Willpower Is Nonsense

You don't have willpower. And that's not a bad thing.

Posted Sep 22, 2020

When I was a little girl, I was a bit of a chubby thing. Like many growing up in the fat-free-craze era, I ended up at Weight Watchers in-person meetings. I attended these meetings with my grandmother, whom I called Mombow. 

Each and every week, I handed over my little booklet and stepped on a scale at a meeting filled with much older ladies. I felt out of place. I felt large, yet small. I was 11 years old.

A lady named Dottie wrote down what I weighed. 111, 112, 109, 113. Each week, up and down, I went. I looked at Mombow each week. She went up and down too.

After the meetings, Mombow would often say, “Let’s go out to eat. We’ll do better next week.” She had a twinkle in her eye, and off we would go—to eat pizza.

Over pizza after a tragic three-pound weight gain one week, my Mombow said to me, “Meredith, you know some people have willpower and some people don’t. You and I don’t have it.”

I believed her. I also thought it was incredibly unfair that we did not get this mysterious gift of willpower. I was unhappy about that, so I figured: Why bother with this diet stuff? I don’t have the willpower to cut it anyway.

Later, Mombow got cancer. She dropped weight quickly. She became the tiniest version of herself. No longer was willpower a thing. It wasn’t a thing at all.  When she died, she had more money saved than any of us in the family could fathom. It wasn’t riches, but it was a significant amount for someone from her means. She had squirreled away more money than made sense. I thought, Wait a minute. She had willpower for saving that amount of money—but not for food? Willpower disappeared and reappeared when she got sick? 

Willpower is not a thing we have or don't have. It’s a construct used to define and differentiate a reason why we do or do not, can or cannot, will or won’t. 

Rather, willpower is our current willingness, care, and desire “to resist short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals.”[1]

Willpower can be translated into one word: decision. Willpower is actually a decision to care about the things we choose to care about, and to go after them, chase them, enforce them, hold ourselves accountable. A decision to change. A decision to take a course of action, and then setting off on a path to do it.

When we “decide,” we fight to ensure our decision sticks. That is, if the decision is powerful, important and meaningful enough to impact the behavior.

The issue with chalking everything up to the mysterious force of willpower? We don’t care enough about the decision we are making. We don’t care to lose weight more than we care about getting the pizza we want now. We don’t care enough about hating our job to actually give up the golden handcuffs. We don’t care that we are not in a love relationship that lights our soul on fire; things are “just fine” as they are. We decide that fine is okay, and we give up on the hope, dream and goal for better.

We blame our circumstances on (lack of) willpower and call it a day.

The truth is that in 1991, Mombow and I cared far more about the pizza during our stint in Weight Watchers. We didn’t make a decision to trade our body fat for the pizza; we simply chose the pizza. (Yes, I was also eleven. I get that also.) But I know now that I wasn’t missing willpower—rather, I was a child who liked to eat.

When Mombow got sick, she cared about her health more than pizza. When sick, the pizza simply did not have the same allure, the same magic, the same desire as it had. She decided that other things mattered more. She decided that fighting for her life mattered more. Slowly, we watched her body weight drop and drop, and food became a thing she didn’t care about. It had no more power over her; life, instead, became the fight.

In our minds, replacing the concept of willpower with our own power is important. The replacement for willpower is a powerful decision. When we have a firm decision for a part of our life, we ignite a spark. That spark keeps us going, coupled with discipline and eye on the outcome, with a dash of enjoying the process. The spark becomes discipline, and we put ourselves in the driver’s seat every day we show up for our decision.