top of page

Why willpower doesn't work for long-term change

Let’s start from the top.

Willpower, or self-control is defined as:

The capacity of the individual to alter, modify, change, or override his or her impulses, desires, and habitual responses’

Basically, self-control is our ability to exert control over ourselves, and the term can be used interchangeably with ‘discipline’, ‘self-regulation’, or ‘willpower’.

When we use our willpower (or discipline, or self-control), it’s often great! You know the feeling. You’ve gotten out of bed instead of hitting the snooze button, you’ve gone to the gym after work instead of heading straight home, you’ve made dinner instead of ordering take away. You are now ‘in the zone’ and ready to conquer your old habits, right?

Hmmm, not quite!

The problem with willpower is that it is finite. Willpower requires effort, attention, and mental energy, and this pool of mental energy is not an endless wellspring … at some stage it runs out!

So if we use it to get out of bed when we planned to, and then go to the gym after work, then it may be dried up when we are making the decision to cook food or order take away (‘Oh well, I was craving takeout anyway!’).

Another limitation with willpower is that it is universal. We don't just use it for the habits that we want to change, we use it for everything that takes up mental energy in all areas of our life - from deciding what to wear in the morning, to getting the kids to school on time, navigating peak-hour traffic, getting through a work meeting, choosing to eat a healthy lunch, etc, etc. Then when we get to making decisions about our afternoon activities, we no longer have the mental energy to overcome the voice that says, ‘Go home, skip the gym and get takeout on the way'.

This phenomenon is what psychologists call ego depletion: when we use up our available willpower on preceding tasks and – as a result – we are unable to exert the same level of self-control on subsequent, often unrelated tasks.

I like to describe willpower as like a muscle and like any muscle, it can be used for a period of time. But also like any muscle, it will fatigue. And if it works too much during the day, it will wear out and need a rest before it can be used again.

So how can we build our willpower?

Just as our willpower is used like a muscle, and depletes like a muscle, thank goodness – it also replenishes like a muscle! And in order to make the best use of our willpower, it is important to understand what depletes and what replenishes it.

Here is a table of what lowers and raises our reservoir of willpower:

When I understood how ego-depletion works, it completely changed my life. I realised that I wasn't a failure, I was just trying to use an empty, depleted resource. I've also found that when I share about ego-depletion in my corporate presentations and programs, people express incredible benefits.

But the life I would most like for it to change next is yours. So the next time you snooze the alarm, lose it at the guy in traffic, miss the gym, or order the take away, I invite you to reflect on how your newfound understanding of ego depletion may have played a role in those scenarios. Ask yourself if this is an opportunity for self-understanding and compassion (because everyone’s mental muscles get tired from time to time)? Or maybe it is an opportunity to reflect on what is depleting and replenishing your willpower, and make a plan to build it up a bit more for the future? Or maybe it's a bit of both :)

You can learn more about ego-depletion and other habit-change goodies, on my podcast chat with psychologist and my good friend, Glenn Mackintosh.


bottom of page