The Myth of Willpower

This post is tangen­tially related to my recent posts about the rela­tion­ship between fail­ing and change and road­blocks to change. Like most of you I’ve read a fair number of self help arti­cles online and while there’s often a core concept that has value it’s gener­ally presented with­out any real effort to show you how you might achieve it. One of the most common traps the arti­cles fall into is believ­ing that you can achieve things via willpower alone.

Willpower is Not Enough

There are a number of stud­ies out that show people have a finite amount of willpower avail­able to them at any one time. The more things they have to split that willpower amongst, the less effec­tive it is for each indi­vid­ual thing.

This isn’t a major prob­lem for short term activ­i­ties (which is prob­a­bly what will power was intended to handle) but when you try to address major life changes and you have to apply that willpower for weeks or months. Fail­ure is almost guar­an­teed.

So if Not Willpower, What?

The only way to succeed long term is to adjust your envi­ron­ment to meet your goals. Once again I find myself throw­ing around the word holis­tic. I need to use a thesaurus and find a replace­ment. Chang­ing your envi­ron­ment is at least as diffi­cult as any other sort of change, so again you need to do it grad­u­ally. One small change at a time.

When I say envi­ron­ment I’m talk­ing about both the phys­i­cal envi­ron­ment and the people you surround your­self with. A simple exam­ple would be that it’s very hard to give up smok­ing when you are surrounded by people who keep offer­ing you a ciga­rette. Another would be trying to go on a diet when there’s 2lbs of choco­late in the house. It doesn’t matter how strong your willpower is, you will fail. In the case of people ideally you have people who will not just hinder you, but will actively support you after you’ve told them what you’re doing. They can be harder to find that you would think.

So How Do I Stack Up?

Well, taking the diet theme, because I’ve done that success­fully before. I took the follow­ing envi­ron­men­tal steps to help myself.

  • I didn’t carry cash which elim­i­nated the temp­ta­tion of the vend­ing machines
  • I brought a packed lunch every day which controlled my calo­rie intake at work very effec­tively.
  • At home I asked my wife not to buy certain things which dramat­i­cally reduced evening snack­ing.

On the people front things were a bit more mixed. My wife assisted with my requests, but she didn’t under­stand (or I failed to explain) why I was so deter­mined to lose weight. So while she in no way hindered things, she wasn’t much of a moti­va­tor for this. Which I guess shows the impor­tance of commu­ni­cat­ing clearly about why you do things.

Since I basi­cally don’t have any close real life friends, there were no bad influ­ences to be had there, but also no support of course. What I should prob­a­bly have done (but didn’t) was reach out a little online and get some support from there.

About Eoghann Irving

Overly opinionated owner and author of eoghann.com. You can get updated on his posts directly on the blog here or through the usual social networking suspects. What? You expected me to say something interesting here? That's what the blog posts are for. Eoghann has often wondered if people read these little bio things we have to fill out everywhere on the internet and, assuming they do, why?

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