Willpower isn’t dead – but it’s been horribly misunderstood

“Willpower is a limited resource.” That was the conclusion of research by Roy Baumeister in the 90s that influenced an entire generation.

“Willpower doesn’t get used up after all.” That was the news in 2015 when new research, led by Evan Carter, found the old idea was not supported by the evidence.

“Willpower doesn’t work.” That’s the title of a new book by Ben Hardy.

So where does that leave you and me when we need to change something in our lives?

Apparently most people believe that if they’re incapable of changing their diet, exercise or other habits to improve their life it’s because they lack willpower. It makes sense. It tends to be the default thought. “I need more willpower.”

And I’m certainly familiar with the frustration of trying to change something over and over again and not succeeding. It’s what so many clients also show up with when I first meet them. They say “I’ve tried to change, but it never works. I just don’t have enough willpower.”

What I’m going to describe here hasn’t been studied by formal science, as far as I’m aware, so I’m taking a pragmatic approach. This is stuff that works for me and for other people. It might work for you too. In the end that’s what’s important. The scientists can figure it out once they know what to study, but we might as well get on with our lives in the meantime.

Is it true that willpower doesn’t work?

When I first saw Ben Hardy’s article called “Willpower doesn’t work. Here’s how to actually change your life,” I was shocked and disappointed at the same time. I’d learned from Ken Wilber, an eminent philosopher and writer, that willpower is one of the seven essential intelligences you need to cultivate if you want to express your full potential.

I recognise that trying over and over again to force yourself to make a change doesn’t work. But what I’ve found is that the key lies in that word “force.” It’s not the lack of willpower that’s the problem. It’s the application of force.

When you try to force something, it creates a counter-force. That’s a principle of energy. This is very difficult for human beings. We live in a world where there’s a lot of force already and adding to it is exhausting and counter-productive. It’s not surprising that trying to force yourself to do something, even if it’s good for you, is next to impossible. Every time you apply that force you also have to push against the counter-force that got created.

It looks something like this: “I’ll just check out one more post on my Facebook timeline.” “That’s stupid. You know it won’t give you anything.” “Yes, I know but one more won’t matter.” “You really ought to do something useful.” “Yes, I will in a minute.” “Come on, you have to do better than that.” “I’m coming — just give me two minutes, this is really interesting.” “You’re crazy, you know that.” “Yes, I know, but it won’t take long,” and so it goes on. The topic changes but the conversation doesn’t.

So how do you change behaviour?

In my experience I found a very simple way to change this when I realised that the problem wasn’t lack of willpower but lack of energy. All that force and counter-force saps the energy until you’re unable to take action. You can see this very clearly in a person who’s depressed. Their energy level is so low, they literally have no motivation at all. They may not even want to get out of bed. A healthy person doesn’t struggle at that level, but the inner fight is essentially the same.

When people have more energy they naturally and automatically change their lives and treat themselves better. Many times someone who’s been working on their energy for a few weeks asks me something like this: “Sarah, is it normal that I can’t drink more than half a glass of wine any more?” or “I tidied up my whole house today. I can’t believe it. I haven’t done that for ages.” or “I’m eating much healthier now. I don’t want to eat junk food any more.” These are typical signs of a person with more energy and better balance.

So if I find myself struggling with a difficult choice or a bad habit I know it’s a question of increasing my energy in the first place. That usually fixes it right away.

But what of willpower?

Does that mean we don’t need it after all because we just need more energy I’ve found that willpower has its place too, but it’s not the same. I don’t find willpower is useful for habit changes, but it’s essential for deeper, longer-term transformation.

I think of willpower in this way. The word “will” combines several meanings. Its root connects with the German verb “wollen” = to wish (“ich will” means “I want”) and it links with the future and has a strong sense of intent — “It willhappen.” The power arises when we combine this wish and future intent.

This is how it works. When you let go of all the force and allow your inner wishes to arise naturally (and that means letting go of the shoulds and oughts as well) it activates a power deep inside you. This feels like making a deep decision to respect and listen to your natural wishes and follow through with them. It’s not the usual everyday stuff but the big stuff. For example, you have a deep wish to write a book. At the moment you stop messing around saying “I can’t do it, I don’t have time, I don’t know how to do it, no one will want to read it etc” and you say to yourself “I will do it,” you gain access to an inner power that will carry you through all the challenges of writing your book. It’s not just commitment, but the decision behind the commitment that counts. To me this is true willpower.

The true power of willpower

The key to accessing it is understanding that this kind of power never involves force. It’s deeply rooted in love — love for life, love for yourself and love for your decision. Love gives willpower its true power and it makes your wish natural and heartfelt. It has to be fulfilled because it’s coming from the deepest part of you.

This isn’t the wish to be as beautiful as a photoshopped model or as successful as a celebrity or as free as a laptop millionnaire. This is the wish to be your true self and to share your gifts with the world in ways that make a difference. It’s the wish for a heartfelt, meaningful experience of life that connects you with others and gives you joy. It’s the deep inner desire for fulfilment and love that arises freely and naturally in you when you let go of the habit of forcing yourself to be someone you’re not (and let’s admit it, you’re never going to be).

These are the true wishes that lie inside you, often buried away and not allowed to see the light of day. These are the wishes that lie behind great experiences in life that transcend the everyday humdrum monotony. These are the wishes that cause you to achieve more than you ever believed possible, and not at the expense of everyone around you, but by including them and helping them reach their potential too.

So willpower is the stuff of a great human life.

It would be a terrible pity to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Just because forcing yourself to change bad habits doesn’t work, doesn’t mean that willpower doesn’t work. It means it’s time to figure out what’s the real solution to changing bad habits and to examine in greater depth what willpower really is.

If you’d like to explore willpower and deep decisions further here are two videos that expand on what I’ve written. The first is a 30 minute “energy activation.” It’s intended as a meditative exploration of the topic and therefore is best listened to with your eyes closed in a relaxed state (and definitely not driving). The second is a 20 minute talk that was recorded straight after the activation.

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