Rethinking Willpower

Broccoli and a donut

We’re approaching the start of another new year, when we start to plan for big changes in our habits and behaviors. But by February or March, most of those plans have failed and we’re back to where we started. Why?

Many people say a lack of willpower is their most significant barrier to making positive changes in their lives. Oftentimes this becomes an all-or-nothing belief, where willpower is something external to us, that we either have or don’t have. In fact, the opposite is true. Rather, it’s all about balance, and reworking our approach to our goals and expectations.

At its essence, willpower is really self-control – the ability to delay gratification, resisting short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals. It’s long-term satisfaction winning out over instant gratification. It’s the conscious, effortful regulation of the self, by the self.

“Instant gratification takes too long.” — Carrie Fisher

Setting Goals and Expectations

When we set a goal, we intrinsically establish expectations for ourselves in working toward and achieving that goal.  What often happens is that we set our expectations too high. When we then can’t quite reach them, it feels like we’ve failed. We become discouraged and decide to just give up.

Having lower expectations makes it more likely that the actual outcome will exceed those expectations. When we exceed our own expectations, we feel happy. This happiness creates an intrinsic reward – and rewards are a major component in building new behaviors and habits.

As a classic Type A Perfectionist, I had a difficult time with this at first. But to my surprise, after I got over the initial hurdle of doing “less” I didn’t feel like I was lowering my expectations at all. I felt like I was simply being more realistic about how much I could accomplish given the amount of time, energy, and desire I had. I felt much less overwhelmed and felt a lot better about myself overall.

Lower Means Smaller

Lowering your expectations doesn’t mean believing you’re not capable of anything, or having negative or self-limiting beliefs – such as the person who says “I can never be on time for anything” and regularly lives up to that belief (to the endless frustration of her family and friends).

Instead, it means modifying those expectations by breaking things down into smaller, achievable steps. Almost anything can become doable if you break it down into a process.

I used to look at all of the big goals I wanted to achieve in life and immediately become overwhelmed. Now when I take on a big goal, I break it down into “micro-movements” that are easy to achieve. [Check this out: The Micro Movement Method]  With this method, I can achieve pretty much anything. It’s simply a matter of being reasonable about how long something is going to take, as well as being honest with myself about how much I actually want to do that thing.

Is That Goal Really Yours?

If you’re feeling frustrated about all the things you’re not doing—especially big, time-consuming activities — ask yourself if you really want to do this, or just think you should. Is it really something you desire for yourself — or are you doing it for someone else because they think you should?

Here’s a thoughtful exercise to help you dig down into the real motivation behind a goal. It’s called “The Five Why’s.”  Try it on your own, with a trusted friend, or a neutral third party like a coach. (If you’re doing it on your own, write everything down.)

First, state your goal. Then ask why you want to achieve that goal. Then ask the why behind your answer. Keep asking why at least five times until you get to the underlying motivation for that goal. Here’s an example:

[48 year old woman] I want to lose weight.

Why? Well, I just don’t feel good at this weight.

Why don’t you feel good at this weight? Because I can’t wear the clothes I used to, or dress up and go out with my husband.

Why is wearing those clothes and going out important to you? My husband and I used to go out a lot before we had kids. But now…we just don’t.

So why is that an issue for you? It just feels like a lot of the magic is gone, you know?

And why does that bother you? I just really miss those times. Now with the kids, we’re so busy and overscheduled…and I worry that he doesn’t find me attractive anymore. So I guess I just want some of that back.

This final why is her real motivation for wanting to lose weight. She can now tap into that when her self-control begins to wane, visualizing those positive images and feelings of attractiveness she once had, and can have again.

So as you plan your New Year’s Resolutions, keep these in mind:

  • Modify your expectations so you’re ensured of success
  • Break down your goal into micro-movements you can easily accomplish
  • Be brutally honest about how much time and energy each action requires
  • Make sure your goal is really yours, and not someone else’s

I’m a Fitness and Nutrition Coach who’ll work with you virtually to help you transform your health and fitness. I take a holistic approach to my clients’ wellness through strength training, cardiovascular exercise, real life/behavior-based nutrition strategies and recovery techniques. Contact me here or follow my blog at

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