Why Willpower Doesn’t Work – And What Does

Willpower – something we’ve all heard at one time or another. Is it something we run out of? Is it something we can get more of? “Weight loss comes down to willpower,” they say. Let me tell you the truth — it doesn’t. Here’s why:

When Willpower Fatigues

When you first wake up, what the first 5 decisions you make?

A few that might come up…

Do I go for a run, hit the weights or skip the gym today?

Should I make a smoothie for breakfast or stop by Starbucks?

Do I wear a dress or blazer to work/class?

Should I pack a lunch or go out somewhere?

Do I bike, walk, drive or take the bus to work/class?

What to wear, what to eat, what to say, what to do — so many choices!

By the end of the day, it’s estimated that we’ve made over 35,000 decisions! That’s A LOT of brain power!

On the note of eating, researchers at Cornell* found that people make an average of 226.7 decisions about food alone. And we leave those up to willpower? It’s no wonder we can’t seem to stay on track! In other words, willpower wilts due to decision fatigue.

Decision Fatigue

In a more detailed article on decision fatigue, NY Times science columnist John Tierney cites that:

“The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts, usually in either of two very different ways. One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences. (Sure, tweet that photo! What could go wrong?) The other shortcut is the ultimate energy saver: do nothing. Instead of agonizing over decisions, avoid any choice. Ducking a decision often creates bigger problems in the long run, but for the moment, it eases the mental strain.”

As humans, our brains like to conserve energy. Even for the smartest people, decision-making skills are limited. What does this mean for our health?

The more decisions you make, the more fatigued your brain becomes. By the end of a long, decision-exhausted day, your willpower is nearly non-existent. That’s typically when we resist the gym, forgo our fitness plans and let our diet go out the window.

This is why Mark Zuckerberg wears the same t-shirt every day. He doesn’t want to spend mental energy on making trivial decisions, like what to wear or what to eat for breakfast – which leaves more time to the important decisions (and it seems to be effective!).

In conclusion, willpower doesn’t work. What does? Automating your little decisions so that you spend time on the ones that count. This means planning workouts, meals, outfits ahead of time, so that when the day comes, your brain doesn’t have to do the work, and your body doesn’t suffer as a result.

I’m curious – have you found any “hacks” to your own willpower? Comment below and let me know!

Recommended Reads + Resources

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business

willpower the power of habit charles duhigg

Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue? via New York Times

*Wansink, Brian and Jeffrey Sobal (2007), “Mindless Eating: The 200 Daily Food Decisions We Overlook,” Environment and Behavior 39:1, 106-123

How Willpower Works: How to Avoid Bad Decisions