Day 11: Why Willpower Alone Is Not Enough… And What Is

“Tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus.
Our bodies are our gardens to the which our wills are gardeners.”
– William Shakespeare, Othello

Willpower is an incredible tool. It works great in small doses, for an immediate effect.

Willpower helps me only eat ice cream in bed with my husband once or twice a week instead of the 3 or 4 times a week he suggests. By sheer force and discipline, I say no even though I want to say yes. Then I try to focus on something else until I’m no longer thinking about ice cream.

Willpower helps me get through the last five emails at the end of the day, and it gets me out of bed when I’d kill for another half hour of sleep.

You may be using willpower this Dryuary month. It can help you get through a moment, because we all have a moment’s worth of effort and grit available to us. But willpower isn’t likely to get you through every moment of each of the 31 days in this month. And it’s definitely not likely to lead you through a lifetime of sobriety (if that’s what you want).

Because it’s an easily exhausted resource, willpower is great in bursts but is a horrible strategy for long-term change. It leaves you depleted and the results don’t generalize. You can white knuckle your way through a “no, thank you” to one drink in one moment, but that’s helpful in that moment only. Not only does it not help you in the next moment, it leaves you emotionally and mentally spent so that there’s little energy left for anything else.

Using willpower is like cleaning up a leak by grabbing some towels and soaking up all the water, but ignoring the source of the leak. You cleaned up, but you didn’t exactly change anything.

Willpower is all about action…or inaction, as is the case when we’re wiling ourselves to abstain. It’s all about doing…or not doing.

But as we have all experienced, just doing thing differently doesn’t necessarily translate into lasting change. We’ve all gone through the motions of starting the new exercise or meditation practice, eating healthier, or getting more organized. But even with all the “right” information and action, those changes don’t always stick.

So what makes the difference? If behavior and action in and of themselves don’t lead to deep, sustainable change, what does?

A see-change. Said another way, a change in how you see who you really are and how your mind works. It’s about seeing things differently first, then letting your behavior naturally follow from there.

Here’s an example: Imagine you’re feeling overwhelmed by a strong craving. Your resources are being depleted by the craving already; it would take even more hard-to-come-by effort to muster the willpower to fight your experience.

But what if you didn’t have to fight?

What if, instead of changing, fighting, or overpowering your experience, you saw that all-consuming craving as simply experience passing through? What if you deeply, meaningfully knew that you were not that craving—that the craving was energy you were experiencing, but that it couldn’t truly affect you?

Imagine you knew that experience was a totally safe bundle of thoughts and feelings that you couldn’t hold in place if you tried. It has a fully self-correcting life cycle of its own.

Imagine you deeply and meaningfully knew that the thoughts, feelings, urges and cravings that arise within you are not personal. They aren’t “about” you, your weakness, your habit, your past, or your future. They are simply habitual thought and feeling arising now, in this very moment, brought to life only to soon wash away.

What if you saw them as a fleeting, conditioned responses that would come and go regularly, but are nothing you have to respect or act upon?

Imagine you saw all of your experience—even suffering, cravings, insecurity, fear—as weather. Human weather. You are the blue sky—always clear, always well, and your experience is like the weather moving across the sky.

Weather doesn’t affect the sky. Weather changes on its own. It doesn’t need discipline, force, or effort to change. It rolls in, does what it does, and moves out.

If you deeply, insightfully saw your own thoughts, feelings, preferences and cravings that way, it wouldn’t occur to you to rely on willpower for anything beyond a simple, in-the-moment nudge.

There would be no need for fighting or overpowering your experience. You’d see a new truth and from that place, a new set of behaviors would be natural and obvious.

It would be like waking up from a bad dream. Within the “reality” of the dream, running out of the burning house looks like the clear thing to do. But when you wake up from the dream and find yourself in your cozy bed, running outside no longer makes sense.

Seeing who you really are, beyond and far bigger than your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, is life-changing. You are the blue sky. Your brightness and clarity is always fundamentally untouched by anything moving through.

And your experience is like the weather. Temporary, safe, and self-correcting.

Personal insight into those truths is what leads to deep, lasting change; the kind of change you don’t need to work at or manage.

Willpower can get you over a hump or through a moment. It can help you say no to a drink or two, and get you out of bed some mornings. But it’s not the path to freedom.

The path to freedom is deeply seeing that you already are.

Post Submitted By: Dr. Amy Johnson
Dr. Amy Johnson is a psychologist, author, and speaker who shares a groundbreaking new paradigm that helps people find true, lasting freedom from unwanted habits via insight rather than willpower. She is the author of several books including The Little Book of Big Change: The No-Willpower Approach to Breaking Any Habit. In 2017 she opened The Little School of Big Change, an online school that has helped thousands of people find freedom from anxiety and habits and live a more peaceful life.

Johnson has been a regularly featured expert on The Steve Harvey Show and, as well as in The Wall Street Journal and Self magazine. Get her free ebook, Three Simple Ways to Break Free from Habits, Anxiety, and Addictions (Even if You’ve Already Tried Everything Else) here:

5 thoughts on “Day 11: Why Willpower Alone Is Not Enough… And What Is

  1. Horse Lover

    I love this image of weather. Experienced glider pilots will tell you to “fly the weather you are given.” You can’t fly the weather you saw on the forecast that morning, or the weather you hoped for, or the weather your friend told you it would be, or the weather it will be tomorrow. You fly the weather you are given. This weather will pass. Remember that poem?

    Whether the weather be fine
    Or whether the weather be not,
    Whether the weather be cold
    Or whether the weather be hot,
    We’ll weather the weather
    Whatever the weather,
    Whether we like it or not.

  2. Jerry Porter

    This is MY truth. Amy’s Little Book . . . is the reason I was able to interrupt my nightly 3-5 drink sessions and venture into Dryuary. What I learned from Little Book also allows me to presently be contented with 2 drinks a night. I am not a finished product and look forward to more view changes as I continue to study her information. My present goal is(and was before Dryuary)managed drinking that results in no hang over. Again, this is my truth for today. I am not advocating one way or another.
    Gratefully with shared concerns,
    PS Kary, if it is preferred that I not comment in this forum since I am choosing to drink, please let me know and I will refrain.

    1. Kary May Hickey Post author

      Of course, we don’t want you to stop commenting, Jerry! As I replied to you yesterday, I enjoy your daily comments and I’m sure the readers do, too. Just like your comment today, it’s nice to hear from someone who has read Amy’s book and can say how it changed your life. (I read it too and I think I have a whole family of trolls squatting inside me singing a continuous chorus of, “Feed me, feed me, feed me….Mmmm ice cream!)
      Have you enrolled in Amy’s Little School of Big Change?

Comments are closed.