The Mythology of Willpower

There’s a common belief that willpower can overcome almost any problem. This drives sales of books my ex-Navy Seals, the epitome of strong will.

One survey found that people believe their lack of willpower is the #1 reason for not following through with lifestyle changes.

Another common belief is that willpower is like a muscle, it gets stronger if we exercise it and weaker if overused. The psychological term for this is ego depletion.

Let’s challenge some of the mythology around willpower.

Is Willpower Like a Muscle?

Maybe we should start with a definition. Here’s mine:

The ability to control one’s thoughts and behavior and resist impulses.

By this definition, my willpower has grown from childhood through teenage years to an adult and now getting into my senior years.

The growth in the earlier periods (childhood and teenage) was probably a function of the brain simply maturing.

Growth in the adult years is probably due to experiencing adversity and learning to cope and manage. So, in a sense, this is like exercising a muscle and it gets stronger.

Conclusion: I agree.  The more we experience tough decision making and tests of our will, the stronger we get.

But, there are limits. The old cliché: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” isn’t useful. An overwhelming amount of stress can lead to PTSD. 

Does Willpower Gets Depleted?

A lot of studies seem to validate the idea of ego depletion but there isn’t universal agreement. In fact, there is a lot of pushback in the academic community.

I love academic studies as much as anybody. But, I always test those against my own experience and common sense.

At the end of a hard day, I’m physical and mentally drained and that includes willpower. That doesn’t make its depletion unique? All of my cognitive functions are depleted. If you challenge me to a game of chess you’ll win in 4 moves. I just want to relax and binge watch a Netflix series.

Conclusion: This seems like a no-brainer. I agree. If you’ve been exercising your willpower all day, you’re exhausted. This doesn’t feel like a revelation.

Is Willpower is a Solution to All Our Problems?

If you have a problem such as too much procrastination, low productivity or lack of focus, a strong dose of willpower might be a good prescription, attack the issue straight-on with a hammer.

How do you turn it on?  That’s the big question. Where’s the switch?

What about other issues, such as self-confidence or self-esteem?  How do you apply willpower to those? The hammer approach doesn’t seem to fit.

You may be able to use willpower to search for a solution; such as a program like “7-Steps to Self-Confidence.”

But, again, how do you flip it on like a light switch to begin the search and act on the lessons.

It isn’t that easy.

Conclusion: We can’t deny willpower plays a role in solving our problems, but using it like a universal hammer doesn’t seem logical. Every problem isn’t a nail.

A Better Way

One study found that successful people aren’t exercising a lot of willpower, they just have good habit routines that expose them to less temptation. This makes a lot of sense. Why rely on willpower alone. Use your willpower to set up a system of routines that removes obstacles and moves you forward toward your goals.

Take an example such as dieting. You can reduce temptation by removing all the desserts and unhealthy snacks from your kitchen and stocking it with healthy choices.  Next, you set up a habit routine of exercising every day at the same time.

This isn’t a commercial diet plan with a celebrity endorsement. It’s simply a healthy lifestyle and your body will adjust over time to a naturally healthy weight. And your weight won’t go through up and down cycles because this is a permanent habit, not a temporary weight loss diet.

This still requires some willpower. But, you’re using your willpower as a lever (not as a hammer).  You’re setting up a system that will operate on autopilot.

If you need help setting up your own system of habits that are healthy for mind and body check out my free 14-Day Habit Challenge.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Willpower is an essential item in our toolbox for self-improvement and problem-solving.

Using it as a lever vs a hammer will go a lot further.

I monitor my own progress every day with the Clarity Journal. Whether it’s daily tasks, gratitude, affirmations, lessons learned, or any other area of self-improvement, it’s all in the journal.

Learn more here: Clarity Journal.