Willpower is one of those concepts that everyone assumes they understand. Yet most people are wrong about what it really is, where it comes from, and how much of it they have. Being wrong about willpower does more than place you at risk of losing points on a psychology quiz. It prevents you from taking advantage of the ability you have to “manufacture” as much willpower as you need.
So, what is willpower?
Willpower is basically a measure of your ability to do what you intend to do when you don’t feel like doing it. The more strongly opposed you feel to doing what you intend to do, the more willpower you’ll need in order to behave that way anyway.
But there’s more to the story.
Suppose you’ve decided to swear off donuts. A friend offers you an especially delicious-looking donut, and you really, really want it. Will you have enough willpower to say NO despite the powerful urge to say YES? Let’s say your intention turns out to be no match for the donut. As you lick the last of the crumbs and frosting off your fingers, you conclude, “I just don’t have enough willpower.”
Your conclusion may seem perfectly logical. But it’s actually wrong. It only seems right because of a faulty assumption you’re making. You’re assuming that willpower is like physical strength – that you own a more or less a fixed amount of it; that willpower doesn’t really vary much from situation to situation.
Nothing could be further from the truth. How much willpower you have depends a whole lot on the particular situation you’re in. You can be in a situation that robs you of every ounce of willpower. And you can be in a situation that gives you more willpower than you’ve ever dreamed of having. What’s more, it’s possible to deliberately engineer situations to manufacture all the willpower you need.
To illustrate how situations affect willpower, let’s take another look at the donut situation. Suppose just as you were about to give in to temptation, your friend tells you that you will have to pay for the donut. “How much?” you ask. “Fifteen thousand dollars,” she answers. “I’m serious,” she adds. “I can see how much you want it.”
So, now do you have enough willpower to say “No thanks” to that yummy donut? I’ll bet you do! If willpower is something you just have a certain amount of, how come you suddenly have so much of it? Where did this sudden influx of willpower come from?
The answer is, it was manufactured by the situation. Putting an outrageous price tag on what had been an irresistible donut made the donut quite resistible. As a result of changing the situation, you went from not having enough willpower to having plenty. The new situation, in other words, gave your intention all the “lifting power” it needed to triumph over temptation.
Whether we recognize it or not, situations always play a major role in determining how much willpower we have. Not only can the right situations give our intentions extraordinary lifting power, the wrong situations can – and routinely do – rob us of willpower.
For example, if you intend to curb your spending and you go shopping with more money than you intend to spend, there’s a good chance you won’t have enough willpower to resist the temptation to buy something you see and really want. If on the other hand, you deliberately engineer the situation wisely by seeing to it that you literally can’t spend any more than you intend to, you’ll have all the willpower you need to succeed. The same goes for what (or how much) you intend to eat. A situation that makes food you don’t intend to eat easily accessible is guaranteed to rob you of willpower. On the other hand, you can manufacture willpower by wisely engineering a situation to make food you don’t intend to eat less accessible.
Here’s how Joe finally got all the willpower he needed to stick with an exercise program. He engineered a situation that compelled him – despite his reluctance – to go to the gym every day. All he did was make a commitment to keep his one and only stick of deodorant in his locker at the gym. That’s all it took! It made all the difference in the world for Joe to know that the price he would have to pay for not going to the gym was smelling badly all day long. Suddenly he had more than enough willpower to get to the gym every day. And because he knew he would feel pretty foolish going to the gym to do nothing more than use his deodorant, he exercised.
The bottom line is that it’s meaningless and self-defeating to see yourself as lacking willpower. If you learn how to wisely and creatively engineer situations instead of just taking them as they come, you can manufacture all the willpower you need to succeed.