Do you sometimes wonder why you find it so difficult to do the things you really want to? Many do. For example, wanting to improve their lives, lots of people buy self-improvement books; yet, 93% never get past the first chapter! No wonder they start to believe there must be something wrong with them. After all, they lack willpower, don’t they? They can’t help wondering if I have the will, how come I don’t have the power?
Part of the problem lies in the words we use. Imprecise or vague words lead to muddled thinking. You see, what we now call willpower (written as one or two words), used to be called self-control, self-discipline, self-governance, self-management, and self-regulation. All of these words clearly point to SELF. So, if my life is out of control, it is because I have to develop self-control. In other words, I am responsible for the quality of my own life. Willpower, then is nothing more than the discipline to do whatever is best for us, whether we feel like doing it or not.
Unlike words like self-discipline, the word willpower doesn’t point to the self and may create a false impression, such as some of us are born with it and some of us are not, just as some of us are tall and some of us are not.
Although the word willpower is not as clear as self-discipline, we can successfully use it if we think about it more deeply. The word has two parts: will and power. Will means to want or to choose. And power (or the capacity to act) is something we all have, although it is often misdirected, or used the wrong way.
Now that we know the will of willpower means to choose, what is it that we have to choose between? We have to choose between competing wants: rational or emotional. We have to choose between long term or instant gratification. Reworded, we have to choose between doing what feels good at the moment or doing what is best for us in the long run. For example, I may have to choose between eating pizza or vegetables, exercising or watching TV, drinking pop or water, staying up late at night or getting a good night’s sleep.
Emotional choices are choices that make us feel good while rational choices are choices that are good. So, if we allow ourselves to function on autopilot (without thinking), our choices will always be emotional because our brain is programmed to make that the default choice. Therefore, we cannot exercise willpower/self-discipline unless we are aware of the choices facing us.
In considering the words we use, we have seen that words like self-discipline are more accurate than a word like willpower. Something else to consider is the emotional content of the words we use. For example, although self-discipline is more precise than willpower, it has a negative connotation. That is, it conjures up images of great effort, hard work, and sacrifice, all of which cause resistance or avoidance. Far better to use words like self-empowerment or self-leadership, which, by the way, are accurate descriptions because self-discipline or will power is nothing less than the freedom to become the person you want to be.
As I try to bring this section to a close, consider the following: Whether I choose to work hard or goof off, it still requires willpower. In the case of working hard, I have to overcome internal resistance because our natural inclination is to seek pleasure. And in the case of neglecting my responsibilities, I have to overcome guilt and the fear of reprisals. So, if I have to use willpower in either case, why not choose the situation that will add to my success and not impede it?
Finally, here is an insightful summary of today’s topic by German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, “Willpower is to the mind like a strong blind man who carries on his shoulders a lame man who can see.”
The Causes for Little Self-Discipline (and Their Cures)
Although it often isn’t necessary to understand the causes of our problems to overcome them, understanding them can, at times, lead to an immediate cure or make it easier to arrive at a solution. For this reason, I’ll review why we have far less self-control than we would like to.
1. Have not been taught. Most likely we weren’t taught about willpower or self-discipline. This article may offer a starting point. But for a comprehensive understanding, refer to the books and videos listed in the References section.
2. Subconscious Programming. If what you are trying to do requires willpower, it simply means you are fighting with your subconscious. Once your goals are aligned with your subconscious beliefs, you will no longer experience resistance. But if you feel blocked, what should you do? You can take one of the following two approaches.
a) Uncover the subconscious reasons for the resistance and reprogram your subconscious. To learn how to do so, check these two articles: Article 1, Article 2.
b) Feel the resistance and go ahead in spite of it. Either approach will take you to your dreams. True, if you reprogram your subconscious, you can end the struggle and reach your goal effortlessly, but it will take time to learn and practice this new skill. On the other hand, if you’re willing to grit your teeth, roll up your sleeves, and dive in, there’s no reason why you can’t start on that project today. Yes, it’ll be an uphill battle, but as extra compensation, you’ll be rewarded with a sense of accomplishment and pride in yourself.
3. Fear of failure, discomfort, rejection, and being wrong. Both the fear of failure and discomfort can easily be dealt with by reframing; that is, by changing our perspective and looking at them in a new light.
Let’s start with the fear of failure. This fear is irrational because there is no such thing as failure; there are only learning lessons, each of which bring us closer to our goal. Failure is usually impossible unless we choose to quit.
The fear of discomfort is deeply ingrained because we are programmed at birth to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Unfortunately, as adults we misinterpret exertion and sacrifice as `pain,’ when they are actually the keys to success. We experience the fear of discomfort by an unwillingness to leave our comfort zone, which is a blight on humanity because it prevents our progress. Make no mistake about it; your comfort zone can be as small as a prison cell, as narrow as a coffin, as stifling as New York City in summer, or as constraining as a straitjacket. It is the enemy of growth, expansion, and personal development.
The next time you are tempted to step out of your comfort zone and become scared, just remember that fear is not a warning of impending pain, but a signal of an opportunity to grow. Accept the challenge. Muster up the courage. Take a chance, and dive into a new, stronger you.
Both the fears of rejection and being wrong are paradoxes. You see, if you refuse to do something you would like to do because you are afraid of being rejected, you will end up rejecting yourself. Never allow someone’s opinion to prevent you from being the person you wish to be. How will their opinion of you grow, if all you do is cave in to their ideas? Remember, they too suffer from the fear of rejection, so when you ignore their opinions and do what you believe is best for you, they will admire you and envy your courage.
The fear of being wrong is equally paradoxical because merely having that fear makes you wrong. How can it be right not to do what you wish to do because you are afraid you may be proven wrong? It is never right to give in to fear. It is always right to risk being wrong because that simply means you are willing to learn.
4. Subconscious resistance. Whenever we have to tackle a challenging task or project, we are likely to encounter a great deal of internal resistance, which can immobilize us and curtail our progress. To understand why this happens and how to overcome it, read the section called, “Gaining Control over Our Lives” in this article.
5. The Resistance Syndrome. This is another form of subconscious resistance. In the case above, our subconscious creates resistance to protect us from what we believe to be painful. But in the case of the Resistance Syndrome, our subconscious acts like a rebellious child that doesn’t want to be told what to do.
You see, every time we have thoughts preceded by “I should.,” “I have to.,” “I’ve got to.,” “I must.,” or “I ought to.” our subconscious interprets these as orders. No one likes to be told what to do, including our subconscious. So, whenever it receives what it interprets as an order, it digs in its heels; refuses to budge, and shouts, No!” In other words, it creates resistance, blocking our efforts.
To overcome this problem, we just have to be more tactful. Just replace the “I should.” pattern with “I want to… because.” For example, instead of thinking, “I should work late every night this week.” Rephrase your thought to, “I want to work late every night this week because my company needs help to fill all the Christmas orders. I want to be a valuable team player because when I help my company to succeed, I also help myself to succeed.”
6. Insufficient motivation. The combination of self-discipline and motivation provide an unstoppable force. But on the other hand, self-discipline may not be enough if there is insufficient motivation. What is motivation? It is simply the desire to act. And where does that desire come from? Well, we do everything for a reason. And if the reason is good enough, we will want to do it. A lack of motivation means we don’t have a strong enough reason to act.
To keep the fire of motivation and enthusiasm burning remain focused on the rewards you will receive, not on the work you have yet to do. Be sure to consider ALL the benefits of your desired actions to make them easy choices.
Also, keep your eyes on the big picture. Are you hammering a nail or building a house? Are you partying with friends, or sabotaging your future success?
Action is the coal that feeds the fire. For each action you take that brings you closer to your goal will lead to positive outcomes and fan the flames of motivation.
7. Depletion of resources. Self-discipline requires energy and can be depleted in much the same way that physical exercise temporarily depletes energy. Because we do not have an unlimited supply of energy, it is necessary to prioritize and always direct our self-discipline to the most important matters first.
Stress also depletes energy. Therefore, we will have less energy resources for self-discipline whenever we feel stressed. Fear greatly contributes to stress. To learn ten ways of reducing fear, see this article.
One of the fuels for mental and physical energy is blood glucose, so low blood glucose will diminish our willpower and self-discipline capability. To prevent this from happening, avoid high glycemic foods. To learn more about high glycemic foods, click here.
Also, our energy resource can be replenished by sleep, positive emotional experiences, and self-motivational mantras such as, “I can do it!”
8. Poor Habits. Habits are performed automatically, and bad ones sabotage our efforts to remain in control and use self-discipline. For help in breaking bad habits, see:
Article 1, Article 2.
9. Self-doubt. According to the eminent American philosopher and psychologist William James, the major cause of failure in life is self-doubt. To overcome this self-defeating belief, study the seven steps in his 10-day program, which you will find here. Also, keep in mind that nothing is IMPOSSIBLE when we remember I’M POSSIBLE.
10. Overwhelmed by the size of the project. Break down large projects into small ones, small projects into tasks, and tasks into baby steps. Large projects project fear while baby steps inspire confidence.
11. Halted by HALT (Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired) situations. Hunger, anger, loneliness, and exhaustion drain energy and halt any progress. So, eat if you’re hungry (but avoid high glycemic foods). Calm down if you’re angry and practice being understanding, accepting, and forgiving. Reach out and befriend a lonely person to end your own loneliness. And if you’re tired, practice stress release techniques, which you can learn about here.
Keeping the following caveats in mind will help make your self-discipline more effective.
1. When making choices, because the default choice is emotional, extra effort is required to switch to a rational one. To make the switch, focus on the positive future outcomes instead of focusing on the effort it will take to make the change.
Some have asked, should we focus on the negative consequences of a poor choice to ‘scare ourselves straight’? No, because we get more of what we focus on. That is, if you spend all your time thinking about what you don’t want, all you will get is more of what you don’t want. So, focus on what you want, not what you don’t want.
2. Your self-discipline will not be very helpful if your goals are vague. It’s hard to see in a fog; you won’t know which way you’re heading. Don’t think of starting until the fog clears (until you are clearheaded) because achievement requires clearly defined goals.
3. As Robert Frost said, “The world is full of willing people, some willing to work, the rest willing to let them.” To grow in self-discipline, it is necessary to join the ranks of those willing to work for success.
4. Investing money in personal-development doesn’t help; investing time and effort does. As I mentioned earlier, 93% of people who buy self-help books do not get past chapter one. They had a good intention when they bought the book, but let themselves believe now that they have the book, they will automatically begin to change. It sounds silly, but that’s how the mind works. So, if we wish to succeed, we have to remember, self-help books don’t work; people work (invest in time and effort). Those wishing to succeed will not only buy books, but will read them, assimilate the material, practice what they learned, and monitor their progress so they can correct any errors they may make.
5. People buy self-help books because they want to change. But why do they quit reading so early and move on to another book, only to repeat the cycle of buy-book, don’t-read, buy-another-book, don’t-read, etc. Perhaps it is because they don’t realize that we don’t ‘get it’ immediately; it takes time to ‘get it’ (understand the message the author is trying to deliver).
You see, even though a book may have the information we badly need, we may not be ready to accept or recognize it. It is important to read the books we buy in their entirety so that even if we still don’t ‘get it’, at least we are laying the groundwork and preparing for future understanding. The further removed ideas are from our current way of thinking, the longer it will take for new (and badly needed) ideas to sink in. Realizing that we may not ‘get it’ as quickly as we would like to, and the willingness to continue studying will go a long way in leading us to success.
6. True, where we are today is the result of the actions we have taken, and we are responsible for our own success. However, if we are unhappy with our current state of affairs, it doesn’t mean we have a character flaw, rather it means we have a flaw in the system we’re using. In a word, currently we’re doing the wrong things, neglecting the right things, or both. And if we are where we don’t want to be, it indicates we still don’t ‘get it.’ But there’s no need to panic, just the opposite; we should calm down and ask ourselves what are we doing wrong and what should we be doing instead. When we take the time to listen to our own inner wisdom, it is surprising how much we can learn and benefit.
7. Earlier, I mentioned that we should avoid vague goals and need to get specific. Also, we need to focus on behavior, not outcomes, because outcomes are not actionable. For instance, let’s say I want to be healthy because healthy people live long or longer lives, are pain free, and happy. So, a healthy life is the outcome, or goal, I seek. I could repeat to myself over and over again, “I want to be healthy” or “I am healthy”, and hope for the best. Far better to focus on the behaviors that will bring me to my goal. Since I want to be healthy, I should ask myself questions like “What am I presently doing that prevents me from being healthy? What do I need to do? What specifically do I need to do?”
For example, “What foods will I eat less of or completely drop and what foods will I eat more of? What exercises will I do; how much time will I spend on them, and what days of the week will I be doing them.” Focusing on our behavior will help move us forward.
8. Great accomplishments do not require great acts. Most of them came about by a long series of small acts. Do not underestimate the power of small steps.
9. Small steps inconsistently taken may turn out to be completely useless. To be powerful, small acts must be performed consistency over time (sometimes over a
10. Don’t make and store your plans in your head. Put them down on paper or your favorite digital device. Monitor and log your actions and their results. Make corrections as necessary. Review and work your plan; for your plan to work you’ve got to work your plan.
1. Remove temptation. Why make practicing self-discipline more difficult than necessary? For example, I found that as long as I had ice-cream at home, I found it too difficult to avoid eating it. Yet, once I stopped buying it, I had no problem living without ice cream. So, accomplishing a goal may be as simple as removing a temptation or distraction.
2. Make Plans. Plan your projects, tasks, and baby-steps. Organize and prioritize your To-Do List. Set and schedule your short and long term goals. For doing so reduces stress, adds clarity, and prepares the way for the exercise of willpower/self-discipline.
3. Perform Self-Discipline Exercises. Learn from this excerpt of a speech William James gave to an audience of teachers:
“Keep alive in yourself the faculty of making efforts by means of little useless exercises every day, that is to say, be systematically heroic every day in little unnecessary things; do something every other day, for the sole and simple reason that it is difficult and you would prefer not to do it, so that when the cruel hour of danger strikes, you will not be unnerved or unprepared. A self-discipline of this kind is similar to the insurance that one pays on one’s house and on one’s possessions. To pay the premium is not pleasant and possibly may never serve us, but should it happen that our house were burnt, the payment will save us from ruin. Similarly, the man who has accustomed himself steadily, day after day, to concentrating his attention, to will with energy, for instance, not to spend money on unnecessary things, will be well rewarded by his effort. When disasters occur, he will stand firm as a rock, even though faced on all sides by ruin, while his companions in distress will be swept aside as the chaff from the sieve.”
In other words, we can cultivate willpower and self-discipline by creating our own exercises. Here are five examples of using simple exercises to strengthen willpower:
a) Deliberately delay gratification of a neutral habit. Do you feel like having a cup of tea now? It’s okay to treat yourself or take a break, but wait an additional 30 minutes before you do so.
b) Cut down on an undesirable habit. Are you a smoker? If so, don’t smoke between the hours of 10 am and 12 noon, just to prove you can do it.
c) Do something useful that you don’t feel like doing, such as spending 20 minutes to answer email or reduce office clutter.
d) This afternoon, immediately do whatever needs to be done to avoid procrastination.
e) Practice perseverance; don’t give up until your project has been accomplished.
Research has shown that developing self-control in one area of life spills over to all areas of life. So, to maximize your benefits, consciously practice self-discipline throughout the day. Doing so will enable you to do what needs to be done despite any fear, discomfort, negative programming, resistance, or low motivation.
In conclusion, here are two final thoughts to keep in mind. The first is from
Park Benjamin, Sr.,
“There are no two words in the English language which stand out in bolder relief, like kings upon a checker-board, to so great an extent as the words ‘I will.’ There is strength, depth and solidity, decision, confidence and power, determination, vigor and individuality, in the round, ringing tone which characterizes its delivery. It talks to you of triumph over difficulties, of victory in the face of discouragement, of will to promise and strength to perform, of lofty and daring enterprise, of unfettered aspirations, and of the thousand and one solid impulses by which man masters impediments in the way of progression.”
The second comes from Gretchen Rubin,
“We can use decision-making to choose the habits we want to form, use willpower to get the habit started, then — and this is the best part — we can allow the extraordinary power of habit to take over. At that point, we’re free from the need to decide and the need to use willpower.”
by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney
Willpower: Regain Your Self-Control and Rediscover Your Willpower Instinct
by Allison Perry
Willpower: The Owner’s Manual — 12 Tools for Doing the Right Thing
by Frank Martela PhD
No Excuses!: The Power of Self-Discipline by Brian Tracy
The Slight Edge: Turning Simple Disciplines into Massive Success and Happiness
by Jeff Olson and John David Mann
Kelly McGonigal: The Willpower Instinct
Al Switzler: Change anything! Use skillpower over willpower
Willpower: Scientifically Proven Techniques to Increase Willpower