Breaking the Myth of Willpower


Sugarbreak Editorial

Willpower, that fair weather friend. When you have control over it and wake-up at 6 AM to exercise, it’s a great friend to have. However, when it gets the best of you at 10PM as you polish off a bag of cookies, it’s not that friendly at all. But willpower, as in most relationships, can not be controlled.

Recent studies suggest relying on willpower alone is utterly hopeless. Trying to grit your teeth and bear it, delaying gratification in the name of something better, isn’t going to get you nearly as far, nearly as consistently, as having a go-to set of strategies at the ready. 

So why is willpower even a thing if it’s not a thing? From philosophers to thinkers and old adages alike, we’ve been told “Humans are creatures of habit,” to “watch [our] thoughts because thoughts become actions and actions become habits.” In other words, humans want to believe we can exert control over ourselves, to believe we’re more than just animals standing up. But anyone who has a smartphone knows we aren’t much better than Pavlov’s dogs. So what is it? Why are we obsessed with the idea of willpower? It’s the idea of control and marketers have done a great job exploiting it. Day in and day out, we’re inundated with ads that push our sense of agency (Nike’s “Just do it” comes to mind), sparking the thought that we’re better than our urges. 

The truth is, we aren’t; and willpower isn’t an innate superpower some people have and others don’t. It’s a game of reframing, replacing, and systematically breaking down habits.  

Want to flip the switch? Here are some research backed things you can start doing today:


Without getting into the complexities of the brain, the basic idea is that in order to function, we have to be on autopilot for a lot of it—it’s not so much a matter of interest as it is an equation of effort and energy. So when things we do become unconscious acts, it frees up conscious space for things we need to be more aware of. This is part of why breaking habits and starting new ones is so hard: Even if you want to make a change in your heart, your head’s already busy running the program that gets you through the day. Set yourself up for success by putting little flags in your day, markers that pull you out of your autopilot,  and force redirect you toward where you want to go. Everyday at 3:00 you walk to the office kitchen (and coincidentally by the candy bowl) to socialize? Perhaps break it up by taking a walk outside.


Self-control is a big one and researchers have found our ability to avoid certain things (read: cookies, sweets, bad habits, and the like) isn’t really actually about self control. Turns out, if we don’t have the temptation in front of us, we’re less likely to go out of our way to get it. For college kids, this means not studying in a room with a tv and friends; for someone trying to not eat cookies at midnight, it means not having cookies in the house to begin with. It’s a much easier decision to not buy something than it is to not eat it a few hours later. 


We are programmed to think that the things that are good for us need to be earned and therefore must be difficult to attain. Willpower falls neatly into this paradigm. Eating healthy, exercising, productivity all come with some sort of mental thumb wrestling, but they don’t have to. In other words: if you want to exercise more, find exercises you enjoy doing. If you don’t want to do a certain thing, make it really inconvenient to do that thing. If the decision is made prior to bringing willpower into the equation, your likelihood for success expands. 


The more aware you are of the habit you want to break, the better you are at formulating a strategy to change it. We suggest looking at the who, what, when, where, and why of what triggers a habit. In other words: your emotional state, who you’re around, when it happens and where it happens. Once you identify your triggers, you can replace them with a different action. If you turn the kitchen light off every night before bedtime and it just so happens that is when your cravings kick in, well, then make sure that light is turned off a few hours before. 


Deprivation does not work. So instead of denying yourself of old habits, replace them with activities that are equally rewarding. Instead of playing on your phone to tune out from the day, try going on a walk. Instead of watching tv at night—knowing that’s when you also usually go for a mindless snack—try reading a book or learning a new skill. 

Remember, a thought becomes an action, a repeated action becomes a habit and habits change behavior. It doesn’t happen at once but it does happen one step at a time.