How to Build Up Willpower (spoiler, it’s not discipline)

If you had more willpower would you have the good habits you need to create the life, or body, or community, or career, or intellect you dream about? If you had more willpower what would you do? Exercise more? Eat better? Not procrastinate? Be more positive? Watch less TV? Read more?

So how do we get more willpower? Most often I hear it’s about the discipline and mental strength to not give in to temptation and distractions. I hold the opposite view. I believe that it takes kindness and compassion to build up willpower, and research* backs this up.

4 Willpower Myths:

Self-judgement: If I hold myself to a high enough standard, and judge myself harshly enough when I stray from the path, I can create the result I’m after. I need to be hard on myself otherwise I won’t do anything.

 Punishment: I need to get mad, yell at myself and feel bad otherwise I will give in, indulge myself, and have no self-control.

 Deprivation: If I ignore urges and feelings they will go away, I just need to say no.

Guilt: Shame and guilt keep me accountable and strengthen my resolve*.

This idea of willpower says we can discipline, and deprive, our way to becoming our ‘best self’. And no doubt you know someone who will tell you how they used all these tools to keep themselves in check, and they have the results to show for it. But the more important question is does it last?

Anyone can achieve a short-term result, what I want to share is how to create change that stays with you forever, it becomes a part of you, and it no longer feels like discipline, or willpower, or muscle.

It feels like self-care!

What you Need to Create Willpower:

Before I say more I need to shift from using the word willpower to using self control. This isn’t a bait and switch, we’re talking about the same thing, but I prefer the term self control to willpower. Self control owns the action, it says my ‘self’ is in control, not my will, either way, you are in control of your actions. Call it whatever you prefer, from here on, in this post, self control is the new willpower.

And the new tools you need to cultivate in order to build up self control are self-acceptance, compassion, and forgiveness. There is a wonderful book called The Willpower Instinct, How Self Control Works, Why It Matters and What You Can Do to Get More of It, by Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., and in it she discusses study after study that demonstrates how these kinder approaches have created better and longer-lasting results.

*Surprisingly, it’s forgiveness, not guilt, that increases accountability. Researchers have found that taking a self-compassionate point of view on a personal failure makes people more likely to take personal responsibility for the failure than when they take a self-critical point of view. They also are more willing to receive feedback and advice from others, and more likely to learn from the experience. —from The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal

Keep Your Eye on the Prize

If I want to exercise 5 times a week because I want to be physically active as I age, does that take willpower? If you hate to exercise, but want to stay physically active so you do it 5 times a week, does that take willpower? We both have to overcome temptations and distractions, we both have to fit it in our schedule, we both have to physically get up and do it. Is there a difference?

I can hear you already: YES there’s a difference, it doesn’t take willpower if you want to do it.

Let’s be honest, wanting to exercise 5 times a week wasn’t even something I wanted. I was thinking about needing to exercise more, and all the reasons it wasn’t happening, and how much it bugged me when my friends talked about their personal trainers and their workouts. Who cared why I did it, I just need to make sure I did it, right?

Well, not exactly, it turns out understanding why you want something can make all the difference in the world in your outcome. But you have to go deep, what’s on the surface won’t get you there. Wanting to lose 20 pounds isn’t enough.

It looks something like this: Why do you want to lose 20 pounds? To look good in a dress; Why do you want to look good in the dress? You want to feel better about yourselfWhy don’t you feel good about yourself now? You don’t take care of yourself; Why don’t you take of yourself? You put other people first.

Now you have something that can sustain you. You are going to put yourself first, putting others ahead of you has a cost to you: you don’t feel good about yourself.

And if you take that one step further you might find this: Why do you put other people first? It’s easier than taking care of myself.

Self control, willpower, whatever you call it, is about taking personal responsibility for creating the life you want. Whether it’s a relationship, a job, your body, your finances, or your TV habits, you can shape it to your vision. It’s not easy but it doesn’t have to be awful and painful either.

To all those of you out there that want to continue to beat up, criticize, and shame yourself to shape your vision, when you’re ready for something new!

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