The Problem With Willpower

When got married and moved up to the Northwest, I started to gradually gain weight. I knew it would be harder to lose the older I got, so every now and then I’d go on a low carb diet and lose about 10 lb. Then it would creep back on and then some.

Each time, I’d dive in headfirst with a plan and dedication - that would last maybe two weeks. Then, inevitably I’d eat something that was “off the list” and throw the baby out with the bath water. When I got close to my 9 lb pregnant weight not pregnant though, I managed to stick with it long enough to lose about 30 lb, but again it started creeping back up.

Then a switch went off in me. I tried a Paleo diet for the first time, and felt a real change in my energy. For the first time, eating well wasn’t about losing weight but about feeling good. I gradually started listening to my body more and how it reacts to what I put in it. I sometimes eat things that don’t make it feel so great, but I don’t beat myself up about it anymore.

Now I’ve lost over 40 lb overall, and I haven’t felt the need for willpower to maintain it in over two years.

So what’s the problem with willpower?

I’ve read some books on success that talk about the importance of willpower and how we have to practice it and strengthen it like a muscle. While this is true, we have to be careful about overly relying on willpower.

Willpower is a limited resource. As Shawn Achor points out in The Happiness Advantage,willpower is ineffective at sustaining change because the more we use it, the more worn-out it gets. If you have chronic pain or fatigue as well, it is increasingly ineffective because pain depletes your ability to regulate your behavior.

The focus is on deprivation. It is also risky to rely on willpower because it fosters a deprivation mentality. As Achor points out, “we deny and deny ourselves until all of a sudden we can’t take it anymore and the floodgates break.” The more we focus on denying ourselves using willpower, the more we focus on the very thing we are trying to avoid. This is one of the reasons the concept of intuitive eating has been so successful, because it’s about nourishing yourself in a positive way rather than depriving yourself.

If not through willpower than how will things change?

Find your motivation. The first step in making lasting change has been to truly get to your motivation to make the change. For me, losing weight was just not enough to sustain me. The first lasting health habit I implemented was a series of neck stretches that helped my chronic headaches at the time. I did those religiously for 5 years because it was so clearly useful to me. Nowadays the most motivating thing is to be healthy and well for my son. Once you are clear on your motivation, you can change your thinking from, “I have to ____” to “I choose to ____ because I want ____.”

Path of least resistance. Achor talks about increasing the likelihood of engaging in a new habit by putting it on the path of least resistance. He gives an example of how he wanted to learn the guitar, but he never pulled it out of his closet. He bought a cheap guitar stand and put it in his living room and suddenly he started following through with it. The extra 20 seconds it took him to pull it out of his closet kept him from engaging with it on a regular basis. He calls this “activation energy,” which is the energy it takes to begin a task. Just as you can put something you want to engage in on a path of least resistance, you can increase the path or resistance for things you don’t want to engage in such as distractions from work. Examples he gave were cutting all shortcuts and forcing yourself to open multiple folders to get to a distracting app, or taking the batteries out of the remote control.

Practice self-compassion. When you do something that you wish you hadn’t done, remind yourself that you are human after all. Every action we take is meant to meet a need, so try to express empathy with yourself to understand the need you were trying to meet. Also practice compassion for the habit you are trying to change. That habit has served you in some way in the past, whether it was to distract you from pain or protect you in some way. Acknowledge this, give it compassion and then focus on what you will get when it changes.

Reduce choices. In The Paradox of Choice, by Barry Schwartz, he talks about how our cultures focus on options and making the best choice can actually make us less happy in the end. There are some places where it is great to have choices, but when it comes to the basic everyday things in life, having less choices to make frees you up to have energy for the really big decisions.

Embrace “good enough.” Schwartz talks about the advantages of becoming a satisfiser instead of a maximiser. A satisfiser looks at the options until an acceptable option is found instead of searching for the optimal choice. This also involves appreciating what you have or where you are at instead of constantly striving for more.

Adjust your expectations. If you get caught up in thoughts or beliefs that hold you back or make you beat yourself up, stop and ask yourself, “is this thought or belief useful?” If not, try coming up with another thought that would be more helpful to you.

Practice the art of rituals. As Mason Currey points out in Daily Rituals, “A solid routine fosters a well-worn groove for one’s mental energies and helps stave off the tyranny of moods.” Working rituals and routines into our day can help us solidify new habits so we barely have to think about them. Just keep in mind, for major changes focusing on one small thing at a time can help it stick.

I used to think I had very little willpower, and then I proved to myself with food that I am capable of significant changes. I realized though that this was not so much because of willpower, but of mindfulness of my choices in the moment. I don’t always make the “good” choice, but I don’t beat myself up about it anymore. This has given me a much more positive relationship with food that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

What is one habit you have been successful in changing and maintaining? How did you achieve it?