Tag Archive: change

Are you focusing too much on willpower?

People often beat themselves up for not having enough willpower. But what good does that actually do?

A lot of times, it’s a cop-out. You engage in some degree of self-flagellation (“I’m so weak! I don’t exercise, and I procrastinate on all my work!”), but once that’s out of the way, nothing changes. Maybe you feel a little more ineffectual or unhappy, but that’s it.

What is willpower anyway? There’s an assumption that it’s an independent force in the mind. Tweak it somehow, and the New Year’s resolutions you’ve already abandoned will become possibilities.

But what affects willpower, and is it even the main driving force behind change? It probably isn’t productive to think about change as simply a matter of willpower. There are other issues to consider – patterns of behavior, thoughts, and feelings that have locked you into your current life.


The Best Gift You Can Give Yourself This Year: Self-Awareness

It probably won’t come as any surprise to you, but most people don’t keep their New Year’s resolutions (close to 80% of people, in some studies). Less than a month has gone by since New Year’s Day, and already there will be people who lapsed.

The mindset of making resolutions, and the futility people feel, is of course a delight to businesses and advertisers (check out this neat cartoon contrasting pre-Christmas ads with those that pop up afterwards). So what are resolutions good for if they so often do nothing but making us shill out money on products and services we’ll rarely use? Why do they fail?

I think it’s because they’re so often made with a lack of awareness. If you really want to improve your life, the best gift you can give yourself is self-awareness. This means doing your best to actually keep track of what you do and figure out why you do it.

How can awareness help?

  • Many resolutions are abstract. You say, “I’ll get in shape.” (Ok, how?) “I’ll go to the gym.” (When?) “I don’t know… after work maybe.” (How often?) “Four, five times a week?” (Every week?) “Shut up.” In all seriousness, you have to work out the specifics. This doesn’t mean that you have to rigidly stick to whatever plan you come up with – things will probably change, and you’ll need to make adjustments. All it means is that, in advance, you try to work out the practicalities, come up with backup plans, and anticipate what can hold you back and how to work around it.
  • Many people make resolutions without being aware of why they’re making them. The fact that it’s New Year’s can put you in the mood to improve, but that won’t be enough to keep you going. Why is it you want to make a specific resolution? Why is it important to you?
  • Many resolutions are framed in such a way that you set yourself up to fail. People set unrealistic, rigid goals, then feel discouraged when they fall short of them. There’s also an all-or-nothing approach to resolutions that makes people feel like they’re constantly failing (“If I don’t manage to write X amount of pages a day or do X amount of minutes of exercise a day, then I give up completely.”) Lapses are treated as excuses to beat yourself up and go back to doing exactly what you’ve always done, which may be unsatisfying but is at least comfortable. There’s no need to see resolutions as summary judgments of your worth or tests that assign you a fixed score. Change is a lifelong process, and there will be better days and worse days.
  • Many people don’t keep track of their behaviors. When you try to change yourself, you’re working against long-standing habits of thought and behavior. These have a powerful pull. If you don’t keep track of your own behavior, you’ll usually find yourself falling into the same rut as before. Instead of looking at your resolutions through the binary of ‘complete success’ or ‘complete failure,’ just keep track on a regular basis of what you do. For instance, if your goal is to be more productive at work, keep track of how many pages you write per day, or how much time it takes you to do some specific task; if your aim is to control your temper more, keep track of when you snap. You’ll probably notice patterns – maybe during times when you’re struggling, there’s something else going on (some stress in your life, such as lack of sleep or a fight with a family member). You’ll also notice if you start falling into the way you used to do things, and you’ll be in a better position to change what you do. These changes can be made incrementally, and they don’t need to be perfect.

Self-reflection and awareness don’t depend on New Year’s or any other day of the year. Start now, start slowly, and remember that you’re human.