Why You Should Never, Ever Rely on Willpower

I see it all the time.

My friends have great big plans for their lives. I’m talking really glorious ideas: to lose weight, travel the world, start a business, start a family, quit smoking, quit shopping, or finally organize the garage.

However, despite their best intentions, they never quite reach their goals. Oh, they might make progress for a few days…maybe a week.

But sooner or later they’re back to square one, lamenting about how they wish they could achieve those big dreams.

At first, they might not understand why they keep failing, but after a little prodding, it becomes clear.

They tend to rely on a thing called “willpower.” And when willpower lets them down (as it always does), they’re left scratching their heads about what went wrong.

“I want to stick to a diet, but I don’t have the willpower.”

“I’d like to wake up at a decent hour, but I don’t have the willpower.”

“I know I don’t need to buy any more shoes (really, a hundred pairs is enough), but I don’t have the willpower.”

And you know what? They’re right!

They DON’T have the willpower to do those things…and maybe you don’t either.

Thankfully, willpower isn’t necessary to accomplish any of your goals.

What Is Willpower?

Willpower is that feeling inside you that gives you the strength to make a good choice in a tough situation.

Willpower helps you pass up that tray of brownies at a friend’s dinner party or reminds you to save a portion of your paycheck before you blow it on whatever shiny new object you found on Pinterest.

Why Doesn’t Willpower Work?

Here’s the thing—willpower is a LIMITED resource.

Unlike sarcasm or your uncanny ability to recite ‘90s TV theme songs (“In West Philadelphia, born and raised…”), your willpower will eventually go away.

If you spend all day pushing your willpower to the brink, sooner or later you’ll snap and run off and do whatever it is you’ve been avoiding.

And that’s when you’ll wake up one morning either (1) naked in bed next to your best friend’s boyfriend or (2) on the kitchen floor with cake in your hair and potato chip crumbs on your butt.

And then you’ll feel like crap because you ran out of willpower…again.

A Better Idea

Instead of relying on willpower and then feeling like a loser when you fail, I want you to focus your energy on something that is a bajillion times more powerful: planning.

Planning is stronger than willpower. Every time.

When you know you are going to face a difficult situation that will test your willpower (isn’t that, like, every day?), mentally press “pause” and come up with a plan.

Let’s say you need to stop shopping online when you’re bored. Your plan might include the following steps:

  • Unsubscribe from all those store email lists
  • Shut down your computer at a specific time every night (say 8:00 pm)
  • Take up a hobby to keep your mind busy (try a new sport or photography)
  • Set up more date nights or get-togethers with friends (but not for shopping!)
  • Transfer $10 into your savings account whenever you get the urge to shop
  • Have a friend come over and help you remix your clothes into new outfits without having to spend a dime
  • Write down your savings goals (for example, to own a house), and tape it to your credit card

With a plan in place, you’ll know exactly what to do the next time you’re feeling the pressure to do that not-so-good thing.

Willpower can only get you so far, but planning will give you the tools and resources to support you when you need help.

How do you feel about willpower?

When has planning paid off for you in your life?

Want to learn more about planning and systems? Grab your FREE copy of my ebook From Lazy to Amazing! 5 Easy Ways to Get Off Your Butt and Start Kicking Ass.

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  1. Ashley Laabs on March 24, 2015 at 6:24 pm

    Yes, yes, yes, yes, YES. Priorities and Planning. Whenever I get stressed out I always ask myself, “What do I want to spend my willpower on?” I budget it like money for the things that matter most. I know I’m not going to eat my ideal diet when I’m studying to get a new job. I know I’m not going to be working out 4 times a week if I obligate myself to networking events. My plans reflect my priorities and my priorities get my willpower. I’ve been meaning to write about this, and your post has reignited my passion about it!

  2. Betsy/Zen Mama on August 8, 2014 at 4:32 pm

    Great advice!! I’m going to grab your ebook, too!

    • Sage Grayson on August 9, 2014 at 12:22 pm

      Thanks so much, Betsy! 🙂

  3. Tinfoilstiaras on July 11, 2012 at 8:52 am

    Sage, this post couldn’t come at a better time for me regarding my lack of willpower when it comes to shopping. If I have a credit card, I treat it like disposable income and go nuts! I looked at my budget the other day and have been spending 50% of my salary on shopping which is insane! So yesterday I opened a tax free savings account and RSP and am saving for my future, one chunk at a time. (Plus I’m contemplating freezing my credit card in a block of ice!)

  4. Molly on July 10, 2012 at 4:27 pm

    As always, great advice! Planning is so powerful. I’ve learned not to rely on my willpower and have become a very organized planner, which has helped me in a lot of ways- financially, emotionally and physically. There are still things I need to work on, but it’s just a matter of me making a plan for them. 🙂

  5. GlutenFreeHappyTummy on July 10, 2012 at 9:38 am

    this is so so true! great advice!

  6. xvavaveganx on July 9, 2012 at 2:54 pm

    a) Cute blazer!!!
    b) “On the playground is where I spent most of my days”
    c) More amazing advice! I agree with you, planning is definitely stronger than willpower. I’m a virgo so luckily I’m a master at planning 😉 I also love the idea of taking up a new hobby. I’m trying to find something that will fit into my busy schedule 🙂

    • Sage on July 10, 2012 at 8:52 am

      Thanks, Sarah! I just got the blazer. Green makes me happy. 🙂

      The Fresh Prince of Bel Air theme song is stuck in my head most days. Same with the “na na na na” from Clarissa Explains It All.

      I’m a planner too, but I sometimes get caught up in all the planning and never actually DO what I’m planning to do. Is that an Aquarius thing? I sometimes like the process more than the endpoint. I have million notebooks filled with ideas and lists.

  7. Cara on July 9, 2012 at 1:33 pm

    Oh willpower not to eat dessert fails me almost every time! The only time I do ok is when I plan to brush my teeth immediately after dinner. So smart Sage, love the $10 saving tip for shopping. I’m going to give that one a try!

    Love your buttonflower AND the green/orange combo! 😀

    • Sage on July 9, 2012 at 1:48 pm

      Yeah, I have no willpower when it comes to desserts too! I try to save little amounts of money at a time whenever I think about it. It really adds up. I also unsubscribed from a lot of store email lists because the ads were just too tempting.

      Check out Megan’s store for her handmade buttonflowers and obi belts. They’re super cute.

  8. Shybiker on July 9, 2012 at 10:24 am

    Smart advice, as always, but what really drew me in here was Megan’s buttonflower. So glad to see you join the ranks of the Meganistas!

    • Sage on July 9, 2012 at 1:49 pm

      “Meganistas”–I like that! 🙂

  9. Megan Gann on July 9, 2012 at 1:11 pm

    These are some fantastic ideas. Willpower alone is not enough. Making concrete plans and goals are important even for the little things.

    Also omgomgomgomgomg I LOVE this look with the buttonflower. It is perfect with that jacket. Please say I can use one of those photos for a Sunday feature!

    • Sage on July 9, 2012 at 1:45 pm

      Thanks, Megan! Of course you can use these photos for your Sunday feature. Sorry I seem to be making goofy faces in both pictures…but I make weird faces in every picture, so whatever!

      As soon as I bought this jacket (from Anthopologie), I knew it would look great with your buttonflower. Green and orange are my favorite colors. 🙂

      • Megan Gann on July 9, 2012 at 2:18 pm

        Awesome! Thanks, I think your expressions are always the best part of your posts. You’re very animated. I pretty much make the same face in every picture ever.