Willpower Doesn’t Matter

In my last post I talked about the importance of motivation and the use of tools to help turn motivation into action.  But what about willpower?  How important is having willpower to achieving weight loss?  In all the years I’ve worked (or not) on weight loss, I’ve so often heard people say something like, “I need more willpower.”  And, I’ve heard some criticize others for not losing weight, saying that all they need is willpower and if they just had willpower, then they would lose weight.  Is this true?  I’m not sure that it is.  I certainly don’t think that it mattered much for me.

Part of the problem with “willpower” is that people mean different things by the term.  This definition of willpower at Merriam-Webster is “energetic determination.”  I’m not sure that definition really tells me much.  Sometimes “willpower” seems to be used to mean self-control or being disciplined.  With many people who say that all you need to lose weight is willpower, there is a sort of implication that willpower is a kind of inner strength that allows you to prevail against temptation.  And, if you don’t have “willpower” then the implication is that you are weak.

Regardless of the definition of willpower, I still find it too vague to be helpful to me in losing weight.  Willpower is often treated as something that one has or doesn’t have and that with it you succeed at weight loss and without it you are powerless to do anything against the temptation of food.  The problem for me comes with trying to put my hands on it to figure out how to get it.  It is easy to say that I want more willpower, but how do I get some?  Where does it come from?  Is it something I can consciously go get or is it something innate that I either have or don’t have?

Some might say that this type of uncertainty also applies to motivation.  But, to me, it doesn’t.  Motivation to me is simply what you want to have happen.  I am motivated to lose weight if I want to lose weight and then use that want to take action to achieve that goal.  I can understand that in very concrete terms.  The issue there as I mentioned in my last post is that we often have competing and contradictory motivations.  But, even so, I still understand what I am motivated to do and what I am not motivated to do.  Figuring out if I have willpower is much more vague.

But, for me, willpower just doesn’t matter.  I don’t that every had much willpower.  I don’t know if I had energetic determination or if I had much self control or discipline.  I mean, yes, I exercised self-control and discipline to lose over 60 pounds.  But, I see that is more the product of making my desire to lose weight a primary motivation and then acting to achieve that goal by using various tools.

Self control or discipline without motivation wouldn’t lead to much weight loss.  And, even if I had self “energetic determination,”  I still wouldn’t have lost weight without using many of the tools that helped me to move from motivation to action.

Using the term “willpower” seems to short circuit the importance of both motivation and tools.  Saying someone just needs “willpower” seems like a way to trivialize the hard work I needed to engage in while I was losing weight.  It was all so much more difficult than just having willpower.

When I hear someone say “I need more willpower,” I almost wince.  I want to say, “No, you don’t.” I want to ask that person to determine how motivated they are to lose weight and if that motivation is winning the motivation competition, then I want that person to focus on what tools will help to achieve weight loss.  For me, whenever I didn’t use my weight loss tools to achieve weight loss one of two things was going on.  In some cases, I wasn’t using the tools because weight loss wasn’t my primary motivation.  I wanted to lose weight, but I wanted other things more.  In other cases, I had the motivation, but I didn’t have the right tools.

For example, for a long time I wanted to do strength training.  But, it just never seemed to consistently happen.  I bought a set of weights for the house, but I would slack off and not use them.  I joined the Y and went for awhile and used their machines and weights, but I would get busy and suddenly realize I hadn’t been there in weeks.  During all of this, I really did feel strength training was important and wanted to do it.  The problem really wasn’t my motivation.  It was more a problem with tools.  Not long after feeling that way and failing at strength training at home, I did strength training very consistently for year.  What happened?  Did I develop more willpower?  No.

I started working with a personal trainer.  The two big factors there was that I each week had an appointment for the sessions that was set in advance and I tend to keep my appointments.  And, if I cancelled too many appointments at the last minute I would have to pay for the missed session and I don’t like to waste money.  And, over that year, I very consistently went to my strength training.  Willpower had nothing to do with it.  I simply found a tool (using a personal trainer), that enabled me to use my existing motivation to make changes.

Focusing on willpower would not have been helpful to me.  Yes, maybe in an ideal world, I would be the kind of person who would say in advance that I was going to strength train at home every Monday and Wednesday and I would do that and never miss a beat.  And, maybe there would be a time that could happen.  But, it wasn’t happening at the time.  I guess I could have just hoped I would develop the elusive willpower and would do that.  But, rather than do that I just found a tool where I would do the strength training whether I had willpower or not. Willpower didn’t matter for me.  Motivation and the right tools did matter.



  1. Maggie says

    Thanks for your insightful posts. You’ve put a lot of thought into them. You’ve addressed willpower and motivation in meaningful ways.

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