Why don’t I have more willpower?

Statistics show that less than 25% of people are still committed to their New Year Resolutions after 30 days. If you have abandoned yours already, you are definitely not alone.

Is willpower overrated?

You may be bemoaning your lack of willpower, but, it seems that willpower has been rather over-rated as a way of creating change in our lives.

The most famous study into the seeming benefits of willpower was Walter Mischel’s marshmallow test. Mischel asked children to resist the temptation of eating a marshmallow on the promise of getting two later. He then discovered that those who were able to hold back tended to have better outcomes later in life. The study therefore concluded that this was because people with stronger willpower would be better able to save, or plan ahead.

There may be some truth in this, but recently the study has been criticised for potentially confusing correlation with causation. Just because those who exhibited willpower did better in later life, does not mean that willpower was the reason for this. Perhaps those who ate the marshmallow had learnt the hard way that if you don’t take something when it’s offered, you may not get a second chance, while those who were willing to wait came from more comfortable and predictable backgrounds?

It does seem that willpower may have been overrated, and even that it may be something which could run out if we try and use too much at once. This could be why so many people start off the day full of good intentions and end it falling back into old ways.

So, if willpower isn’t the answer, what is?

Generally speaking the answer is to make good choices easy for yourself, rather than to struggle and fail and feel bad about it. Obesity isn’t an issue because everyone has no moral fibre, but because food with high calories and poor nutrition is so cheap and readily available in a way it just wasn’t a few decades ago.

Remove friction.

So, set things up so that your new habit, whatever it is, doesn’t have any ‘friction’, or obstacles in the way. If you can never find your trainers, you’re much less likely to go running than if you always keep them by the door. Try habit stacking so that the new good habit becomes associated with an already established habit. For example, my dog knows that the music at the end of Coronation Street signals time for his evening walk.

Make small incremental changes.

Secondly, don’t try and make big changes all at once. You’ll freak out your Chimp, and cause resistance or even a backlash. Small incremental changes are much more likely to become part of your new normal. Be patient. Rome wasn’t built overnight. Getting impatient and angry with yourself is just another way to self sabotage.

Get to the root.

Finally, if you’re really struggling to change a habit, you need to ask yourself what it really signifies to you. Most entrenched habits are there for a reason. What do you get out of it? For example, maybe you believe the habit relaxes you. Ask yourself if that is really true. Many smokers believe that smoking relaxes them, but it doesn’t- it simply returns them to the state they were in before the withdrawal cravings started. Or overeaters may believe that the food comforts them- but does it really? Whether the belief is false or not, there will always be a better way to relax or find comfort.

You may also find that there are darker reasons for the habit- rather than providing comfort it can be a way of attacking yourself. If this is the case, you may need some help in unpacking it all, and dealing with it. Otherwise you are likely to simply swap one bad habit for another.

A new you?

So, if you’re asking yourself, ‘Why don’t I have more willpower?’, you’re asking the wrong question. None of this has much to do with willpower, and nor is it about becoming a ‘new you’. Somewhere along the way you have acquired unhelpful beliefs and habits, but the real you who didn’t have these is still there underneath. It’s more about identifying and removing the blocks to get back to that you.