Working on Willpower

Posted by Jill Chivers in Attitudes and Habits

I’m fascinated by willpower.  If you’re a regular here at the Shop Your Wardrobe blog, you will have likely read other articles I’ve written on this topic.  In case you want to catch up on those articles,  here’s some of my favourites:

Why people fail

There’s really good reasons why willpower isn’t the best strategy to use when you start on an extreme personal challenge.   People fail at these kinds of challenges for a number of reasons, there isn’t one single reason why people fail when they set themselves a Big Goal.

Here’s some of the reasons people fail at when they institute a ban on shopping or have a shopping hiatus:

  • The challenge is simply too hard.  Habits are too entrenched, temptation is too irresistible, sales are too pervasive.  The size of the stretch is too large in comparison to the size of the resources currently in place to meet it.
  • The challenge is too isolating.  Not too many of us can remain stimulated and enthused when working in a vacuum, or what seems like a vacuum. On something really hard.
  • There isn’t enough support or guidance. It’s very hard to keep on keeping on when it feels like there’s no-one there to catch you if you fall. Or even notice.  Let alone someone to provide a helping hand, sounding board and suggestions if you need them.
  • There aren’t enough distractions or new ideas. Bribery and distraction work for toddlers in supermarkets, and they work for adults, too. You can’t just take something away and not replace it with something. Well, not if you want it to work. You’ve got to fill up the now-empty space with something else. Preferably something good.
  • The focus is on doing without. This feeds into the human fear of scarcity — never having, or being, enough. Which is not a life-enriching or spirit-lifting aura to surround yourself with, and certainly not a ‘success strategy’ that is going to see you through an extreme personal challenge.

How can you build your willpower?

In an intriguing presentation given at Google, Kelly McGonigal of Stanford University shares a number of experiments on willpower, and what the results are.  It’s intriguing viewing, and you can watch the entire talk here (and thank you to Imogen for sharing this video with me).

The take-outs of this talk are these:

  • However much willpower you have now, you can grow it.  Your current reserves of willpower are not set in stone – you can build your reserves of willpower.  You can become ‘stronger’ in the willpower department.  If you know how and what works.
  • Sometimes you need willpower, nothing else will do.  Sometimes the situation calls for the strength that comes from exercising your willpower.  So its worth growing your willpower.  If you know how and what works.

Ms McGonigal then goes on to share her top 5 strategies for growing your willpower.  These are very cool, and very much in line with the approach I use with members of our premier program, My Year Without Clothes Shopping, in our members only area (in resources and bulletin board discussions).

So thank you Kelly McGonigal for sharing these ways we can work on our willpower, and grow stronger in this area!

5 Ways to Build Your Willpower

  1. Train your willpower physiology. Keys to doing this are

    • Get more sleep.  Even just one hour more a night helps build your willpower.
    • Meditate (I’ll add that if you don’t or prefer not to meditate, then practising a period of stillness or silence can work beautifully).
    • Exercise regularly.  Nothing replaces exercise, a few times a week.
    • Change your diet so it’s more plant-based and natural, and less processed.
  2. Exercise the power of self forgiveness.  This is about

    • Not beating yourself up at every available opportunity when you fail or fall off the wagon.  There is no upside to evoking the emotions of guilt, criticism, shame and remorse.  From a willpower perspective, those emotions don’t have any positive value, and they simply don’t work.
    • Three steps to employ if you do fall off the wagon: 1. be mindful of your thoughts and feelings – just notice them. 2. tap into our common humanity and by that it’s meant that nobody is perfect, including you, and setbacks are an expected part of the process.  3. exercise encouragement over criticism, essentially this means be your own best friend.
  3. Get to know your future self.

    • This is important because the more you can connect to your future self, be it you in 1 year, 10 years or 30, the more you are likely to do things today that will benefit you in the future.
    • You can do this by imagining yourself as your future self – just run a short mental movie of you in the future, doing ordinary every day things like grocery shopping.
    • You can also do it by writing a letter from your future self to your current self, sharing a struggle you’re facing and how proud you are for persevering and overcoming it.
  4. Predict your failure.  What this means is

    • We are much  more likely to succeed if we have imagined possible failure, and thereby increase our tolerance to it – to the very idea of it and to actual failure should it occur.
    • We are much less shocked when failure comes because we’ve been expecting and anticipating it.  We just haven’t known when or how it will show up.
    • Setbacks are easier to manage if you have a broad view of possible futures, including one where failure is part of the picture.  If you are only imagining a future where you succeed – that’s the only acceptable future – then any kind of failure can be blown out of proportion when it comes, and it can be distractingly difficult to manage.
  5. Increase your tolerance for discomfort, even pain.  Why?

    • Because you’re going to encounter it.  It’s that simple.  Anything you do, any personal challenge, any extreme change you want to make, will involve discomfort, even pain.  It’s just going to be there.
    • The suggested strategy when you are feeling this expected discomfort is to ‘surf the urge’ which breaks down into these steps: 1. notice your feelings and thoughts – just observe them.  2. accept those thoughts and feelings as being real.  3. ride them out by breathing and pausing, knowing they will pass. 4. broaden your attention and look for action to take.

So there you have it, friends – 5 steps to growing and building your willpower.  All good stuff.  Agree with it all.  Use many of these myself, and encourage others to, too.

The real question

As great as those 5 strategies for building your willpower are, they miss one important ingredient.  Yes, we can grow our willpower, and yes it’s worth doing.  But the biggest reserves of willpower in the world can’t hold a candle to what I call inspired action. Emphasis on inspired.

To me, it all comes down to this one simple, profound and potentially life changing question:

What kind of life do you really want?

And this secondary follow up question:

What is worth employing your time and talents in doing? 

Because when you’re tapped into that, then you have access to the magic river running through all our lives.  Then you can stick with it, even when it isn’t so fun, even when your passion is running low, and you can’t even spell willpower.

I love this postcard about willpower from those fabulous gals at Queen of Your Own Life, so I’m going to end this post with it.


So, my lovely friend reading this.  Here’s your question:

What kind of life do you really want?

What kind of life


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