Why You Shouldn’t Always Rely on Willpower to Be Successful

We’ve all needed to rely on sheer willpower at some point in our lives to stop us from doing something we don’t really want to. It might be:

  • To not use substances at a social event
  • To not eat chocolate in January when we’re fresh into our new years’ resolutions
  • To not go into the shop and buy the cake that we’ve seen in the window when walking by
  • To say no if we’re offered a cigarette
  • To not do something when our friends are doing it.

The moment we’re faced with a decision – ‘do I or don’t I’, is quite pivotal. A moment where we can strengthen that habitual thought/the urge that is driven by our lower brain, or a moment where we’ve historically drawn on our willpower to not ‘do it’.

What we may have found is that we’ve been able to use our willpower and behave if you like, in the way that we want to or in a way that helps us keep on track with our goals. Of course, this is amazing and it is a true sign of that strength we often don’t give ourselves enough credit for.

My willpower is tested if I know there is chocolate or in particular, biscuits are in the house. I can easily polish off a whole packet of biscuits – dunking two-at-a-time in a hot drink until I’ve eaten them all!! To deal with that, I remind myself how I feel after I’ve eaten them – bloated, lethargic and regretting eating them in that short period of time.

I think it’s more a case that I say to myself – ‘I’m going to enjoy those biscuits’ as opposed to ‘I really shouldn’t eat them, but I will.’ It is also recognising that I most probably hadn’t eaten biscuits for the couple of months previously so, I need to recognise the control I do have.

“Willpower is the basis of perseverance.” – Napoleon Hill

How to stop bad habits

Over a decade I worked with many individuals who used alcohol, drugs, and other substances on a daily basis. One consistent part of my approach was helping people to realise what they had achieved. For example, if someone I was working with had initially been using their substance every single day, we would always spend time recognising the changes that person had made i.e. using the substance once-per-week, or using via a different and safer route. (So that’s 6 days that we haven’t used – what’s the next step now for you?).

This would be similar for a nicotine smoker who had smoked 20 a day for years and has achieved abstinence for 2 months, before a lapse or relapse. There has been a change and it’s important to recognise it. 

If we affirm ourselves, recognise and notice what we are doing as individuals, as opposed to what we’re not doing – this is powerful in itself. Why shouldn’t we be kind to ourselves? We are quite often our biggest critic after all.

Why you shouldn’t solely rely on willpower

In addition to those affirmations that we can give ourselves and show recognition to ourselves, I wanted to spend some time considering willpower. Although it is a great resource for us to draw on – we are not able to rely on it solely.

This is because it’s something that overrides the initial thought; if you like, we draw on it to hijack our initial thinking of let’s say ‘go on just have one more cigarette it’ll sort you out.’ So, in a sense we’re creating an extra layer of thinking to get us out of the problem. In fact, we need less thinking.

This is more likely/more achievable when we are feeling strong but if we’re not feeling so strong in a given situation i.e. feeling hungry, tired or after an extremely challenging day, willpower is the wrong tool to use.

When is willpower helpful?

Willpower is helpful in that we can break habits through being extremely disciplined, drawing on our resourcefulness; quite often though, this can lead to replacing that habit with another habit at some point. Examples that i’ve seen include – 

  •       Swapping cannabis with alcohol
  •       Swapping smoking for eating chocolate
  •       Swapping cocaine for gambling

Willpower is not always possible, particularly if we have habits that always seem compelling to engage with.

“It’s not that some people have the willpower and some don’t. It’s that some people are ready to change and others are not.” – James Gordon

As I’ve mentioned, when we’re feeling positive and strong, we do have the energy that is required for willpower to be effective. However, as we’re not always feeling strong, the willpower is too inconsistent – we don’t always have the energy for the extra layers of thinking to get ourselves out of a problem.

The more powerful understanding is that the thought we have in the first instance is just a thought. The thought in its entirety will not hurt you, me, or anyone else. It might look like it will, but it won’t.

Isn’t that such a good thing to know? How encouraging for us to know it won’t hurt us – it can’t make us do anything. It is only what we make of the thought, how we relate to it and what energy we give it.

So, using the word will-power again, with the focus on the ‘power’ aspect, there is nothing for us to ‘over-power.’ There is nothing for us to defeat. The thoughts are harmless, they’re formless and they will come and go. 

We don’t need to act, it is an illusion that we think we do need to behave in a particular way. The truth is, we don’t need to do anything – we’re the ones in control. By developing our understanding of our experiences and really seeing how it works, our inner wisdom will come through. That inner voice will guide us to the many other options that we have, not needing to rely on sheer willpower to do the job for us each and every time.

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