I’ve lost dozens and dozens of pounds, dozens of times (because I’ve also gained dozens of pounds multiple times). Each time I lose a noticeable amount of weight I start hearing the same thing over and over from well meaning folks: “I wish I had your willpower.”
Saying no to cake at all the office birthday parties: “You have so much willpower!”
Not eating pizza at a family gathering. blah blah blah willpower.
Passing on the bread at a restaurant. blah blah blah willpower.
Getting a good sweat on almost every day of the week. blah blah blah so much willpower.
Honestly, I don’t think I have willpower. What I do have and what I practice is using and strengthening my self-control.
Frankly, I’m not a fan of the word willpower because most of us give it too much power. We give it control over whether or not we take good care of ourselves.
We think about it as something we have a certain amount of and when it’s gone or used up, we are unable to control ourselves. We hand over our personal power and wipe our hands of responsibility and pretend as if this internal willpower is outside of us.
Think about this for a second.
Willpower and Self-Control are the Same Thing but We Think About Them Differently and That’s Part of the Problem
What sorts of things do you use “willpower” for?
We use it to resist eating foods that will keepus from reaching our body goals, we use it to not pick up a drink or cigarette when we’re trying to quit or cut back. And some of us use it when talking about romantic partners. Ever met someone you knew wasn’t good for you but you felt pulled towards? We all have. You’ve probably said “I just can’t resist him (or her), I have no willpower!”
Willpower is really just another word for self-control. But we think about them a bit differently. Self-control is always in your back pocket and you can exercise it to make it stronger. Willpower sounds like something magical and limited. Willpower will disappear on you, in an instant if the right circumstances present themselves. Self-control on the other hand, is always under the surface. You can always choose to utilize it.
You have tons of self-control.
I know you do.
Even if we’ve never met, I know you have self-control.
How do I know this?
You don’t run into the street when a car is coming. You brush your teeth each day even when you are tired. You get up and go to work each day, even when you really don’t feel like it. You pay your bills, even though you’d love to spend the money on something fun. You don’t eat cake for every meal even though you could. You don’t punch people in the face when they irritate you. You watch your language when around small children (or try to anyway). You urinate in toilets in private, rather than peeing on the floor when the urge arrises.
These are all examples of self-control. And self-control is, on some level, something we can learn and improve our mastery of.
Self-Control is Something That Can Be Strengthened
In other words, somewhere along the way, you learned to take certain actions in order to create certain outcomes in your world. Toddlers run into the street because they haven’t learned that it’s dangerous yet. People who want to feel secure in their life pay their bills and don’t throw wayward fists.
You never needed “willpower” to brush your teeth. No one would ever look at you brushing your teeth and say “Wow, look at the willpower on you!”. They would sound crazy. Your parents taught you to brush your teeth and while for most of us it took a certain amount of encouragement, cajoling or even force for it to become a daily habit, it happened because they took daily action with you until it just became something you did automatically.
Self-control gets stronger with use. Take daily action. Repetition. Decisions. Routines. Habits. Discipline. Resolve. Practice.
Toss out your image of “willpower” and exert your already existing self-control. This is how we stop feeling weak and turn it into ironclad strength that we can use anytime, anyplace.
Practice Makes us Perfect at Whatever we “Practice”
Here’s another way to think about this. Whatever we do lots of, we get really good at. An action or thought becomes easy, becomes a part of us. We become skilled at it. When we do something repeatedly, we are “practicing” something. And practice essentially makes us “perfect” at it.
- If we study a subject and work daily at it – we’ll be knowledgeable in that area. (practice learning)
- If we play guitar every day for a year, at the end of the year we’re going to be way better than we were in the beginning. (practice guitar)
- Babies learning to walk, crawl and take steps and fall down and get up again, and again until one day they are very steady on their feet. (practice walking)
- A student taking driver’s ed is a better driver at their 12th driving hour than they were their 1st time at the wheel. (practice driving)
- Someone who begins an exercise program today and commits to 30 minutes a day will be much fitter and stronger after 6 months than they were on day 1. (practice exercising)
- A person who puts in time and effort to shop for and prepare healthy food will do it faster and more efficiently after they’ve been doing it every day for 6 weeks. (practice food prep)
Those all make sense, right? We understand the value of how actively practicing something can form and change us.
But what about what we actively don’t do? Or things we’re doing but are unaware of and don’t want to do!? We get good at “not doing” stuff too.
More fun examples:
- If you never exercise you’re getting really good at the habit of not exercising. (not exercising is what you practice)
- Someone who repeatedly thinks negative things about their body is learning how to hate their body. (practice hating their body)
- People who don’t speak up for themselves get good at keeping quiet. (practice not speaking up)
- If we go home every night and eat everything in the kitchen – we’re getting really good at eating everything in the kitchen. (practice overeating)
- A person who blames others for their life, learns how to not take responsibility. (practice blaming)
Doing something over and over (or not doing it over and over) creates and reinforces habits. If you are “practicing” something that isn’t helping you get the life you want, you’re going to have to start actively practicing things that do.
This will take time.
Just like a baby learning to walk or someone learning to drive, it’ll be hard at first. You’ll fall down, you’ll brake too hard and you’ll occasionally revert to the old habits you were practicing. But if you keep practicing this new thing, eventually you’ll be good at it too!
The reason we feel like we don’t have enough willpower to “resist” the cake or pass on the pizza is because we have created the habit of frequently having the cake or pizza. We don’t have the willpower to not lay on the couch after work, because we have repetitively laid on the couch after work. We’re amazing at laying on the couch. We could win awards at this couch thing.
If we want to change this, we are going to have to actively work hard at it, at least until it becomes our new normal. Our brains want to do the easy thing, they want to be efficient – and doing anything new, whether it be working out or even just driving a car for the first time, it’s going to take a lot of effort and concentration to get yourself there.
This isn’t a bad thing. This is good. This means YOU have it in you to change it.
If it’s just up to our idea of “willpower” we’re going to fail because it’s limited. But your self-control (the same thing but we think differently about it) is flexible, malleable and can be used like a muscle that gets stronger with each use.
You have to make the decision that you want to be more fit more than you want the snacks, eating out etc. You have to make the choice that you’re going to work your body each day even if you don’t really feel like it. You have to prepare healthy foods that fuel your body daily, not just once in awhile.
Use Self-Control daily with one Choice. One Step. One Action.
Applying self-control to your life is no different than going after a new job or going back to school for a career change. No one would ever say you did those things because you had willpower. You did those things because you worked hard, took daily action, created good habits. You wanted them. You did all of those things because you have amaze-balls self-control that you use regularly. And guess what it all started with? One choice. One step. One action. And then repetition of those steps. Over and over.
You have to choose to use your self-control for yourself, which will include making daily decisions that will seem difficult at first (choosing more vegetables, choosing to walk more, choosing to pass on dessert etc) but that will eventually become your new normal, it will be easier and more automatic. No one can do it for you and no one can share their “willpower” with you. You can’t avoid the hard spots between where you are right now and where you want to be. You have to accept that there is going to be some struggle as you get going – but isn’t what’s on the other side worth it?
Remember that whatever you’re not good at doing right now, whether it’s just getting out the door for a walk 5 days in a row or eating more green vegetables, you’re only going to get “good” at it by doing it over and over and reinforcing the habit. I never thought I’d be writing a blog post every week, but here I am, writing blog posts week after week. It all started with me deciding that that was what I was going to do and then going step by step to get there. Now it’s my normal. Your hard today can be your normal 6 months from now.
A few questions for thought:
What do you wish you had more “willpower” to do?
What are you currently “practicing” that you want to continue doing?
What are you “practicing” that you want to stop doing?
What is something you can do tomorrow towards one of your goals that you can commit to repeating for 30 days?