What the Heck is “Willpower”?

willpower “People who have better control of their attention, emotions, and actions are better off almost any way you look at it. They are happier and healthier. Their relationships are more satisfying and last longer. They make more money and go further in their careers. They are better able to manage stress, deal with conflict, and overcome adversity. They even live longer. When pit against other virtues, willpower comes out on top…If we want to improve our lives, willpower is not a bad place to start.” – Kelly McGonigal

But what IS “willpower”? I don’t know how to measure it or boost it. Can I take a pill for that? Do I chant a mantra? Does “low willpower” explain why I’m not running marathons?

Everyone I work with in therapy is looking for a change, and most of them know it’s going to take something suspiciously like “willpower”. Most of the time, they also know most of what they’re going to have to do to have the life they want to live.  What they aren’t always sure of is how to harness that drive, how to create new habits, how to keep going when you give and give and don’t get back.   I don’t have the exact answer, either.  What I can tell them (and what I remind myself) is that changing circumstances requires changing behavior. Changing behavior requires motivation. THAT I know how to do!

A wise friend of mine always says, “Boredom lies in the motivator.”  I would add that “Inertia lies in the motivator.” What can motivate us to do the very hard work of changing our habits and learning to step back from the mind chatter bossing us around?

Values! When we tune in to what truly matters to us, it becomes easier to take the steps we know we need to take. Who do I want to be in the face of this? is the most important question to answer. Once we know, we have a guiding light and compass. Suddenly, the spaghetti squiggles on the map become clear paths, beckoning us forward.

That doesn’t mean the journey will be easy, or that we won’t sometimes get confused about which value we need to honor at any given moment.  Spend time working on an important project, or spend time with my family?  Go to dinner with a friend and reconnect, or get in that workout?  If we can find a workaround, great! Creative thinking goes a long way toward honoring our values.

Bottom line, the only way I can wrap my brain around the concept of “willpower” is by looking at what people DO. Willpower, to me, means acting in line with my values, even when it would be much easier to do something different.

When I wait to eat my brownie until my work is done, or skip eating the brownie altogether (but that’s no fun!), that takes “willpower”. When you work out, even though you don’t feel like it, that’s “willpower”. When you persevere to achieve something that matters to you, and turn down the volume on your mind chatter yelling,  It’s not fair! , You can’t do that! , It’s not worth it! or any other helpful hints, that’s “willpower”.

Tune in to what matters most, and the reason-giving and excuses just don’t hold water.  Willpower is doing what matters no matter what.  What matters right now? Do it!


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