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Why Willpower is Overrated

November 20, 2017

...and how to get by without it.

 

Every high achiever's story seems to glorify the strength of willpower over adversity. Think of any rags to riches tale or sportsman's battle and the underlying message is that desire and hard work are all it takes. In many stories we learn that change is the only solution. We find this inspiring because it simultaneously makes us believe that we would have enough inner strength to do this; also that it's quite hard work and only to be attempted as a last resort. 

 

 

In this article I want you to understand that over-exaggerating the importance of willpower is harmful and that, by lessening it's significance in your life, change can become easier to tackle.

 

Overrating willpower is problematic for two reasons. Firstly, we ignore big tasks believing that when it really matters we'll somehow find the strength, wisdom, dedication and energy required to complete our goal, just as our heroes did. Secondly, it stops us from identifying those small processes that would achieve this goal without resorting to the melodrama described in the stories we love to read.

 

I see clients all the time who say 'I just didn't have the energy to do my exercises', 'I ate all the biscuits' or 'I don't know where the time went this week'. When I ask them about it, they say they have no willpower.  After chatting it becomes clear that the client doesn't look any deeper for reasons or solutions. Their lack of willpower has become the start and end of their failure. It proves to them that the job is too tough or that they're not up to the task. I have even met people who have experienced this so many times that the feelings of failure have almost overwhelmed the original desire to change. 

We're all a little vain so when we do fail at something it makes us feel better to imagine this was insurmountable rather than everyday. This makes trying again much tougher as, unintentionally, our molehill has now grown mountainous to fill our new image. So this idea that greater willpower can cure us has made our job bigger while reducing our self belief and skills.

 

Where do we go from here?

 

1. Firstly, break the change down into a series of manageable steps and only look at the first item on this list. 

 

2. Next, make a note of anything you need to achieve this step. It could be anything from a pair of trainers to a slow cooker. A good example of this is a client of mine who, having spent three weeks deciding on a local swimming pool, realised that she didn't have a swimsuit.  If she had been using the willpower excuse she could easily have said to me, 'I failed because I'm not organised enough' but we simply changed the next step to buying the swimsuit. 

 

3. Continue to look ahead only one step at a time. When one task is crossed off, look at the next rather than the rest. If there's a swimsuit to buy, add it to the top of the list and don't look beyond it until you're ready.

 

4. When an item is completed, take  a moment to look back at that and any other items you've already checked off on your route to change. Enjoy the accomplishment, however small, and look forward to the feeling of greater accomplishments in the future.

 

5. What happens if you get stuck at a task? Sometimes your task might be held up by other people or because it seems difficult to do. Try setting a timescale for yourself or others, see if there's a different way to do it or decide how essential it is to you. Perhaps you decided you were going to improve your fitness by running a 5km race but you missed the entry date or realised that you just can't bear running. Consider other ways to reach your goal and look for the next first step. Don't feel you've wasted time or energy. Remember, every moment up until now has been a success and you've learned more about what will help you succeed.

 

I like to think of change as water running down a hillside. Each droplet may seem inconsequential but by seeking the path of least resistance they shape our land. When we think of willpower we imagine that we need the strength of the river. When we abandon the need for willpower we can use each droplet of water.

 

The next time you blame a problem on your lack of self control, think about how you could have removed the need for willpower and made your task easier.

 

Enjoy Good Health.

 

 

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