19 Reasons Why Willpower Fails You, And What To Do About It
Willpower is essential fuel, but it needs help to move us forward.
Posted Dec 14, 2013
Willpower is an essential ingredient in achieving, overcoming, and becoming -- so why does it so often fail us? Below I offer 19 science-based reasons why will and will alone isn't enough, with suggestions peppered in along the way about what we can do about it.
1. Too much will, too little balance -- Willpower is a game of balance, and balance is a game of sustainability. The fitness industry knows this acutely well. Every new year, fitness centers experience an explosion of new memberships around January 1st. Walk into any gym the first couple of weeks of the new year and you'll see it happening -- people are everywhere, as if the concept of "fitness" was just discovered. But as the days and weeks pass, those numbers lessen. A couple of months into the year and the crowds even out. Pretty soon getting on the lat pull-down machine doesn't require standing in line. We're all prone to thinking willpower is "all or nothing" (one of the many cognitive distortions we regularly indulge) and easily forget that without building balance into our plan, even the most ferocious explosion of will is not sustainable.
2. Dreaded restraint bias – Insidiously, our brains are prone to overestimating our willpower at the very points at which we’re most liable to take a fall. Whenever you think you’ve “mastered” a temptation, compulsion or condition, check yourself. If you once again begin exposing yourself to the object of your weakness—be it junk food, smoking, gambling or other—research and anecdotal experience predicts a backslide.
3. Self-control runs low – We begin our day with energy reserves and enhanced focus, but as the day wears on and that energy runs lower, so does our self-control. Research suggests that people least likely to cheat during the day are most likely to cheat at night. Just because your will feels indomitable at noon doesn’t mean it will be at midnight. Keep your eye on the fuel gauge and don't overestimate your late-day resolve.
4. Cognitive load saps resources – Part of what saps our energy is how much fuel our brain consumes to get us through the day -- around 25% of the body’s circulating blood glucose. The more mental stress we face, the more fuel is needed. That’s less energy devoted to self-control when you need it most. For most of us, our cognitive load is only going one way: up.
5. Entrenched patterns are consistently fierce – Imagine yourself running up an escalator that’s going down, and the faster you run the faster the escalator moves. You may eventually make it to the top—no doubt exhausted--or you may simply run in place, or, worse, fall backwards to the floor. The escalator represents the entrenched mental patterns you’re “running” against whenever you exert your will –they’ve been there for a long time, longer than you realize, and they are formidably resilient. Changing patterns requires long-game thinking.
6. Automatic thoughts sabotage progress – How do so many seemingly “strong” people still fail despite their bluster and bravado? Much of the time, it’s not an external force but the enemy within that takes them down. Your unconscious percolates what pioneering psychologist Aaron Beck called "automatic thoughts" throughout the day—and we don’t really know why—but we do know that many of these thoughts are negative, self-defeating and downright toxic. The more real those thoughts become in perception, the more they define your action. Perhaps no one said it better than the great stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius: “Such as are your habitual thoughts, such also will be the character of your mind.”
7. Damned independence – To say that no one is an island is a vast understatement. We may think of ourselves as independent, but we’ve evolved to be socially interdependent. The one man or one woman juggernaut of will is a compelling popular myth that makes for a good action movie, but it’s completely wrong anywhere else. If you think going it alone is a good idea, be ready to fail alone as well.
8. The introspection illusion – So you say you want to grab the controls of your unconscious mind—that immense modular processing system we’re only starting to truly understand—and “will” yourself above, around and past any obstacle? Good luck with that. Introspection is a decent focus practice (as is meditation) that can better prepare you for getting from A to B, but none of us will ever thoroughly control our minds and bypass hard work and failure before succeeding. Indeed, it’s alarming to realize how much is out of our control.
9. Looked so good on paper – Margaret Thatcher, the iconic iron lady, famously said, “Plan your work for today and every day, then work your plan.” And that’s good advice, but it should be balanced with an observation from Mike Tyson, the iconic iron jaw breaker, who said “Everyone has a plan 'till they get punched in the mouth.” Just because a plan or mission looks perfect doesn’t mean it will work, it simply means that you’ve determined that you think it’ll work. Our brains value stability and certainty over instability and uncertainty, so a plan in free fall failure is an uncomfortable thing to accept – hence the need for internal change management. You can't will a plan to success, but you can exercise will to adjust your course as needed.
10. Sleep deprivation handicaps best efforts – You may have a strong will, a tremendous plan and great ideas, but if you’re not getting enough quality sleep, it’ll all be for naught. Research has shown that shorting yourself on sleep has the effect of burning out your cerebral circuits. In a very real sense, our brains overheat without enough sleep. The outcome is slower processing power, less mental energy and hair trigger irritability when things don’t go well – not a prescription for willpower success.
11. Underestimation of food’s (and other chemicals’) effects -- If you're engaging willpower to break free from certain foods, or anything else that's ingested, you're wise to recognize the power of your adversary and not forget it. The reason is hard to swallow: your brain is complicit in your failures. The reason why these things are so hard to drop is that your brain's reward center wants them--it wants the dopamine release they trigger--and it's not going stop wanting it without a degree of hardship most of us underestimate. Knowing the reasons why your brain won't let go helps direct your efforts, and helps you understand why you will experience failure, probably more than once, before succeeding.
12. The belief deficit – We spoke earlier about the brain as an energy hog (#4), but in another sense it’s an energy miser. If you don’t really believe you can achieve something—anything—you are triggering an internal feedback loop that tells your brain to not allocate resources. Bottom line: if you don’t believe you can do it, you won’t do it. Granted, simply believing that you can do something is absolutely no guarantee that you can; belief is a requisite condition for achievement, not an exhaustive one. If you want your brain to put mojo in your resolve, you’d better believe that what you are doing is worthwhile.
13. We adapt to the consequences of quitting – Paul Bear Bryant, the storied football coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide, once said, “The first time you quit, it’s hard. The second time, it gets easier. The third time, you don't even have to think about it." If the Bear had studied cognitive psychology, he’d have known that his wisdom isn’t only colloquially satisfying, but scientifically valid. The reason is that we adapt to the sensation of quitting much as we do anything else, and the more we adapt, the less of the sensation we experience. Whatever external consequences of quitting we may face, the one that stings the most is feeling that internal sensation. For willpower to work, it’s important that quitting doesn’t lose its sting.
14. Lack of feedback promotes apathy – Another reason to keep a few trusted others looped into your plans is that you’ll receive feedback on how you’re doing – if you seek it out. If, on the other hand, you choose to exercise your will in a vacuum, you’ll lose on multiple fronts: lack of perspective, lack of accountability and an ever-increasing sense of apathy about why you’re even trying. Research also shows that if you wisely seek feedback,the faster you get it, the better, because delayed feedback undermines performance. Get it fast and take it straight.
15. Imagined outcomes misdirect energy – Will pitted against rumination isn’t a fair fight -- will doesn’t stand much of a chance. Our capacity to overthink and drift into endless fields of rumination about the worst that could happen saps the will from our bones. Our brains are extremely threat-sensitive, which is inherently a good thing, but the more we ruminate about failure and loss the more energy is diverted toward addressing the threat instead of achieving and overcoming. Will loses its edge before you even realize it’s gone.
16. Seduction of the chase obscures the goal – We intuitively know that the hunt—the biochemically fueled drive of our reward-seeking brains—is frequently more satisfying than getting whatever we’ve been hunting. The problem is that it's easy to lose sight of why we're doing what we're doing, and instead become lost in the ephemeral fog of the chase. When you no longer understand (or recall) why you're on the path you started down, your willpower is derailed -- direction is lost and not easily regained. Staying focused is essential for willpower to get you to the there you were targeting.
17. The elusive loop of habit change – Trying to will yourself out of a bad habit is a classic tale of woe that we all know too well. The problem isn’t that we lack will, it’s that we lack knowledge of how to apply it. As Charles Duhigg explains in his book The Power of Habit, habit change is a three act play -- a feedback loop that begins with a cue, leads to a routine, and ends with a reward. Smoking, as an example, starts with the cue of stress, leads to the routine of smoking to alleviate stress, and ends in the reward of reduced feelings of stress. Of those three things, the only one you can really change is the routine. You will always experience stress, and always want stress alleviated. The question is -- what routine will get you there? Willpower can't stomp the routine out of existence, but it can help you replace it with another.
18. All will and no technique – The most willfully resolved person on the planet still needs a practice—a tested method of accomplishing or overcoming—to achieve success. No one “wills” themselves into being a star athlete or top professional without paying heed to best practices that direct their energy. Few people can sustainably lose weight and get in shape without a seasoned practice for getting there. Will may be the power, but it’s nothing without the practice.
19. Moral licensing is a get out of jail free card – All of us live on a see saw. If we do something morally questionable, we feel a sense of balance restored if we then do something morally laudable. Psychologists call this “moral licensing,” and it’s endemic to our species. More to the point, it’s a will-defeating dynamic, because we can so easily “adjust” our standards to avoid the necessity of having to exercise will. All of us would benefit from taking a hard look at our see saw, and whether we're see sawing ourselves away from the ideal self we're "willing" to become.
Have any others to add to the list? Please contribute in the comments section.
You can find David DiSalvo on Twitter @neuronarrative and at his website, The Daily Brain. His latest book is Brain Changer: How Harnessing Your Brain's Power To Adapt Can Change Your Life.