Your Willpower Sucks, Do This Instead

Why willpower doesn’t work

You start the year with great intentions and motivations to finally eat healthy, to finally stop scrolling on social media so often, to finally stop drinking so much alcohol, but you just can’t stay motivated.  You get angry with yourself, thinking, “I should have more willpower than this!”.  It’s so frustrating!

The thing is, willpower doesn’t really work.  Your subconscious mind is in the habit of doing things the way you always do them.  It likes it that way.  That way feels safe.  Any change has the potential to create danger, as far as your subconscious is concerned.  Most of your habits are completed mindlessly, through this 90% of your brain that you use without much conscious recognition.  You drive home from work on the same route without thinking.  You put your keys on the same hook when you get home.  You plop down on the couch to watch the same TV shows.  It takes a lot of effort to change these old thought processes.  When you take on huge changes all at once, your conscious mind has to work extremely hard.  It takes a lot of mental effort, so eventually, you give up.  

Make tiny changes instead

If you want to make real, lasting changes, you need to take tiny steps.  In his book (which I highly recommend), Atomic Habits, James Clear says to break new habits down into the tiniest steps.  For example, to start a new exercise routine, he says to break it down to the very basics, like where will you work out?, what time of day?, etc.  Clear says that even something as simple as not planning for how you will get water during your workout can derail your new habit.  He says to start with getting up and getting dressed for the gym, but don’t exercise yet.  After a few days of getting dressed for the gym, drive to the gym.  What route will you take?  Next, you will work out for five minutes for a few days.  Then, add a few minutes, until you are finally working out the full time.  

You will also want to try just one new change at a time.  If you try too many new things at once, there is a high chance you will become overwhelmed.  Try one of these tiny changes:

To eat healthier – add 1 fruit or vegetable to every meal
To start a morning routine – wake up 10 minutes earlier to stretch or read a book
To drink less soda – drink flavored sparkling water in place of one soda a day
To drink less alcohol – cut the alcohol serving in half by making a wine spritzer, a smaller drink, or less vodka, etc.
To cut caffeine – put half decaf and half caffeinated coffee in your cup, exchange one cup of tea for herbal tea
To limit social media scrolling – use your Focus app on your phone to set a timer for cutting off social media for 30 minutes before bed, and plug in your phone on your dresser or in the hallway to your room
To spend more time with family – plan one dinner together a week, or plan one 1 hour outing together a week

These are just a few examples of how to make some tiny changes.  You may already be doing these things, so how can you move forward with just one tiny step?  It sounds so easy, right?  Some of the changes will be easy and some won’t, but the reason you want to make it so easy, is to trick your subconscious mind into thinking these small changes are safe.  Therefore, your ego won’t put up such a fight, like, “Hey, whoa, not drinking is killing your social life!” or “Wait just a minute, you don’t want to look like those big muscle builders, let’s just take it easy.”

Don’t take on too many changes at once

I used to think, “This year will be different!  I will eat healthy, exercise, spend more time with family, and reach huge financial goals!”  I would start off the year, eating a restrictive diet, running daily, and waking up early.  Everything went great for a week or two, but then I stopped all the good habits and went back to my old ways just as soon as the weather was bad, or I failed to plan my next meal.  “I can’t exercise in this freezing cold, and my bed is so warm!” “I forgot to bring a healthy lunch to work, so I guess I’ll have to run and grab a fast-food burger.”  Then, that was it.  All my brand-new goals were derailed for a few months, until swimsuit season creeped up.  I would try again, and miserably fail.  Then, I felt terrible about myself.  I said hateful things to myself like, “You’re such a loser.  You can’t even exercise for two weeks.”  or “What a failure that was.  I will never be a person that exercises.  I might as well give up.”  I would look at other people that exercised and ate healthy, and feel jealous.  I would wonder, “Why is it so easy for her?  She probably grew up with good role models.  She has more willpower.”

That is not a great way to feel.  When you feel so down on yourself, it’s even more difficult to make lasting changes.  All the other people you are envying, probably started small as well.  They’ve just continued their healthy habit until they met with success, like feeling better, more energetic and less lethargic.  It took me several months, and a relapse, before I realized how much better my morning routine made me feel during the day.  

If you quit, pick yourself up and start again

You most likely will quit a new habit at some point.  But, that’s okay.  Just pick yourself up and start again.  Maybe you need smaller steps.  Maybe you are still rewiring neurotransmitters in the brain, that make habit-forming easier.  Perhaps you haven’t quite started noticing the benefits yet.  

I did my morning routine for two months, and then I had a late night of grading papers for my school teaching job.  I was too tired to wake up the next morning.  I didn’t wake up the morning after that either, because I still didn’t feel rested.  But, I started to notice that I felt less focused throughout my day.  I had less energy.  After about a month, I made an effort to go to bed early and set my alarm for 5:00 am the next morning.  When I went back to my morning routine habit, the focus came back, and the energy came back.  That was the motivation I needed to continue this new habit. 

My morning routine consists of meditation, yoga, reading and journaling usually, but sometimes if I’m tired or stressed, I will just read and maybe meditate, instead of ditching the whole routine.  I break it down into smaller parts or steps.

Tiny habit changes, plus a strong reason why, beat willpower every time

What tiny habit changes will you make?  Do you have a strong reason why you want to make these changes?  Is it for better health? Do you want to feel better in your clothes?  Are you wanting to reach a financial goal?  Explore the reason you want to make a change and the feelings you will feel once you reach that goal.  

My morning routine began as a way to get more focused on my goals.  I was working on my health coaching certification while working full time as a teacher.  My job was very stressful, and I figured the morning was the best time to fit in my own goals before everyone else in the house woke up.  I wanted to be a person that exercised and took care of herself.  Having extra focus and energy was an added bonus that I wasn’t expecting.

I’ve found that the tiny habit of getting dressed in my workout clothes and brushing my teeth is what keeps me going every day.  It’s so simple, but it signals my brain that I’m ready to start, even when I don’t feel like it.  My strong reason why I keep going is because I know that I will feel more energy and focus than if I don’t go through with my morning routine.

Let me know in the comments what changes you are wanting to make this year!


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