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Willpower - Is It Enough?

Secrets of Change

Personal and professional development are about change and people often think change is purely about willpower. But what is willpower and is it sufficient if you want to make changes?

Definition of Willpower

Willpower can be defined as:

"The ability to control your behaviour and actions through strength of mind".

If you are trying to make changes or break free from a difficult habit then you may see at as purely a question of willpower as to whether you will succeed.

For instance: I am sometimes asked the question is it possible to quit smoking without willpower? To answer that question and questions about willpower in other areas involves some consideration first as to why we often consider willpower to be so important.

Willpower and Society

We live in a society which puts great emphasis on success and failure and also highlights the belief in the power of the individual to achieve personal change (this at least tends to be a societal belief in Western Europe and the U.S.A.). Willpower is connected to this view in the capacity of individuals to control their own destiny. The belief is that through strength of mind or character we should be able to take control of a situation and of our behaviour.

Willpower and the Emotions

One of the problems with this belief in willpower is that if we don't succed in making changes as quickly or as smoothly as we like then we can feel ashamed or guilty or inadequate. Willpower and emotions are intimately linked. Succeed and you feel good. Fail and you feel bad. So placing total reliance on willpower is risky. The stakes are high in terms of your own emotions.

The related problem with this aspect of willpower is that in reality change often isn't a smooth process. To go back to our smoking example, most people try several times before they manage to give up smoking. If they believe that they should achieve what they want straightaway, they run the risk of seeing every setback or lapse on the road to success as a shameful loss of willpower.

A lapse may just be a mistake (sometimes a small one) which you can learn from.

If you are clouded by a belief that you should have instant willpower, then seeing the mistake in practical terms as something to learn from - as a learning step on the road to success - is harder than it might otherwise be.

In NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) there is a famous saying:

"There is no such thing as failure - only feedback".

A lapse when you are trying to give up smoking may be just a sign that you need to do something differently - e.g. by avoiding the situation where you might be tempted to smoke or by preparing yourself differently for it next time. If you believe in a kind of metaphysical willpower you will probably find it harder to assess your mistakes in this practical way and to learn from them in a helpful way.

Willpower and Pragmatism

The good news is that there is a more realistic, pragmatic model than that based simply on willpower for how we actually make changes in normal life. Proposed originally by the psychologists, James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente, it has been represented in many different ways.

One version of the model postulates that most people go through the following stages on the way to change:

1. Not considering trying to change at all.
2. Wondering whether change might be possible but not being entirely sure whether your can do it or even whether you want to do it.
3. Deciding to try to achieve change.
4. Acting to achieve change.
5. Maintaining change.

To view a flowchart of this practical model of change go to:

The Normal Process of Change


Example of Making Changes:

Can You Quit Smoking without Willpower?

A crucial feature of this new realistic model of change is that it recognises that at any stage it is quite normal for a person to lapse.

The person who is trying to give up smoking but one day slips up and has a few cigarettes, say in a social situation where others are smoking, is not a terrible failure. They have just had a lapse.

If that happens to you (whether the habit or behaviour you are trying to change is smoking or something completely different), you don’t need to blame yourself or feel guilty and go back to the old form of behaviour for good. Instead, why not just say to yourself something like:

“I’ve had a lapse – that’s normal when people are making changes. I’ll try to get back on track now and think about whether there is anything that I can do differently next time this situation arises to avoid lapsing again.”

Then take the step to get back on track rather than being too hard on yourself.

Instead of fixing yourself on the concept of willpower try to ecourage yourself to take practical steps to make the change you want, using practical strategies. This might involve simple things like ensuring that you:

  • set yourself realistic short term goals,
  • identify situations where you might be tempted to lapse into the behaviour you are trying to change
  • plan how to deal with those situations
  • and reward yourself when you achieve your goals.

How to Increase Your Willpower

If you still want to increase your ability to carry out your actions then as well as taking a bit of moral pressure off yourself by trying to look at your situation pragmatically, you can try to build your willpower by writing down the reasons why it will be beneficial for you to achieve the change you want and keeping the list at hand to refresh your memory when you are tempted to lapse.

The first message to take away, however, is that lapsing is normal on the path to achieving major changes – it is not the end of the world.

Treat it pragmatically, recognise any progress you have already made and try to learn how to deal with the situation a little bit better next time.

If possible, don't be too hard on yourself. Be practical instead!

Practical Change

This practical model of change applies to many habits and problems, whether the habit is smoking, drinking excessively, eating excessively (or undereating), behaving aggressively, not being assertive enough, acting emotionally, procrastinating, or something altogether different.

Helpful strategies, which a coach who is versed in the model should be able to assist you in learning, can be applied relevant to what stage of the model of change you are at, to help you in making changes effectively.

Life coaching is about supporting you and helping you to make changes.

If the coach is good that will involve helping you through mental blocks and supporting you to develop the positive abilities, skills and qualities that you have, as well as helping you to realise that lapses are normal and can be dealt with.


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