What to do when willpower doesn’t work

4 minutes reading time

Most self-help guides would have us believe that a big factor in our ability to achieve something, is our capacity for internal strength and resolve.  Also known as willpower.

If we want to change a habit, get through a big project or start something new, there is a school of thought that suggests we need to dig deep and find the inner strength and motivation to do so. However, one of the top reasons people give for not achieving their goals is lack of willpower.

So, if willpower alone won’t get you there, what will?

Rather than relying on a somewhat flaky sense of internal direction, that can ebb and flow depending on your mood, if you really want to get something done then actions usually speak louder than words (or thoughts).  Physically changing your routine and your environment can be a very powerful way of driving the change that you want. So, when your willpower is weak, try these things instead.

Change your environment

We adapt and evolve with the environment around us. It’s quite a natural and organic process, but if we don’t make active choices about our surroundings, then our environment can start to control us.  We start to simply react to what is already there, which is a bad thing if your environment isn’t conducive to your goals.

For example, you can’t expect to give up wine in the week, if you continue to meet friends in the pub. And what’s to stop you eating all the biscuits, when there is a jar full on the shelf? A failure of willpower can be as simple as that.

If your immediate environment isn’t oriented around your goals, then it’s infinitely more likely that you’ll just slide back into old patterns of behaviour or habits.  Permanent change and success relies on creating a positive environment that works with your aims, rather than against them.

Have a clear out

It’s important to let go of anything that conflicts with what you’re trying to achieve.  Ditch the clutter and creature comforts that distract you from your goal, or you could be tempted back to your old ways.

By taking a practical approach to what stays and what goes, and by setting specific rules, you will feel much more in control.  It could be that you need to clear out your cupboards to create space, or cook from scratch twice a week to improve your diet. Perhaps you could free up time by placing a limit on how long you spend Facebooking every day.

Small, positive actions like this clear both your environment and your mind, helping you to feel more disciplined. Setting achievable rules, will also help to you be more accountable and likely to thrive in whatever challenge you’ve set yourself, without any need for willpower.

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A change of scenery

The saying goes that “If you do what you’ve always done, then you’ll get what you’ve always got”.

If you sit at the same desk every day, eat the same kinds of food, take the same route to work or are always surrounded by the same people, then it’s easy to understand how you can get stuck in a rut.  Your energy levels, creativity and productivity will all be surpressed, making it much harder to find the motivation to do something new, let alone make that a lasting change.

Regularly switching your physical environment, forces you to think differently.  It’s why you’ll often get a rush of inspiration on holiday, or find that you’re much more productive at an off-site café than your desk. Getting away from your normal surroundings is a great way to effect a change in your mood and your motivation.

Morning motivation

When you make a decision to do something, it is often accompanied by a kind of enthusiastic buzz of determination.  You can almost feel the positive impact and drive that flows from the decision.

If you want to make a permanent change or achievement, you need to feel that buzz every day, preferably as soon as you wake up, so that it becomes a natural feeling and part of who you are. Creating a morning ritual is a great way to capture this feeling and get into a productive groove.

Start by carving out a dedicated pocket of time each morning to jot down your goals or course of action for the day, before you succumb to any distractions. Add in to that window of opportunity anything else that helps get your juices flowing, such as yoga or meditation and then protect this little routine at all costs.

Do something scary

Apparently, creating situations of positive stress is a good way to encourage motivation, without any extra effort.  For example, you could impose your own deadlines for a project, do something that is outside of your comfort zone, or connect with a high-powered mentor. All of these scenarios will challenge you to grow into your goals almost without realizing it. By taking the lead, you make willpower redundant.

Create stepping stones

It’s all well and good having a goal, but sometimes the process of getting there can feel overwhelming, which is when willpower tends to fail and motivation evaporates.

Mapping out your journey to success and thinking about how you could tackle any obstacles along the way, will make the whole process seem less daunting and give you something visual to refer back to if things go awry.  Breaking big goals down into little steps will help to reduce your anxiety and boost your confidence.

Tell a buddy

You don’t need to tell the whole world about your dreams, but you do need to tell someone about what you’re hoping to achieve. Find the person, or group of people, who will go with you on the ride and will boost your motivation with an injection of their own.

It is okay to limit your interaction with anyone who isn’t on board with what you’re trying to do. If your loved ones fall into that category, then it is possible to set some healthy boundaries and continue to support them, without absorbing their negativity. It’s easier said than done, but necessary if you want to achieve the kind of lasting change that you’ve set your sights on.

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Share your thoughts

How do you motivate yourself to get things done? Do you have a morning ritual that helps you stay focused on your goals? When do you normally feel the most productive or open-minded?  We’d love to hear from you.


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