5 Reasons Why Willpower Won’t Work

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Have you ever thought that if you could just lose some weight, get toned or drop two dress sizes you’d finally love your body? Have you attempted to use willpower and a rigid plan (usually involving food restrictions, supplements and/or rigorous fitness programs) in order to accomplish your goal?

How’d it work out for you? Did you end up falling short and losing motivation? Or did you meet your goal only to find that it was unsustainable in the long term?

If you answered yes to these questions – you aren’t alone.

Many of us try to reject our bodies into acceptance. We create and enforce rules meant to change them. Inevitably, we rebel, “fall off the wagon” and blame ourselves. Usually, guilt then leads to emotional eating and self-sabotage which cycles back to dissatisfaction and repeated attempts at “fixing” our body issues by force.

While I am certainly a fan of nutritious diets (and by “diets” I mean “ways of eating” not weight loss focused calorie deficits) and regular exercise, I’ve come to realize that withholding love and acceptance from our bodies until we can muster enough willpower to change them is an extremely flawed strategy.

Willpower IS NOT the problem.

And what’s more – willpower doesn’t actually work.

Here’s why:


Will power is not an infinite resource that we can simply tap into any and every time we are faced with temptation. Instead, it’s more like a muscle. While willpower is something that can be strengthened with practice, it’s also subject to fatigue resulting from overuse or extreme exertion. Thus, while denying the dessert tray on most occasions may not be a problem for you, rejecting sweets religiously without any deviation from your “no sugar” rules might just be a recipe for disaster. Harsh and constant resistance depletes resolve. If you’re depending on your “willpower muscles” to carry you to your dietary goals, don’t be surprised if you eventually find yourself  unable to deny the monstrous urge to chug brownie batter straight from the mixing bowl.


Willpower is often exerted through the development of severe rules, the observance of which we hope will produce our desired outcome. Commonly, we enforce or disallow certain behaviors through methods that feel extremely restrictive and punishing.  As, most of us are aware, tightly held control inevitably leads to rebellion.  Which is why demanding daily, rigorous workouts from ourselves or forcing gym time when our schedules don’t allow is much less productive than prioritizing regular, pleasurable activity on a flexible schedule.


Willpower has physical implications. Demanding impeccable compliance with self-made rules puts our bodies in a steady state of tension. This strain activates a number of physiological processes that prove to be counterproductive in the areas wherein we typically attempt to enforce change such as eating, activity and rest. It is difficult to eat with balance, exercise effectively or relax when cortisol, insulin, and other adrenal hormones are reacting to long term stress, causing increased cravings, mood swings and energy declines along with numerous other somatic symptoms.


Willpower is a surface level strategy. It’s a change in behavior that does little to address the underlying beliefs or habits that are inhibiting success in meeting our long term goals. Because willpower is a defense, not an offense, unexpected conditions and events can frustrate our ability to fight temptation or take new action. When modified conduct is an insufficient tool to address the deeper issues, willpower loses its effectiveness. For instance, if your goal is to limit processed foods you can easily resist candy bars for a short while (behavior) until, of course, a big project at work sends you sprinting to the convenience store for just one more Milky Way (underlying belief/habit = “the best tool I have for relieving my work anxiety is eating sweets.”)


Right? Willpower is a massive killjoy. Typically, our best laid plans for meeting personal objectives include deprivation, force, and denial.  When restraining our unwanted impulses means limiting joy, celebration and fun, willpower is bound to leave us caught with both hands in the metaphorical (or not so metaphorical) cookie jar.

So, what exactly DOES work when the clenched fists and gritted teeth of willpower are insufficient to create lasting change, end unwanted habits or develop new ones?

Try these kinder, more manageable practices instead:

  • GET CURIOUS. Rather than simply modifying your behavior take an inventory of the underlying beliefs, habits and circumstances that are prompting your actions. Brainstorm ways to remove the issue at its root instead of focusing on the unwanted symptoms.
  • BE PATIENT. Resolve to implement change one day at a time without worrying too much about deadlines or schedules. Focus on taking the “next right action” towards accomplishing your goal and forget about the bigger, more intimidating picture.
  • TAKE WHAT YOU CAN GET. When it comes to meeting goals and sustaining them for the long haul, it’s best to avoid an “all or nothing” mentality. Don’t go overboard setting standards for yourself that are too demanding to meet with any regularity.  Avoid burnout by going with the flow and recognizing that many small acts add up to something bigger.
  • EXPERIMENT. You don’t have to know exactly how to reach your goal in order to begin making steps towards it today. Stay open, investigate every possibility, use experience as a teacher and assess what dream-actualizing behaviors fit most easily into your world.
  • FORGIVE YOURSELF. You’re human which means you’re perfectly imperfect. You’re bound to make a few mistakes on your journey towards change. The sooner you can brush it off, learn from the slipup and continue on your path, the sooner you’ll reach your goal.
  • RE-EVALUATE OFTEN. So you’ve found some general plans or strategies that work. Great! Now, be sure to check in regularly to assess whether those tactics are still producing the results you want without relying too heavily on control.

While willpower is certainly useful, it has its limits. In order to give yourself the best opportunity at achieving your goals and creating transformation that lasts, be sure to power your change with more than simply your will.

Consider self-acceptance and body love.

Consider trust over force.

Consider peace.


If you are struggling with body image or would like some help in implementing loving changes towards achieving your food and body goals send me an email at luuhrich@gmail.com and ask me about private coaching.

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