Relying on willpower?


I used to think “If only I had more willpower”. Willpower - or self-control - is helpful in making healthy choices; not just about food and physical activity, but also relating to; thoughts, feelings and emotions, maintaining relationships and engaging in social interactions.

I thought ‘with more willpower, I’d be able to eat right, exercise regularly, avoid junk food and alcohol, give more, save for retirement, stop procrastinating, have an immaculate house, never snap at the kids and achieve other noble goals.  With more willpower I could be far more resolute about what was important, and never give in to those seemingly urgent impulses and whims!'

But I’m learning that willpower is a finite resource that runs out frequently, and usually when I need it most!

And that so often I succumb (particularly at the end of the day or when I’m hungry) because willpower needs replenishing daily, with sleep and brain fuel.

I’ve also learned that there are some things that use up my willpower more than others;

Things like people pleasing, having to make decisions or choices all day – particularly like those that enable me to bite my tongue and not to snap at the kids, customers or bosses when they are irritating, resisting the temptation to eat all the cookies in mid-morning break, being nice and polite to spouses, siblings and in-laws, resisting the urge to clean the house, surf the web or do anything other than the hard work of finishing the report!

I’ve noticed that the instant gratification and urgent call of the smooth creamy melt in the mouth cake will always appeal far more than the long term important healthy eating and weight goal with a crunchy, cold apple.

But now I’m learning that I can decide ahead of time to use willpower to develop more intentional systems and automatic or habitual behaviours and relationships instead.

Habits can last forever with little or no effort, whilst willpower will always be depleted. 

Using willpower to be intentional rather than resist temptation is why a diet works better when there is a programme to follow and meetings every week to get weighed – The willpower helps us sign up to the meeting in the first place, and the external system of accountability is then in place to help make the wise choices along the way– when you know you are going to get weighed and you know everyone else will know – it’s the accountability that helps you chose the apple rather than the willpower alone!

It helps explain why if internal habits haven’t been fully established when the diet and weekly meeting is over, the weight tends to pile back on quickly – because I’m back to relying on willpower alone instead of the automatic healthy habits.

Also, if I am more intentional about which one or two daily tasks I am going to prioritise, I can use willpower to get these important things done before anything else. This helps replace the reliance on willpower alone by putting in place simple habits or systems that last much longer than pure willpower ever could!

Here are some examples of how being Intentional helps me avoid relying on willpower alone;

  • I am more intentional about not buying snacks whilst out shopping, because then I can’t eat them in the evening.
  • I am more intentional about not going shopping at the end of a long day or whilst hungry because I know that I will make unwise choices and end up falling prey to all the reduced cakes and BOGOF biscuit offers.
  • I am more intentional about getting my clothes out for the exercise the night before, and then going to the gym first thing in the morning, so the only thing I have to have enough willpower to overcome is getting out of bed! (OK – even that isn’t easy – which is why I might also tell a friend, or even better, arrange to meet one on the way).
  • I am more intentional about writing a healthy menu and getting everything in the fridge/freezer for the week so I’m not tempted to order another takeaway when I just can’t face planning dinner.
  • I’m more intentional about telling someone else (an accountable buddy) about what I am doing – and I use willpower to help me do that, so that they can cheer me on and help keep me motivated.
  • I am more intentional about reframing my thoughts around cake – and tell myself “yes the cake might taste better than the apple right now, but the after taste won’t be nearly as good as the feeling of virtue I’ll have after the apple, and also knowing I’m one more step towards my goal”.
  • I am more intentional about scheduling personal time to spend with family and friends, to build relationships and talk and pray through important issues.
  • I am more intentional about turning the TV off to get to bed early enough to get a good nights sleep even when I have to get up early.

Simply relying on willpower to get through many of the battles I face will never be enough – but if I can use the little willpower I do have to help me to chose my battles carefully, and be more intentional about getting into healthier habits instead – these habits can last the duration and lead me to healthier happier and more productive and honourable life in all its fullness.

Where could you begin use willpower to develop more intentional habits?

Next week I’m starting a 3 week mini blog series about habits – what they are, why they are helpful, and how to have healthier ones!  See you then!