Willpower: What You Need to Know to Reach Your Goals

“Gosh, I don’t think I have the willpower for that.”

We hear that all the time.

Perhaps it’s something you find yourself saying quite a bit. Or something you hear other people saying.

If only you had the willpower to eat healthy.

If only you had the willpower to exercise regularly.

If only you had the willpower to forgo the treat table at work.

If only you had the willpower, your entire life would be different!

But the secret is, you can absolutely strengthen your willpower. Plus, willpower isn’t the ultimate element to reaching your goals anyway!

To explain what I mean, let’s start with what willpower is and does. You probably have a vague idea of what it means, but to really master it, you need to know what’s at the core of willpower.

What exactly is willpower?

Willpower is the ability to forgo short-term benefits for better long-term benefits. Basically, willpower is your ability to delay gratification.

For example, forgoing cupcakes at a birthday party, pizza at a work get-together, and candy at a candy shop will give you better weight loss results in the future.

Three truths about willpower:

Fact #1 Your willpower wears down over the course of a day. Each decision you make over the course of a day withdraws willpower from your willpower bank. In other words, the more choices you have to make a day, the fewer reserves of willpower you have to draw from.

Fact #2 However, willpower can be strengthened as it’s practiced each day. Each day you practice self-control, your willpower bank balance starts over with a little bit of interest. There’s more to draw from. You get better at it. It’s like a muscle that gets stronger by strength training it over time.

Fact #3 You don’t need more time or anything outside yourself to strengthen willpower. It’s also untrue that you don’t have any willpower. Everything you need to strengthen your willpower is inside of you. You just need to know how to use it.

Fact #4 Willpower is only one component of creating lasting change: Your reason for making the change (your “why”) and taking time to track progress are just as important as willpower. If your “why” is strong enough and you regularly track your progress, you won’t need to depend on willpower quite as heavily.

So, now that we have some background on willpower, what do you have to do to get better at it? And how can you use willpower to achieve your goals?

How to harness your willpower:

Revisit your “why.” Write down your reasons for making any changes you want to make. Create a vision board. Whatever you need to do to really key in on your why. Your why needs to be compelling enough to forgo instant gratification for your desired final outcome, even if it seems far off. Some meaningful “whys:”

  1. To prevent a disease that you’ve seen rip apart your family.
  2. To have more stamina to enjoy the things you love like your children, canoeing, snowshoeing, running, etc.
  3. To start your own fitness-related business or teach a class.
  4. To reverse the early markers of diabetes.

Track your progress. Remember, tracking progress is one of the three elements of making lasting change, in addition to willpower and a meaningful “why.” Tracking progress makes you take notice of changes you may have missed. Seeing those changes fuels you to keep going. Tracking your progress might mean:

  1. Taking weekly pics of your body to notice subtle changes.
  2. Taking body measurements to see how many inches you’ve lost or gained.
  3. Retrying an exercise each week to see how far you’ve progressed. How many pushups can you do now? How long can you hold that plank? Can you reach your toes this time?

Add a distraction. any time you feel your willpower waning, take a little break. If the cupcakes on the treat table are calling to you, take a 15 minute walk to distract yourself. If you still want the cupcake when you come back, you can have it. But 9 times out of 10, you won’t want it anymore. You may have just been reacting to boredom or stress. The walk will take care of those so the cupcake doesn’t have to.

Play the out of sight, out of mind game. In several studies, when treats were placed in plain sight, participants had a harder time resisting them. What that means for you: if junk food is hard for you to resist, keep it off the countertops and replace it with fresh fruit. If the work candy dish distracts you, put it in another aisle and stock your drawers with healthy snacks. Put the healthy stuff in front of your face and the unhealthy stuff out of sight.

Put together a few if-then statements. Think about the scenarios that always trip you up when you’re trying to reach your health and fitness goals. Then, create a Plan B to put in place instead. Like this:

  • If a coworker brings cupcakes to celebrate their birthday, then I will share half with a friend.
  • If my morning workout class gets cancelled, then I’ll bike to work instead.
  • If I’m invited to a potluck, then I’ll make sure to bring a healthy main dish.

These if-then statements help keep you from succumbing to your default (i.e. eating all.the.cupcakes, skipping the workout, overeating on garbage). These Plan B’s give you more successful alternatives. If you use these if-then plans, then you won’t have to rely on willpower.

These tactics will empower you to take charge of your willpower, starting now! Since you now know the “I don’t have the willpower” excuse doesn’t work, you have permission to train your willpower right along with your biceps.

Source: American Psychological Association