The reasons why willpower is not enough
I hope that a description of some of my more admirable traits, given by those who know me best would hopefully include recognition of my tenacity in getting things done. I’m not a what you’d describe as a polymath and I haven’t achieved fame or notoriety for anything I’ve done. What I believe I have demonstrated, consistently throughout my life is to make the best job I could of virtually everything that I have committed to do.
I hope you’ll indulge me for a moment as I provide a few examples that provide evidence to this bold claim. I’ll then share what I believe has made it possible.
I certainly haven’t mastered everything that I’ve started. I was a mediocre skateboarder as a kid, a supporting musician rather than a soloist in my school band and I never progressed beyond my white belt in Judo. In adult life there have also been plenty of false-starts and misadventures during my career, and as a veteran of one divorce and one failed engagement I’ve got a decent history of relationship failures to speak to as well.
What I am referring to and what others would hopefully recognise in me is that when I commit to something, truly commit to it, that I do so whole-heartedly and vigorously. My determination to do the best that I can is unfaltering and my resolve to stick with it is usually pretty unshakeable, come what may. Some might call this tenacity. Others label it willpower.
For example, in spite of divorcing from my first wife when our daughters were aged just six and three, we both committed to play an equal part in their raising. I’ve co-parented them for alternate weeks since, an arrangement that’s entering its 13thyear, and which has seen the eldest leaving home for University. The arrangement has remained in place even though I now live apart from my second wife for alternate weeks. I’ve stuck by that commitment to complete the job of raising my daughters for half the time, even though it’s been far from easy at times (for any of us).
I’ve pushed forwards in building what feels like a challenging and successful career. At the same time, when I could have got complacent or settled when times got tough and morale was low, I’ve pushed myself onwards to stretch out of my comfort zone and take on more responsibility. Of late, I’ve recognised that IT project management can be a somewhat soul-less existence with little opportunity for expression of creativity and so have sought to build a ‘side-hustle’ centred around writing. That too has taken what feels like a lot of work and a lot of time to gain traction.
I’ve embraced personal development as a means of building the meaning and significance that I crave from my life and to become the best version of me that I can. It’s been uncomfortable at times and has involved the confronting of more than a few demons along the way. The net effect though has been that through persistence and devotion I’ve established a new way of life that feels completely congruent to my personal values and supports me in the pursuit of my goals.
I’ve taken on various regimes of diet and exercise with the intention of maximising my fitness and health. Many of these principles have endured for the long term and have become engrained as part of my lifestyle. While my weight and accompanying levels of fitness have fluctuated a little within an acceptable range, my overall commitment to healthy living has endured and I genuinely don’t think I’ve been in as good shape as I am at this point in my life, at 43.
Each of these things has demanded commitment, tenacity and what many would describe as willpower.
Until this morning I would have credited willpower as being one of the main traits that allows me to reflect gratefully upon the achievements of my life. That was until I read this excellent article by Benjamin Hardy which has provided me with a better, clearer perspective on myself and why I think I’m able to stick with things.
It‘s not that I’m blessed to be able to exert so much willpower in the face of adversity or challenging goals. Instead, it’s that when I commit to something about which I’m passionate and determined, I have internally made a decision that I’m going to make it stick, and stick for good.
“Decision is the opposite of willpower, because willpower means you never actually decided and you never shaped an environment to facilitate that choice. Willpower means you never trained your desires and you never reshaped your brain and identity to match those desires. In other words, if you have willpower in your life, it means you’re still battling your old self, and you haven’t made a true decision about what you are and what you’re about. It becomes much easier to say “no” when you’ve made a real decision.”
I found that article and the quote above to be so illuminating as far as the role and purpose of willpower, and what leads to its very occurrence in our lives.
When you decide to commit to something at a deep and intrinsic level, you know within your bones that you’re sufficiently invested in it to see it through to its conclusion. If it’s a choice that you are making and committing to for life, then you understand that it’s just that, a lifestyle shift which becomes part of who you are. Willpower under such conditions then becomes largely redundant since your decision to make something happen has been made with conviction.
It can be easy to think of willpower, determination, grit and discipline as being synonymous with each other, but I’m growing to realise that as they apply to my own life they aren’t the same. Each fulfils a discrete (and somewhat-related role)
The DECISION to do something, to pursue a goal or to live in a particular way equips me with the determination to achieve.
DISCIPLINE is what I adopt to form the habits and to practice them relentlessly, day-in and day-out as I drive onwards, working to achieve my goal.
GRIT is the mentality, the mindset and the tenacity that is employed to deal with the setbacks, to put in the hard-yards and to do what needs to be done ahead of what I’d like to do.
WILLPOWER is occasionally required where my determination may be waning, when it feels tempting to give up the fight, and when the easy path seems appealing compared to the route along which I’m travelling.
In this way, willpower certainly plays its part, but for me I’ve found that its role is minimal.
Following some introspection prompted by Benjamin Hardy’s thoughts, it now seems plain to me that where we go wrong in the face of challenging circumstances from time-to-time is in believing that willpower alone is what is required.
In addition to being decisive about goals, having the discipline and the grit to tough it out, another key that’s essential for minimising my reliance on willpower, is the STANDARDS that I hold for myself and which I measure myself against.
“If you want to change your life, you have to raise your standards.”
Our standards establish the clear parameters in our minds for what we expect of ourselves and what is acceptable in our behaviours and the results we strive for. If our standards are lowly, our expectations of ourselves are minimal and our underlying belief is that what we receive in life will be fundamentally disappointing, hard-fought, scarce or difficult to achieve. With our standards set as such, chances are that we will go on to prove ourselves right. Our efforts will be minimal and the results, correspondingly disappointing.
I’ve learned that in order to genuinely believe in my own ability, to commit to a difficult decision and to exert the discipline necessary to bring about the results I crave, it’s essential that my standards for myself are suitably high too.
At some subconscious level I refuse to accept a half-assed effort from myself in relation to anything that I care sufficiently enough, be that my family, my relationships, my career and personal goals, my health and fitness, or whatever else. These standards then set the benchmark against which all efforts, actions and results are measured on any given day.
Willpower can be important, but it’s required more when I’ve not committed to the decision about something, when my standards aren’t aligned with my goals and I’m not disciplined enough to follow-through with the necessary action. I suspect that the need for willpower surfaces for many when the rest of the elements in this formula are missing.
- We look at our finances and believe that we must resist the urge to spend money on things we don’t need to impress people whose opinions we don’t care about. We believe that this will take willpower to do.
- We consider a diet regime and believe that we’ll need willpower to overcome the feelings of denial as we are forced to give up our favourite foods.
- A new exercise programme looks good on paper but when it comes to getting up earlier to get to the gym and put in the sweaty hours, we believe willpower will be the key that unlocks the results.
- We want to get back to creative pursuits and to spend more time reading and writing rather than mindlessly scrolling, clicking and swiping away the hours on our smartphones and determine that mustering the willpower to put it down will be essential.
- In our relationship we try to summon willpower to avoid the petty-arguments and spiteful bickering that can slowly eat away when things stagnate and kindnesses and affections become rarer and rarer.
- We may believe we need willpower to help us prioritise keeping our home in better order, to spend more time actively playing with our kids, to keep on top of our admin or to do work within our community rather than simply relaxing on the sofa in our sweatpants and watching Netflix.
In each of these scenarios, willpower will undoubtedly play a part. What is more critical by its absence is the lack of a committed decision to do what has to be done, and the elevating of our standards to ensure we get the results we desire. When these are lacking, even the greatest exertion of willpower will fail to prevent the initiative from withering and eventually failing.
Toby Hazlewood is a writer, parent, husband, project manager, entrepreneur and in his spare time, a cycling enthusiast.
As founder of the Kintsugi-Life movement, he advocates treating times of hardship, challenge and adversity as an opportunity not just to survive or recover, but as a prompt to grow and strengthen, equipping ourselves to live a better, more fulfilled and successful life.
You can learn more about Kintsugi Life and receive a free video overview describing the Kintsugi Life concept, here.