Harnessing Your Limited Willpower: 3 Tips

By Robin Levick, MFT

Life would be easier if we were as logical and in control of our selves as we sometimes like to think. The truth is that people are only capable of being conscious of a small part of their experience, and this makes us quite paradoxical beings. People often want two things that are in conflict with each other, while only being conscious of one of the things. This can make people feel very stuck, as they find themselves only aware of what they would like to change, and unaware of their opposing desire to stay the same.

Often people come to therapy having tried to make a particular change in their life for years. It can be disappointing when a therapist can’t offer an immediate solution, so a compulsive behavior can finally be stopped, or an addiction can finally be broken, or the motivation to achieve a particular goal can finally be found. However, if the therapist only works with conscious desires to change, a part of the client’s experience that is asking for compassion and understanding is missed. Inevitably, there is some function that the unwanted behavior is serving that needs to be understood and honored before it will surrender. Stated another way, very often the things that people are wanting to change are things that serve them in some important, paradoxical way.  Compassion comes with understanding, and change comes with compassion.

All of this helps to explain why sucking it up, trying harder, thinking differently, or a “just do it” mentality doesn’t always work.

Once you accept that our capacity to will ourselves to change is quite limited, the power of the will can be more effectively harnessed:

Set intentions, not resolutions:  No matter how resolute you are, there are things beyond your control. If you slip up on a resolution, you can feel like a failure and it can be harder to get back on the horse. Shame and guilt can be triggered. Intentions, however, recognize our humanity and fallibility, and are a more forgiving and resilient way to approach change.

Accept that willpower is finite: There is a growing body of research showing that our willpower can be depleted.  Exercising self control is draining.  Forcing yourself to do something is fatiguing.  There is only so much of this that we can do, and you are better off prioritizing what is really worth approaching in this way rather than driving yourself to exhaustion and not succeeding at anything.

Habits are built slowly on a foundation of small successes:  Habits require less willpower because they are part of a routine and happen automatically.  Creating a habit involves setting very small, achievable goals (that don’t require much willpower) and building on them. If you want to make a big change in your routine, start with something small enough that you KNOW you can accomplish it, and do that for a couple weeks before you start trying to do more.  For example, if you want to run every morning, see if you can get up every morning and walk around the block.  Run if you feel like it, but trust that putting on your shoes and getting out the door is enough to begin building a habit.

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