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Why Willpower Does Not Work – 5 Simple Remedies To Increase Willpower and Determination

Have you ever set out to start a new habit or goal, but found willpower doesn't work?

How easy is it for you to get yourself out of bed in the morning or resist the temptation to go to Facebook when you are trying to stay focused at work?

Willpower Doesn’t Work For 3 Reasons:

There are 3 significant reasons why willpower doesn't work

  1. Your brain runs out of energy
  2. You have not trained your willpower muscle
  3. Your environment is draining your willpower

#1 Willpower Doesn’t Work Because Your Brain Lacks Energy

In the past, food was not always available. That’s why your ancestors who followed their appetites and impulses had a better chance of survival.

Unfortunately, willpower does not work like it used to because our brains are wired for a world that does not exist anymore.

If you had no food for a while, your blood sugar was low. To your brain, this is an indicator of how likely you were to starve. That means you are wired to find something to eat fast.

If you did not want to starve, you had to take more risks and follow your impulses. Studies show that you are more likely to take ANY kind of risk if you are hungry. 

The best way to avoid depleting your willpower is to make sure that your body is well-fueled with food that gives you lasting energy and keeps your blood sugar steady.

#2 Willpower Doesn’t Work Because Your Never Trained Your “Brain”

Willpower really is like a muscle. This muscle is located in a part of your brain that is called "Your prefrontal cortex." This part of your brain controls your ability to exert impulse control on the actions you want to take.

Just like your real muscles will get weak when you don’t exercise your willpower will get weak if you don’t train your brain.

This has now been proven by neuroscience over the last twenty years. Studies have found that committing to any small, consistent act of self-control can increase your overall willpower. 

Every time you use your willpower muscle you are increasing your ability to control your impulses, and you are growing your willpower reserve.

If you train your willpower muscle to resist browsing Facebook that will build up your willpower just a little bit.

There are more ways that will deplete your willpower. Resit the urge to give in to them or deduce the time you indulge. Even if it's only for a few minutes.

  • Watching Youtube Videos on the Internet
  • Snacking
  • Drinking alcohol
  • Taking drugs
  • Smoking
  • Playing Video games
  • Watching Porn
  • Watching Television
  • Create Mini-Willpower Challenges that are not related to your primary goal.
  • Improve your posture
  • Take a deep breath every hour
  • Make a compliment to someone
  • Maintain eye contact with someone you don’t know
  • Talk to someone you don’t know
  • Take the stairs
  • ...
Why Willpower Does Not Work

When willpower does not work for you yet, find those little opportunities throughout the day and do something you would usually not do.

Over time you’re going to develop more willpower in areas that you really care about like focusing at work, taking good care of your health, resisting temptation and being in control of your emotions.

Just like you would with pumping your real muscles every form of exercise will help a little bit. (Hint because of it benefits physical activity is probably the best thing you could do to increase willpower in all areas of your life).

#3 Willpower Doesn’t Work Because Your Environment Is Draining Your Willpower

One of the primary reasons why willpower doesn't work is because your environment is destroying your ability to control your impulses. Recent research shows that people who appear to have a lot of self-control design their environment.

It turns out that people with more willpower are not that different from those who are struggling with self-control. It’s best to structure your life in a way that does not require tremendous willpower and self-control.

In other words, try to spend less time in tempting situations. For example when working online you can block distracting websites.  It’s easier to reach your goals when you don’t have to rely on willpower very often.

You could dramatically increase your willpower by radically changing your environment.

One group of people were willpower clearly does not work are heroin addicts. The relapse rates of drug addicts are around the 90 percent range.

In Vietnam, soldiers spent all day being bored and frighted. Heroin was easy to come by, and they were thousands of miles from home. But once a soldier returned to the United States, he could overcome his addiction. As James Clear stated approximately nine out of ten soldiers who used heroin in Vietnam eliminated their dependence on heroin nearly overnight.

When the context changed, heroin addiction was not a willpower and self-control death trap but a challenge most soldiers could overcome.

What To Do When Willpower Doesn't Work

When willpower doesn’t work, find strength by tapping into hidden sources of motivation.

For your biggest willpower challenge or goal consider these 3 questions:

  1. How will you benefit from succeeding at this challenge?

    Think about the payoff for you personally. Maybe you'll make a few hundred buck extra, fit into that cute bikini you bought last summer or get that high paying job.

  2. Who else will benefit if you succeed at this challenge?

    There are probably more people who will benefit if you succeed. How does following through influence your family, friends, coworkers, employees or employer, and community? How would your success help them?

  3. Imagine that this challenge will get easier for you over time if you are willing to do what is difficult now. Think about what your life would look like and how you will feel about yourself, as you make progress? Isn't some discomfort now worth the return you'll get if you know it is only a temporary part of your development?

Engineer positive & negative feedback to develop more willpower:

Increasing willpower does not always mean to push through. Maybe you can increase the pull? For example when you want to write something make it more enjoyable, with a cup of coffee and some music.

If you want to meditate, focus on the stress relief, not what makes it difficult. Additionally, you could create a charming and calm place that you go for your meditation session.

Do the same when you are not following through with your willpower challenge. If willpower does not work, what's the consequence?

Usually, nothing. Maybe you could use a service like Beeminder or Stickk to really make sure you tap into some unknown motivation reserves.

5 Simple Remedies To Increase Willpower and Determination

When you find yourself saying: “But I don’t have the willpower!”

Yes, you do. Everyone does, but they just don't know how it works. Try these tricks, so you have no excuses:

  1. Pay attention to the urge. Your willpower will deplete when you let them go unnoticed. Pay attention.
  2. Wait a minute or two before you give in. Urges come in waves. They build up like a wave, they get strong, then they break and go away. Just waiting a few minutes is usually all it takes. 
  3. Try deep breathing. Take a few deep breaths. You will feel the anxiety, tightness in your chest go away. Taking a few long and slow breaths will bring you back to the moment and relieve your tension.
  4. Move. Walk around a bit, do a few pushups or jump up and down. Even intense workouts cannot undo the damage of sitting for hours on end. Try to aim for at least 5 minutes of movement every hour. 
  5. Give yourself little treats/rewards. It can work wonders to reward yourself with a pat on the shoulder or even watching a funny Youtube video.

Use these simple tricks to increase your willpower. Remember that "common sense is not always common practice."

  • How often have you moved today?
  • How many deep breaths did you really take?

Ideally, you change your environment to support these tricks and set reminders.

Increase Willpower And Determination

And the miracle is, if you can do this for a few days in a row, you'll be past the worst struggle. You'll build up your willpower muscle so it will start to get stronger and stronger, until your willpower challenge it will become incredibly easy to succeed.

Be mindful of the urges beware of justifying your bad behavior when willpower does not work. Our brains are very, very good at explaining immediate gratification.

The Most Important Trick To Increase Your Willpower 


Pay attention. This is the most important trick, and it doesn't take a master of willpower to do it.

We’re all capable of paying attention.

Naturally increasing willpower is a matter of paying attention and designing your environment to support your decisions.

Use some easy tricks to overcome the forces that work against you.

Willpower exists, but its importance has been built up in our minds so that when we fail at something, we say “Willpower doesn't work."

           

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Martin Boeddeker
 

Martin Boeddeker is the founder of FindFocus.net, the One-Page Productivity Planner and the mind behind the FindFocus Distraction Blocker for Mac. He studied industrial engineering and management in Germany and worked for some of the biggest companies in the world. With FindFocus he wants to help people to get rid of what he calls DigitalADD so they focus on the things that truly matter in life.

  • Nigel says:

    I personally believe that Willpower / Self-control are quite different things. Avoiding an urge, is very different from executing on a new intention IMO.

    Although an urge can derail a new intention, it is usually habitual action which derails a new intention – sometimes that habit is driven by an urge, usually it is simply just a habit.

    There’s some research to support this distinction, some of which was picked up in a Vox article in December:
    https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2018/1/15/16863374/willpower-overrated-self-control-psychology

    Your article oscillates between those two objectives – new intention or active intention and self-control.

    Small habit-building is a really powerful tool for avoiding the need for willpower – whether it is actioning new intentions or avoiding behaviours you want to eliminate. Building the habits makes the actions automatic, requiring no willpower once established. Which in turn frees up willpower (such that it might exist) to focus on the next habit change.

    • Martin Boeddeker says:

      Hi Nigel,

      you are absolutely right.

      They are different things. But even willpower can be separated into 3 categories.

      In her “Willpower Instinct” Kelly McGonigal refers to 3 different types of willpower:

      “I will”: Something you would like to do more of because it will improve the quality of your life.

      “I won’t”: Something you want to give up because it’s undermining your health, happiness, and success.

      “I want”: A long-term goal you want to achieve in the future. Here you need to think about want immediate “want” is most likely to distract you from this goal.

      I highly recommend this book if you are interested to dive deeper into this topic.

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