There’s no such thing as willpower

To hear people talk about willpower you would think it was some mystical power that we all have to varying degrees. Those with a lot of will power are able to do difficult things like give up smoking or lose weight, while – or so it would seem – those with a low level of willpower are doomed to continue smoking or continue to be overweight. The reality is not so simple.

As human beings we are complex creatures, and part of that complexity is facing conflicting desires. I want to lose weight, but I also want that extra portion of potatoes and a piece of cake to follow it. I can’t have it both ways, so what happens? Well, in short what will happen is that I will follow the course of action that represents what I want more. If losing weight is more important to me than enjoying those calories, then I will resist the temptation. However, if the pleasure of consuming those calories appeals more than the idea of losing weight, I will choose to tuck in. There is no magical or mystical ‘willpower’ – it boils down to which we want more.

What complicates matters is that much will depend on the circumstances at the time – that is, there will be contextual factors that will influence which preference I rate above another at any given moment. If someone has just really annoyed me by, for example, promising to do something by a particular time and then putting me in a very difficult position when they don’t actually do it, then my preference for ‘comfort eating’ to manage my feelings of annoyance and disappointment at that point may displace my desire to lose weight, and so I go for the extra food option. However, consider a different scenario. Imagine that I have just found out that someone I know who was quite overweight has died of a heart attack at just 49 years of age. At that moment my commitment to losing weight is more likely to come to the fore, enabling me to find it easier to resist those tempting calories.

There will be other factors too. Today it’s a friend’s birthday and everyone is overeating, so I find it much easier to join in the indulgence. Tomorrow, though, I may well find myself breathless after walking up two flights of stairs and I will be determined to decline the biscuits that will be offered at the meeting I am going to.

What will make a difference is how consistent we can manage to be. If, for example, I am determined to lose weight, then I know that I must be consistent in how I approach the subject. Being careful about what I eat and taking exercise one day and stuffing my face, with no exercise the next will not help me achieve what I want to. And, in addition, there is a fair chance that I will feel disappointed in myself for letting myself down – allegedly because I see myself as ‘lacking will power’, which comes to be seen as a personal failing. In turn, that can become an excuse, an example of bad faith, when we say to ourselves: ‘There’s no point trying to lose weight. I haven’t got the willpower’.

There is, then, no ‘willpower’ that we need to harness. We just need to be clear which of the conflicting desires is more important to us and try to be as consistent as we can in evolving circumstances. It can help too to be aware of who and what will influence our choices, so that we are in a stronger, better-informed position to make the choices that matter to us.

Take control

Having little or no sense of control is a key factor in stress. People who are under immense pressure will often not get stressed while they have some degree of control over those pressures. At the same time, some people can face fairly modest levels of pressure, but be highly stressed because they have little sense of control over the circumstances they are in. Control, or our sense of control, will often be the difference between being stressed and not. A vicious circle can easily develop in which feeling stressed affects our coping abilities and then we feel that we have less control. Our sense of control goes down and down.

Similarly, control is a factor in anxiety. People who are feeling anxious much of the time will generally have concerns about control – feeling very uneasy about either what they can’t control (what is often referred to as ‘worry’, emotional energy going into things we can do little or nothing about) or what they can control (often referred to as Angst or anguish – anxiety about making the wrong choice or getting a decision wrong). Worry and anguish can be very different, with different causes and different consequences. However, what they have in common is our sense of control (or lack of it). Feeling anxious can make us feel even less in control, and so another vicious circle around control develops – anxiety begets anxiety.

Furthermore, control can be seen as an important factor in depression. Often depression arises from a sense of powerlessness that can overwhelm us in certain circumstances – we feel overtaken by a sense of having no control: nothing works, nothing makes a difference, and so we retreat. That retreat, the withdrawal (for our own safety and security) gives us less control over our situation, reinforcing our sense of powerlessness. And there we have it, another vicious circle.

To cap it all, being involved in a vicious circle can in itself undermine our sense of control, our sense of ‘personal efficacy’, to use the technical term. We feel disempowered by it.

Of course, no one has complete control over their circumstances; there will always be things that we can do nothing about. The philosophical term for this is ‘facticity’. If you are cut, you will bleed. You have no choice in the matter. However, it is also true to say that there is never a situation that we have no control over – there is always some way we can (and have to) react to the situation. What that means is that, in all circumstances, we are always somewhere along the continuum between complete control and no control. Or, to put it another way, in every situation there we will be things we can’t control, but there will also be things we can control.

However, having strong sense of having little or no control (because we are stressed, anxious, depressed or for whatever other reason) can mean that we focus too much on what we can’t control, and what we can control becomes blurred, out of focus and unclear to us. What can then happen is a process known as ‘self-disempowerment’. We develop an unbalanced perspective on the situation, with the issues that constrain us brightly illuminated and the factors that empower us hidden in the shadows.

So, one important thing for us to do (and perhaps help others to do at times) is to try and develop a more balanced picture of the circumstances we are in, avoiding the unhelpful extremes of (i) the ‘nothing is impossible’ naivety of overoptimism; and (ii) the destructive defeatism and cynicism of a ‘there’s nothing I can do about it’ attitude. The first step is to be crystal clear about what you can control and get busy controlling it as best you can.