The Problem with Willpower

by Nelly Uhlenkott on February 1, 2013

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Willpower is the ability to control your own behaviour; the strength to carry out a task or to hold back from acting on your impulses.

Willpower is talked about most frequently in the context of pushing ourselves to do mundane tasks that we’re not excited about (sometimes requiring us to overcome procrastination), or stopping ourselves from engaging in an activity that appears pleasurable but has been deemed “bad” (such as drinking alcohol or eating a second piece of cake).

Recently, there has been a growing movement that views willpower as the key to success in life. After all, there are lots of things in our day-to-day lives that may not excite us, but that need to be completed. There are also lot of temptations out there that may interfere with our plans. The more you can focus and push yourself to do what’s necessary and avoid stumbling blocks, the faster you can progress with your career goals (and be healthier, fitter, richer, and have a cleaner house in the process), right?

Not so fast – it’s not that simple.

Willpower is not the magic bullet people claim it to be, propelling us forward and through any obstacles in our path. In fact, striving to have more willpower may be hurting both your progress towards your goals, and your overall wellbeing.

How did the idea of “willpower” gain so much momentum?

When we see others sitting down to do a task without procrastinating, or waking up early to go for a run, or saying “no” to the donuts at a morning meeting, our tendency is to think, ‘that person has so much willpower! I would be so much better off if I had that much discipline’.

But those “disciplined” people aren’t having to use willpower at all. Likewise, willpower isn’t what drives successful people to pour huge amounts of time and energy into their projects.

People who appear to have willpower actually have personally meaningful passions or goals that they’re working towards. They don’t use willpower to force themselves to complete tasks (or to abstain from something) – they’re not “driven”, they’re inspired because they have a strong interest in something or gain meaning and purpose from the project or cause. The boring or unpleasant tasks along the way become easier to handle because they have a personally important, bigger picture goal in site – the tasks along the way are merely stepping stones.

But I have a meaningful goal and I’m still struggling to push through my to-do list. Why? 

The first question worth asking is “whose goal is it?” Is your goal really something that’s important or meaningful to you?

It may well be that the answer is “yes” but that you’re still struggling with procrastination or to stay on track. Even with a bigger goal in mind, the steps along the way can be challenging at times. But willpower is not the solution. In fact, if you’re trying to use willpower to overcome stagnation, you’re probably doing yourself more harm than good.

For most people, willpower involves being harsh with themselves, berating or punishing themselves; it’s more stick than carrot. People may say to themselves, “come on, just get on with this already. Stop being lazy, stop slacking off” or “what’s wrong you you, you still haven’t done [X]”, or “I can’t believe I ruined my diet with that cake. I can’t do something that stupid again”.

What we refer to as “willpower” usually relies on using self-criticism to keep ourselves on track. Self-criticism may feel like it keeps us going, but is ultimately self-defeating. A self-compassionate approach is what allows people to overcome obstacles. Unlike willpower, which involves “forcing” yourself to keep going, self-compassion involves being gentle to yourself, putting mistakes in perspective and showing yourself empathy, taking a balanced approach to your work, and taking breaks when you need them (following your natural rise and fall in energy and “drive”).

If I’m self-compassionate, I’ll never get anything done. I need willpower!

Research has shown that people who are self-compassionate are more motivated, have higher energy levels, accomplish more, procrastinate less, are more creative, and have more success with goals like weight loss and even career progression than people who are self-critical.

If you berate yourself to try and summons willpower, you’re more likely to fall into procrastination and self-sabotaging activities. It becomes a vicious circle; the worse you feel about yourself for it, the more of your energy will be tied up in self-criticism and self-defeating activities, leaving little left for accomplishing your goals.

Do self-compassionate people never get “stuck” or feel like they need a push? Of course not – we all have hard days. Someone who rolls out of bed early every morning for a run because they find personal purpose and meaning in the goal of running a marathon may still want to fight with their alarm clocks some days. But they are motivated to get up by reminding themselves of their goal, not by criticising themselves. Willpower doesn’t come into play; they aren’t forcing themselves to do something they don’t want to, they’re reminding themselves of why they set their alarm in the first place. And if they do keep sleeping, they don’t treat themselves harshly for it afterwards, they find a way to get back on track because it’s something important to them.

People who achieve success do often work hard and may appear disciplined from the outside. But what gets them there isn’t willpower, it’s passion, excitement, and self-compassion. Trying to mimic the motivation and excitement of others through cultivating willpower and forcing yourself to keep going is an exhausting recipe for burnout and self-criticism rather than the key to success.

The best recipe for success is to encourage yourself to make the move from being “driven” to being “inspired”.

The team at Paul the Counsellor offers confidential, non-judgemental, supportive counselling and psychotherapy for individuals and couples in the Melbourne CBD.

0458 090 687
253 Lonsdale St, Melbourne VIC 3000

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