Willpower alone is never enough to overcome an obstacle, resist temptation, or reach your destiny. In fact, as the day wears on, it gets weaker the more we use it. You must manage your willpower in order to be effective.

Why Willpower is Not Enough
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You know this all too well if you have ever attempted a strict diet or tried to summon the energy to start your term paper early. Willpower is never enough. But what do you do about that?

The cake

Stay strong. Stay strong. Stay strong.
I repeated that mantra over and over again as the cake in the dining hall called my name. It was my sophomore year in college. I was ranked 14th in the nation by Golfweek Magazine mid-way through the golf season.
During the 8-week winter break, I decided to take my game to the next level and get in the best shape of my life. I’d already lost 15 pounds and had 5 more to go.
On this day, I’d awakened at 6:00 AM, ran 25 gassers (if you don’t know what those are, just know that by gasser #20, I usually vomited), lifted weights, crawled back to the dorm, eaten a healthy breakfast, and made it to class on time. By dinner, I had attended four hours of classes (and stayed awake for at least three of them), hit golf balls for two hours in the cold, and even completed some of my reading for class.
By 6:00 PM, I was tired but I successfully avoided the temptation to break my diet and had no cake. The spring season was four weeks away and I was determined to be in great shape. At 8:00 PM, I raided the vending machine and ate the equivalent of an entire cake.

What happened?

My willpower failed. It’s that simple.
I had denied myself for so long and finally reached the point that I couldn’t take it anymore. Have you ever felt that way?
If I had known then what I know now, I would never have relied on willpower. Any dietician will tell you that willpower alone is never enough to avoid unhealthy foods. Relying on willpower virtually guarantees relapse, as it did in my case.
The same is true regardless of what habit you might be trying to break or skill you might be trying to learn. We believe that we can change our ingrained habits through sheer willpower. And it never works. Here’s why.

Why willpower is not enough

Willpower is similar to a muscle in that the more you use it early in the day, the weaker it is later in the day. Over time, it grows stronger, but the more willpower you use before lunch, the less you will have after dinner.
You may know this instinctively, but there are numerous studies which prove it.
Experiment One
The first, by Roy Baumeister, involves cookies and radishes. He split a group of hungry college students into three groups.

  • Group 1 got a plate of cookies and a plate of radishes. They could not eat the cookies but could wolf down some radishes to their hearts’ delights. Yum.
  • Group 2 got the same plates, cookies and radishes. But they were told to eat from whichever plate they wished.
  • Group 3 received no food at all.

What happens next is fascinating. Baumeister gave each group an impossible-to-solve geometric puzzle. And guess who spent the most time before they threw up their hands and gave up? Groups 2 and 3. Group 1 gave up quickly. Groups 2 and 3 persevered.
But why? They had reserve willpower. Group 1 used it all resisting the cookies.
We are hardwired to crave sweets and most of us were were brought up to enjoy a cookie over a radish. So that is ingrained in us. Overcoming that drains our willpower, saving none for later in the day.
Experiment Two
Baumeister and others made people watch humorous films and told them to suppress their laughter. Imagine watching Tommy Boy and not laughing. They allowed the other group to laugh.
They were then asked to solve a series of challenging anagrams. Again, the group which was allowed to laugh outperformed the group which was not allowed to laugh. They lasted much longer and persisted through difficulty.

An invisible force

It may seem like change is impossible then. There is “an invisible force” constantly pulling you towards the wrong thing and willpower isn’t enough to overcome.
Old habits. The easy road. The familiar. These are easy to give in to. So how do we tap into our willpower when needed and avoid giving in to temptation and weakness? Below are four ways.

4 ways to use willpower effectively

1. Save it.
Save your willpower for when you really need it. Let’s say, hypothetically, that you have 100 units of willpower. Don’t use 90 of them in the morning and afternoon just to resist a single treat. Give in to the treat so that later you have the willpower and energy to make it through a long meeting and to hit the gym.
Fill your morning with activities that don’t require the use of much willpower.
2. One thing at a time.
Don’t try to wake up thirty minutes earlier and lose twenty pounds at the same time. If late night binges are crashing your diet, sleep in and get the rest you need. Save that willpower for later. Once you’ve lost the twenty pounds, then you work on the waking up earlier. (When the time is right, learn how to be a morning person)

3. Fail small.
When I was trying to lose weight, I was good on weekdays. I was busy and active all week. But I gave myself one day off each week. On those days, I was prone to eating entire cakes or pizzas. So I made failing a smaller thing.
I would eat an extra protein bar or make some food that wasn’t terrible for me and pig out on that. I would be so full by 6:00 that I didn’t need willpower. Plan ahead so that you can fail small.
4. Give yourself grace.
You will fail. Even if you plan ahead, some of your failures will be big. You will give in to temptation. Your willpower will disappear when you need it most. What then?
That’s when you need to give yourself grace. Admit the shortcoming, don’t analyze it but do learn from it, and move on. One cake (even an entire one) doesn’t kill a goal. Even the more unhealthy cakes disappear after five or six miles running. Be kind to yourself and get back on track.
Over time, you will strengthen your willpower, but for now focus on managing it with these four tips.
What would you add to this list? How do you manage your willpower effectively?

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0 thoughts on “Why Willpower is Never Enough and What to do About It | Roy Baumeister

  1. Changing one thing at a time is so important. If we try to make many changes at the same time, we are setting ourselves up for failure. Thanks for sharing Matt!

    1. Matt McWilliams says:

      Yep. I think that is one of the two main reasons New Years Resolutions fail, because people set 32 of them.

  2. LadyMcKermit says:

    Hey Matt! This is a great post! We get one night a week to cheat on our paleo diet and no food is off limits. I do find it a struggle but it is extremely helpful to have no guilt about the cheating (when we stick to one day). And yes, not having a bagel at work will sometimes cause me to duck out to Dunkin Donuts and have a donut.. but that one donut is so much better than an entire tube of cookie dough.. small treats help you stay the course. There are days when I don’t work out before work, but I also don’t cheat on the diet. There are days I work out and then I do resist.. but it varies.. the important thing is to follow the principle of one thing at a time!

    1. Matt McWilliams says:

      Just keep it up! That’s what is most important. If you don’t “lose weight” one day a week, I think you’ll live.

  3. Lily Kreitinger says:

    Very true! It’s the all-or-nothing mentality. I blew my diet once, might as well eat the whole cake… and since I did that last weekend, I’ll take all weekends off and on it goes.
    The book “Switch” by Dan and Chip Heath, has helped me understand why this happens. Small changes performed consistently over time will give you the discipline, even when you hate getting up early or eating carrots instead of carrot cake.

    1. Matt McWilliams says:

      Yes! And one small change done well over time becomes routine which means you can add another small change, which becomes a routine, which means…at the end of a year you have 12 new awesome habits.

  4. Zechariah Newman says:

    Great post Matt. I am running a Marathon in June. It is really sucking up my willpower in other areas. Monday is my long run day and I can tell you I don’t get much else done the whole day. Great post.

    1. Matt McWilliams says:

      Consider moving it to mid-week. Early week willpower in force for work, then only 1-2 more days to go. Thursday morning or Wednesday evening depending on when you do it might work best.

      1. Zechariah Newman says:

        Trying Wednesday morning for my 18 mile run this week. I will let you know:)

  5. This reminds me of my friend Barb Raveling (http://barbraveling.com/) she blogs and writes about truth journaling. Will power isn’t enough. God must be involved. His Word has the power to transform our minds and guard our behaviors/thought patterns.

    1. Matt McWilliams says:

      Well said TC. Prayer will overcome lack of willpower any day.

  6. Jana Botkin says:

    What an interesting post to listen to, Mr. Blogger formerly known as Joe-Box-Of-Doughnuts!
    It generated a list of thoughts.
    1. I listened to the Power of Habit and think you might have too. Great book!
    2. Why do all discussions on willpower automatically go to diets? Certainly we must need willpower in other areas. (Working out is almost the same as dieting.)
    3. Procrastination can be your friend in the willpower struggle. Postpone the treat/cheat until you do just one more thing, and then one more, and then one more. Or say “tomorrow I can have/do whatever it is”.
    4. Use a cheat as a reward. If I am working on a commissioned drawing that bores me silly, I allow myself a little knitting break or a peak at email.
    5. Substitute something else – there are some great teas out there that really satisfy the sweet tooth. My current Must Have is Bengal Spice by Celestial Seasonings. Sure, it doesn’t have the texture of cake, but oh my, it is awesome.
    6. Deprivation causes rebellion.
    7. Diets don’t work. That’s why we all have multiple stories of weight losses.

    1. Matt McWilliams says:

      List Lady returns!
      1. I have not actually…it’s on my list though.
      2. Easy to relate to the ubject matter 🙂
      3. Interesting, but great point. Wow.
      4. YES!
      5. Small failures (or not failures at all). Strawberries, Honeycrisp apples, and Bananas are mine.
      6. Indeed.
      7. Funny, but true.

  7. I would add the need to use willpower to toss the junk food out, or to in other ways set the environment. Willpower isn’t good for saying no. But it is good for making a decision to make the easiest path the one you actually would like to do. When a lot of your life is protected by pre-arranging your environment, that limits your need to use willpower.

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