Are you lacking willpower or is it something else?

by | Jun 23, 2022

We hear it from experts and lay people all the time to not stress so much, eat healthy, exercise and go to bed early. To not take things personally, not drink too much, and avoid sweets and unhealthy foods.

We’re told that to reach success, good health, have good relationships and even be a good human being, we have to have good willpower and self-control.

It’s often expected that we simply resist our temptations and bad habits to get the results we want.

If you’ve tried this, and find it hard to fight off your temptations and impulses to do what you know you “shouldn’t” be doing, you’re not alone.

One of the biggest things I’ve learned from being part of the Self-Regulation and Goal Pursuit Lab, reading the work of leading experts like Dr. Stuart Shanker, and from working closely with my own clients, is that self-control is not meant to be your dominant strategy when it comes to getting long-term results, or living your life for that matter.

It’s a strategy that’s hard, stressful, and often requires you to fight against thousands of years of human evolution, and how your physiological and psychological systems work.

Although certainty necessary at times, I believe that the best solutions don’t go against your basic nature, but rather work with it.

Understanding self-control

Self-control is a self-regulation strategy where you inhibit your emotions, thoughts, or behaviours when unwanted impulses or temptations arise (Diamond, 2013). And you do this to get a desired outcome.

In other words, self-control is when you effortfully hold yourself back from doing something that you know you’ll regret later, to get closer to something that you want.

For example, you’re really tempted to scroll on your phone, but redirect yourself to finish that tedious, but important, project instead. Or you’re upset with your partner and about to explode, but you hold yourself back from saying hurtful things to maintain harmony. Another example is when you really want pizza, but you resist and get a salad instead to stay fit.

Although self-control has been linked to numerous positive outcomes and is important to use at times, it’s often not the best strategy for long term goals or for sustainable behaviour change. Especially when it comes to your bigger, more difficult goals.

Why self-control may not work for your long-term goals and sustainable behaviour change

There are 2 main limitations to using self-control that are really important to note. That is:

1) Self-control uses up a lot of energy in your body.

Your body needs energy to do anything and everything. At any given point in time, you’re either thinking, feeling, or doing things that create energy, free up energy, or use energy in your body.

When you’re effortfully fighting off impulses and temptations, it uses your body’s energy source, which is glucose (i.e., blood sugar). This energy source is limited, so your body needs to prioritize where it goes. Especially when it’s not being replenished properly – for example by resting, proper nutrition, or by doing things that are fun and enjoyable.

The brain is a high-energy organ that runs on glucose. Some researchers have suggested that using self-control depletes the glucose faster than it can be replenished.

This is something self-control researchers have long been wrestling with as a major problem. They have found that when you exert self-control towards any given task, you often can’t maintain the same level of self-control shortly afterwards, even if the task is unrelated (i.e., Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Muraven and Tice, 1998; Dorris, Power, & Kenefick, 2012).

Experts call this ego depletion.

In the past two decades, many studies have built a case for this depletion effect. For example, finding that participants that suppress themselves while watching an emotional movie have less physical stamina compared to those who don’t suppress. Or, that people who actively inhibit their thoughts perform worse on an unrelated follow-up inhibition test (Muraven et al., 1998).

This suggests that your performance goes down when you keep using effortful self-control. And that using self-control diminishes your ability to withstand the next temptation or impulse, in any given situation.

So if you’re effortfully holding yourself back from eating that delicious pizza because you’re on a diet, you’re then not able to hold yourself back as well when you’re angry with your partner, or able to give as much effort on a difficult project that you need to submit.

This might be the reason you’re so tired all of the time.

Take a second to take that in. Using self-control is taxing and takes away from your overall capacity.

2) Using self-control doesn’t get rid of the actual problem.

Anytime you feel that you need to use self-control, there is an existing dilemma. You have competing desires that create a state of tension (i.e., resistance, temptations) inside of you.

This often happens when you hold attitudes and beliefs that contradict what you’re trying to achieve.

Two common ways that we do this is by:

a) Attaching something negative to a required behaviour (what you have to do that will ultimately benefit you).

For example, you need to finish a project but in the back of your mind you’re thinking about how unfulfilling, tedious, hard, or painful it is to do the work. You might be uncertain if your efforts will pay off; you might be thinking that you’re not doing a good job, or about other people’s negative thoughts and judgements about it.

The real problem here is that you are attaching a negative thought, emotion, or experience to the action that you need to take to successfully reach your goal.

This creates a state of resistance. You can think of it as your mind putting on the gas pedal on one end (“I want to do this”), but also putting on the brakes on the other end (“I don’t want to/shouldn’t do this”). This is what self-control is trying to override.

b) Attaching something positive to the unwanted behaviour.

For example, you need to be patient and wait to see results but you’re thinking you’ll get to your goal faster if you skip a few steps, or you’re thinking about how good it’ll feel to do that thing you’re not suppose to do; thinking about how you’ll feel more relaxed or confident with the unwanted course of action.

The real problem here is that you are attaching a positive thought, emotion, or experience to the action/behaviour that you should not be doing.

This creates temptation in your mind and a pull towards the unwanted behaviour. Again, it’s like putting one foot on the gas pedal (“I want to do this”), but at the same time putting the other foot on the brakes (“I don’t want to/shouldn’t do this”). This is what your self-control is trying to override.

As the analogy suggests, this is not the fastest way to get to where you want to go, having one foot on the brakes while forcing yourself to drive forward. You will likely wear out your breaks and do some damage in the process.

In a recent longitudinal multi-design study, two prominent researchers assessed self-control and temptations in the real world (as appose to a lab study) and how it impacts reaching your goals (Milyavskaya & Inzlicht, 2017). They found strong evidence that effortful self-control was not a defining factor for participant’s goal progress, and was ineffective in meeting long-term goals. Experiencing temptations alone had a direct effect on participants being depleted and why their performance went down.

This suggests that using self-control may not be the best strategy for your long-term goals.

What are better methods that have been shown to work?

Here are 5 ways that you can reach your goals more effectively and with less effort:

1) Avoid the temptation – this means try to create conditions that will lessen or eliminate the unwanted urge. This can look like putting your phone away in another room while you work, or staying away from places where you’ll run into the temptation. Think about how you can create conditions where you can avoid the problem from arising in the first place.

2) Create certainty – Try using a technique psychologists call an “implementation intention.” This is basically having a plan of action for the temptation/impulse before it occurs. For example, if you have trouble controlling yourself when angry, you might decide ahead of time that you will walk away before you say something you’ll regret. Or if you’re trying to avoid drinking, you might tell yourself before a social gathering that if anyone offers you a drink that you’ll ask for sparkling water with lime instead.” This way the decision’s already made and you’re not required to exert mental willpower at the spot.

3) Form Habits – Developing good habits allow you to no longer need to draw on your willpower to maintain the desired behaviour. Habits are automatic behaviours that are formed through routines, and require little decision making power. Aim to create healthy routines to free up mental energy, and make your goals less effortful to manage.

4) Align yourself with what you want – In many cases, if you get rid of the contradictory information in your mind, you won’t need to use self-control. This will help you not only prevent feeling so tired and depleted, but also likely increase your energy.

You can do this by aligning your thoughts, emotions, and behaviours to be consistent with what you want to achieve. You’ll find that when you do this, the right behaviours will naturally follow.

For example, if you’re struggling with a particular task/routine, try thinking, feeling and creating positive experiences around those things. And negative thoughts and feelings for the behaviour that does not align with your goal.

The way I learned to excel in research methods and statistics (necessary skills to have in psychology- but what most people find painful, tedious, and boring), was that I started telling myself that I love doing stats. I started finding interesting and useful applications for it. I started amping myself up and making the material meaningful to me. You’ll find me reading things out loud, engaging my hands, and my emotions by asking questions.

This might seem like it’s a lot of work, but because positive thoughts and emotions are energizing, you’ll actually find yourself having more energy.

5) Make the process enjoyable – Know that if there is someone out there that’s enjoying what you need to do- whether that’s doing stats, your dishes, being patient, or eating healthy- that there must be something in it to enjoy! Be open-minded and just consider that there might be something that you’ve missed in the process that will make the task more enjoyable for you.

I used to look at people who did math and it would hurt my brain thinking about how anyone could like numbers. But after putting the intention to enjoy it, and aligning my thoughts and engaging my emotions, I have learned to genuinely love it.

The same goes for when I do the dishes- I think about how great it feels to have an empty sink.

When I drive in traffic – I reflect on my day and have uninterrupted “me time”. When I get impatient waiting for a proposal to follow through – I do things in between that I truly enjoy while waiting. When I eat healthy foods – I think about nourishing and taking care of my body.

This isn’t about “tricking” yourself, but genuinely changing your focus and your experience to benefit you.

For the past 7 years, I’ve been eating healthy and I rarely crave unhealthy foods. I attach positive thoughts and feelings to healthy foods I eat, and negative thoughts and feelings to unhealthy foods. I enjoy eating healthy because I’ve created that experience for myself.

This isn’t to say you, or I, will never have temptations or need to resort to using self-control. However, when you notice the temptation, address the thoughts, emotions, and experience around it. It makes everything so much easier and more enjoyable.

Pick one of the 5 methods suggested above that speak the most to you to prevent overusing your willpower. Try it out this week!

Leyla Bagheri
Leyla Bagheri
Founder of LB Well-Being Performance Inc.
Well-Being and Performance Coach
Psychology Research Advisor

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