ACT Mindfully

The ‘Willpower’ Trap

All of us, at times, fail to make important changes in our life, even though we know it would be good for us. And we’re all well-practised at coming up with reasons to justify it. And two of the most common of these reasons are ‘I’ve got no willpower’ or ‘I’ve got no discipline’. Our mind can easily hook us with these stories, and turn them into self-fulfilling prophecies. The fantasy our minds conjure up is that there is something called ‘discipline’ or ‘willpower’ and once we possess this thing, we’ll be able to start doing what really matters.

This fantasy is reinforced by everyday language: when we hear, ‘It takes discipline to get up early in the morning and go to the gym’, it sounds like there is some magic potion called ‘discipline’, and until we have this magic potion, we can’t get up early and go to the gym.

Unfortunately, if we buy into this fantasy, then we encounter one of two problems.

Problem one: we go off in search of the magic potion – reading books or doing courses to try and develop more willpower or discipline – instead of committing to action right now.
Problem two: we decide the magic potion is unobtainable, and we give up on doing what matters because we ‘don’t have enough’ discipline or willpower.

So let’s be clear: there is no magic potion; there is no chemical, hormone, gene or part of the brain called ‘discipline’ or ‘willpower’. These words are merely descriptive labels; they are ways of describing a pattern of committed action. When we say someone has ‘discipline’ or ‘willpower’, what we mean is this: this person consistently commits to acting on their values, and doing what is required to achieve their goals – even when they don’t feel like doing it.
Another way to put this is: actions come first, feelings later.

First, we learn to act consistently on our values, whether we are feeling good or bad, tired or energised, anxious or calm, happy or miserable, ‘in the mood for it’ or not.
And only after we have established the habit of acting on our values even when we don’t feel like it, will we feel like we have discipline or willpower.
Therefore, next time you notice your mind say, ‘I’ve got no willpower’, take a moment to consider: what purpose might this story serve? Changing our behaviour will inevitably bring up uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. So if we hold on tightly to the story that ‘I can’t change because I don’t have the willpower’, then it saves us from having to experience those uncomfortable feelings. In other words, our minds tell us this story to help us escape from pain. But what is the long term cost of buying this story?

So next time this story pops into your head, ask yourself, ‘If I let this story dictate what I do, will it take my life in the direction I want to go?’
Then ask yourself, ‘Am I willing to take action, to do what enriches my life in the long term, even though it’s uncomfortable, and even though my mind is saying I don’t have the willpower to do it?’
And if your answer is yes, then ACT: Accept your thoughts and feelings, Choose a valued direction, and Take action mindfully.

Thanks to Dr Russ Harris for this post. Love & Laughter ~ John

One reply on “The ‘Willpower’ Trap”

Very nice post. Am trying to get fitter and lose weight. Every time I eat I now consider the consequence of my action in relation to my long term and permanent goals… if I waiver too much from the healthy path, I just delay the achievement of my own goals! Which seems silly. Of course one needs balance, too … but it’s the right step in the right direction for me!

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