Lots of the people who come to see me, normally about stopping unwanted habits, will tell me that they lack willpower. Some of them do, and that’s often about motivation rather than willpower, but many of them instead don’t lack willpower, they just aren’t well equipped at coping with failure.
For instance a lot of people will talk about how they are trying to eat more healthily and then someone at work will offer them a slice of cake because it’s their birthday. They’ll respond to this small lapse by saying that as their diet is write-off for that day they might as well not bother , and as well as eating another slice go home and a takeaway for their tea. This isn’t really about fragile willpower, but is about coping with failure, and a “what the hell” and “I’ll start again tomorrow” response.
This kind of response is the one that sees money disappear when people “break” a £10 or £20 note, or drivers increase their speed once they have broken a speed limit. People who have this tendency will normally show it in different areas of their life – in dieting as well as spending and driving. It isn’t about willpower, it’s about how people make choices when coping with failure.
One way to tackle this tendency is to set more realistic goals. Instead of setting “absolute” goals allow yourself a margin of safety or error so that moments of weakness don’t mean that there’s no point carrying on. Even better is to tackle the thoughts that lie behind the “what-the-hell” attitude. This can be catastrophic “all or nothing” thinking, or a self-belief that reinforces failure. Coupling a better understanding of the attitudes behind your behaviour with different kinds of goals can be more powerful again.
I’ve written before about framing resolutions in terms of “I don’t” rather than “I can’t”, as negative targets such as “I can’t eat cake” don’t allow any margin of error or room for choice. Even better than negative goals are positive ones, such as obtaining or achieving something – for instance getting back into particular clothes instead of just not eating certain foods. Above all though it’s about coping with failure, and becoming more resilient emotionally and behaviourally.