Why Willpower Doesn’t Work for Lasting Change

By ptesta 06/24/20

Many traditional approaches to behavior change depend upon willpower. If only we had more self-control and discipline, we would be able to stick to our diet or stop reaching for that glass of wine. If only we tried harder, we would be able to make our changes last.

But the truth is, relying on willpower isn’t effective when it comes to altering hard-to-break habits and breaking free from addiction.   

The Problem with Willpower

Willpower is a limited resource. What that means is that over time, as our motivation declines, it will run out. No matter how much individual determination and grit we have, even the most focused among us will have lapses in willpower. This is especially true with habits that are addictive. Our addictive brain takes advantage of the times when we’re stressed, tired, or frustrated. That’s when old patterns of thinking can reemerge that open the door for old habits.

Depending on willpower also means we shoulder all the blame if we can’t stay on track with a resolution to change. When this happens, it’s easy to shame ourselves for not being able to live up to the standards and goals we set for ourselves. It can bring out the self-critic in us. That can further worsen the confidence we have in our ability to break bad habits. It’s easy to mistake a decline in willpower for a sign of weakness.

Ready and Willing to Change

Willingness, on the other hand, is the readiness to make a change. When we’re ready to make a change, it means we’re open and prepared to adopt a different way of doing things to break behaviors that are no longer serving us. It also implies we’ll tolerate any challenges, setbacks, and discomfort that come along in pursuit of our goal. We become committed to the practice of changing our life, even though it won’t be easy. ­Staying the same is comfortable. Change is uncomfortable.

For example, if you’re ready to quit drinking, that might mean making difficult decisions early-on to avoid places and groups of people where alcohol is around. It also involves now having to navigate situations that were once made easier by drinking. When we’re willing, we admit we don’t have all the answers and let go of beliefs and patterns that keep us stuck. That doesn’t mean lapses won’t occur when we’re willing to make a change. They will. But if the decision to transform your life really matters to you, it’s easier to trust the process.

Finding Your ‘Why’

The difference between willpower and willingness isn’t just semantics. When we have willingness to make a change, we have a WHY behind our actions. We’re acting from our values and what’s most important to us. And if you have a why behind a change, you can bear almost any how – we’ll be more able to put up with the pain, fear, frustration, and other difficult emotions that come along with our decision. And that means the changes will be more likely to have staying power.

Source: Testa, P. (2020). Why Willpower Doesn't Work for Lasting Change. Available at patricktesta.com

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