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Willpower … Forget it

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Years ago when I was in corporate America, I stopped by a friend’s house to visit before heading home. I had left work about 8:00p.m. my usual exhausted and hungry self. I went into my friend’s refrigerator to find something to eat (We’re practically family so it was okay to do that). I decided on ice cream even though there were more healthy choices available.

I didn’t just eat one bowl. I proceeded to eat the entire pint. Then, as my friend tells the story, I got mad at her for not stopping me after I had eaten all of her ice cream. I literally couldn’t make myself stop eating. Why not?

Have you ever started the day full of plans for a fun evening after work only to drag yourself through the door ten hours later too tired to move. All you want to do is flop onto the coach and watch TV. What happened to all those plans? Why couldn’t you “make” yourself go out?

And, what about those New Year’s resolutions? Whether it’s sticking to a diet, going to the gym or stopping some bad habit, why are resolutions so hard to keep? You’d think it would be just the opposite since we usually feel so much better. Why can’t we “make” ourselves stick to our goals?

Where is our willpower? Why can’t we muster enough energy to make ourselves change a behavior or acquire a positive, new habit? I’ve asked myself these question many times.

Here’s the answer

It turns out that the reason relying on willpower is usually so ineffective is that we humans have a limited supply. Psychological studies conducted by Roy Baumeister prove that all willpower comes from the same source. And, even though the tasks may be completely unrelated, the willpower fuel is coming from the same well.

Take me, for example. Some of the days I had in corporate America took all the willpower in my tank just to get through the day. The evening I went to visit my friend was one of those days. I had no willpower left over to “make” myself put the lid back on that ice cream box. The path of least resistance was to eat the ice cream.

Now, please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not justifying slovenly behavior. Far from it. I actually see this as very good news because it allows us to better control how we form new habits and reach our goals. We can more effectively set ourselves up for success by not relying on sheer willpower.


Habits become habits because they become the path of least resistance. They don’t deplete our energy or brainpower because they are automatic. Examples, include flopping in front of the Screen Shot 2015-01-29 at 9.51.35 AMTV after work instead of going to the gym or eating a pint of ice cream instead of a healthy dinner. It’s just so much easier especially if our willpower reserves have been used up just getting through the day.

Knowing that sheer willpower will only get us so far, how do we make positive change in our lives? Make the positive change easy to do. Continuing with my ice cream example, I just don’t keep it in the house because I know my habit. If I want ice cream, I have to get in the car, go to the store and bring it home. That’s a lot of trouble. Doing without it is the path of least resistance. It’s the easiest thing to do and supports the positive habit I want to cultivate.

Instead of relying on willpower, set new habits up to be the easiest course of action, the path of least resistance.

Is there some change you would like to make that just doesn’t seem to be happening no matter how hard you try? How can you make it easy to do? As an example, perhaps you want to practice yoga regularly at home but it’s hard to stick to your plan. Here are some ideas for making it happen:

  • Roll out your mat the night before
  • Sleep in your yoga clothes (seriously)
  • Keep the practice really short – 5 minutes or less – and set a timer
  • Give yourself a little reward for doing it

I know folks who put a gold star on a wall calendar everyday they do a desired behavior. It may sound like kindergarten but it really does work.

Little by little, this new behavior will become habit and the path of least resistance.

Enjoy and Breathe Easy.

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Joanne Thompson

Joanne Thompson

Founder/Owner at Yoga for Self

Health is a precious gift and my goal is to help you live a healthier, happier life through yoga. Every private session is uniquely designed just for you. For a free telephone consultation call me at 303.818.4181. Discover whether personalized, private yoga instruction is right for you.
Joanne Thompson

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