel the self-hate, and that compels us to find the next dose to make that go away.”
It can be helpful to remind yourself of the difference between the perceived benefit and the actual benefit of something you are trying to stop doing. Here are some questions to consider:
- What does this behavior do for you?
- Is this perceived benefit a fact, or is this a glorified perception?
- What need are you trying to fulfill with this behavior?
- What are some more effective ways to meet this need?
When getting down to the reality of someone’s unhealthy behavior, they often start to describe it in less glorified ways. Listening to the stories of horrific three-day cocaine binges, constant concealment and deception, blackouts, financial strain, and mental clutter, I find myself saying, “wow… that sounds stressful!”
Emphasizing these elements of the behavior allows you to reframe the meaning of the behavior.
For example, instead of gambling = fun, we look at the person’s actual recent experiences, demonstrating how this thought is often based on an outdated perception of the reward value. When reframing the meaning of the behavior based on their own reality, we often come to the answer, gambling = stress.
By reframing the meaning of the behavior, willpower is not necessary. Willpower is only needed when resisting something desirable, so when you reframe the meaning of the behavior as something undesirable, you naturally don’t want to do it.
One of the best series of books on this anti-willpower approach is Alan Carr’s Easyway. After seeing the power of his approach, I often recommend the audiobook versions of his texts to my clients to listen to while driving or cleaning. His books have a unique way of making the addictive substance or behavior seem highly unappealing by the end of the book.
Although he does not have a book for every substance, here are a few options:
The Easy Way to Control Alcohol
The Easy Way to Stop Smartphone Addiction
The Easy Way to Stop Emotional Eating
Although he takes a while to get into the main content, repeats himself a lot, and uses outdated references, I highly recommend his work because it is quite powerful and has changed millions of lives.
For more on how to stop an addiction, you can check out my article here.
Throughout this article, I’ve made the case that willpower is overrated. In the addiction field, they call this “white-knuckling” your way through behavior change. Working with clients on behavior change, willpower generally only lasts so long before a person falls back into preexisting habits.
Rather than relying on willpower alone, I’ve covered various other tools designed to conserve willpower so that you can get more of what you want without having to live in a constant state of resistance.
Here is a quick recap:
- Meet your physical needs, so everything feels easier
- Remove environmental triggers that sap your willpower
- Plan ahead so you can use less willpower in risky situations
- Create habits, so you use less willpower from decision-fatigue
- Observe cravings, so you’re in a state of non-resistance
- Find your “why” so you are inspired toward a bigger, better offer
- Reframe the unhealthy behavior, so you naturally don’t want it as much
It’s more complicated than simply “having more willpower.” Telling someone who is struggling to just “try harder” oversimplifies the psychology of behavior change, adding additional shame and blame to someone who is likely already struggling with it.
Long-term change comes from minimizing risk in many different areas through self-care, intentional preparation, and other cognitive tools such as acceptance and reframing.
Hopefully, this has been a helpful exploration of why using willpower alone is overrated, offering practical strategies on what you can do instead. Feel free to reach out here, if you have any questions, or leave a comment under this article.
Excellent, timely article; I hope it finds many readers and those wanting and needing to change averse behaviours willing to embrace what you say. I can still recall the day, year and hour I made the decision to quit my 16 years 3-pack-a-day habit. Family and friends praised me for my “willpower”. Sadly, I would inform them that it was about a five-year process of quitting, finding any excuse to continue smoking and quitting again. I had even quit two years but when hospitalized from an injury found myself accepting a carton of cigarettes from workmates who “forgot” I had quit. I told myself it was a gift and I didn’t want to hurt the feelings of my friends. Excuses.
So, yes, I quit, but I had to think about how do do it and train myself to stop finding excuses and putting off, just for “another
five minutes” that craving for the smoke. With drink, well that was a much longer, more difficult journey.
Thankfully, those days are gone. Great, great advice.
Thank you for these kind words and for sharing your personal experience! Glad to hear you’ve been able to overcome these addictions and find yourself in a much better place these days!
I wish you all the best in the new year!
Excellent break down of the psychology behind positive behaviour establishment and successful negative habit breaking. Thank you – this is a keeper!
Thank you, Angel! I’m glad you enjoyed it! Wishing you all the best in the new year!