Willpower is Overrated!

We all have our big, audacious goals, and we know what we *could* and *should* be doing to reach them. Suppose that you have set a goal to lose 10 pounds. You are absolutely determined to be 10 pounds lighter by next month! You are using your willpower to prove that you are stronger and more powerful than those extra cookies and calories. So you say to yourself, “I will not overeat… I will not overeat… You repeat this to yourself over and over again, using your willpower. But all the time you are consciously saying this, your imagination is visualizing how great those cookies smell, and telling you how great those cookies taste. Sooner or later you will grab those cookies or extra calories and chug them down. Why?

Despite having both the motivation and the know-how to get things done, you’re confused as to why you can’t seem to accomplish your goals. At the end of each week, each month, or each year you look back and feel guilty about all that you didn’t check off your to-do list, and you wonder if it’s because something is wrong with yourself, or that maybe you don’t have enough willpower to reach the huge goals you set for yourself.

I have done enough research on it and today, I’m here to tell you that nothing is wrong with you or me, and that willpower is overrated.

Why We Can’t Rely On Willpower

“You will have to choose your willpower battles wisely.”

Studies have shown that we do have a type of reserve for willpower, a fuel tank, if you will, that can run low and cause us to avoid accomplishing tasks, going to the gym, or even yelling at someone in traffic on the freeway. Since you run your business 24/7/365, you have to know which tasks are worthy of using your willpower and which can be made automatic so you can save that precious resource.

Whenever you have a conflict between willpower and your imagination, whenever they are pulling in opposite directions, your imagination will ALWAYS win! But if your willpower and imagination are working together, pulling toward the SAME goal, this will create an all-powerful force that is impossible to overcome, and success is always the automatic, inevitable result.

You Have More Control Over The Situation Than You Think

Instead of feeling bad about how much willpower you don’t have, concentrate on what you can change. Do not forget that you do have control over how you organize your environment, the habits you build, and the routines you create for yourself to get work done.

1. Design Your Ideal Environment

Remember that our brain is very adept in picking up all sorts of visual cues from the environment around us. For example,

  • If you usually work from home, don’t work near a bed which is not made. You will be tempted to lie down for a while more frequently than concentrating on the work at your hand.
  • Use Post-it notes everywhere to remind your brain about the important goals or milestones of your life that you still need to achieve.
  • Organize your desk. Make it more tempting to work.
  • Uninstall apps like Facebook or Netflix from your phone if you are ending up wasting a lot of time on them.

In short, remove all the distractions from your environment so that your brain does not have to make such trivial decisions all the time and therefore, use your limited willpower reserve.

2. You Are A Creature Of Habit

I cant stress enough on this point. There are things that you do on a daily basis, like brushing your teeth, taking the dog for a walk, or catching up with your significant other over breakfast. These are practices that you do on a regular basis that you don’t have to actively think about. In fact, they’re so ingrained that you exert little, if any, mental energy to do them and that’s beneficial because then you get to spend all your willpower to take more important decisions. Let me explain more on this.

  • Instead of thinking about losing 50 lbs, you might want to create a routine of going to gym every Monday, Wednesday, Friday at 6pm after work.
  • Instead of thinking about becoming a writer ‘one day’, you might want to create a routine to write only 100 words every day.
  • Instead of thinking about joining the famous 5AM club ‘some day’, you might want to create a routine to wake up only 10 mins earlier than the day before.

My favorite quote from Aristotle:

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

Almost all the successful people on this earth have some sort of routines in their lives. Some of them eat the same breakfast everyday where as some of them wear the same dress at work everyday. When you create routines, it becomes easier to estimate what you can accomplish each day, which allows you to be more productive today and in the long-term.

3. Discipline is a Far Superior Alternative

Discipline elicits positive behavior by adhering to a set of rules, while willpower elicits positive behavior by exerting effort to resist impulse. When you consider that difference, you realize that discipline and willpower are in fact complementary — if you have more discipline, you actually need less willpower.

Here’s a quick hypothetical scenario to demonstrate this:

Willpower: There’s a box of cookies sitting on the kitchen counter, and I must resist them every time I walk past.

Discipline: The rule is no junk food in the house so I’ll never see the cookies and subsequently think about them in the first place.

When I say the word ‘willpower’, what comes to mind? Probably a person, staring at a plate of cookies, showing visible signs of pain as they perpetually resist grabbing one.

When I think of the disciplined soldier, I imagine a blank faced person simply moving along with the metaphorical current created by the set of rules they must follow. The rules are external – they don’t need to think or worry about them. The soldier simply moves with the rules, like a raft on a river, almost effortlessly. They demonstrate strict discipline, yet the actual behavior is thoughtless and automatic.

The key point: Being highly disciplined actually requires very little mental energy and effort which makes life easier.

Another scenario,

Willpower: I know I need to go to the gym, but I’m tired and want to lie around, ugh, ok, c’mon, gotta get going…

Discipline: I go to the gym every Tuesday at 6pm after work, looks like it’s time to go.

OK, One more,

Willpower: Ugh, I don’t want to get up, I’ll snooze it once (rinse and repeat 10 times, you’re not fooling anyone)

Discipline: My loud ass alarm is blaring across the room. I literally cannot go back to sleep. I have no choice but to get up to turn it off.

Got it?

Concluding Summary

Willpower can be a great starting point. In the beginning it will take some willpower in order to resist having that extra slice of cake or whatever other activity you are trying to change. But relying strictly on willpower is a losing battle. Eventually you are going to run out. Using willpower creates an enormous mental and emotional strain, and at some point everyone breaks and breaks hard, undoing all of the good they may have done.

Instead, using a system of rules and routines is much more conducive to success than excessive exertion of will is — discipline works with your inherent inclinations, and willpower works against them.

So next time you feel like your lack of motivation or willpower are holding you back, take a second and look a little harder. Have you done everything you can to set yourself up for success? Do you have a specific plan of attack, with clearly defined goals? If not, take a step back and create a plan first. I promise it will take you a lot further than willpower and motivation ever will on their own.



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I am a Software Engineer by profession. I'm ever curious to find the latest technology in the field and put it to good use. Quite a bit of my free time goes to learn different tools and technology.I enjoy development for Linux, building/leading teams, and contributing to different open source projects. Even though I have a very wide range of interests when it comes to build software, my current focus is on Frontend development. I am thrilled to work with HTML,CSS,JS, JQuery and Ajax like concepts. I also love to read, write, travel and cook.

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