Good Old-Fashioned Willpower

Good Old-Fashioned Willpower

Welcome to Mental Fitness Fridays. I’m Hans Skulstad.

I had an old school coach once ask me: “Whatever happened to good old-fashioned willpower?”  

I actually thought about it and wondered if it was even real. It’s like the concept of momentum — some people don’t believe in it. Willpower is a concept often used in sports performance and the world of changing yourself. 

I have been thinking about this concept for a couple weeks. Then on Monday morning, I heard about Will Power at the Oscars and decided it was time.  

It’s often misunderstood, misused and abused. Therefore, it can be an effective tool, but it’s limited sometimes. It’s often paired with the concept of quitting cold turkey. But too often, willpower leads us to believe we can wing it. 

You need emotional strength and commitment to change. Yes, it’s a real thing, but it’s not as simple as it sounds. I know it’s real because it’s way harder to resist “bad” foods or temptation when you’re tired, anxious, sick or feeling lonely. 

The meaning that goes with good old-fashioned willpower is what gets people into trouble. It has those mental toughness myths all tied into it. What comes to mind for you if you say to yourself: “I just don’t have the will power to…”?

For most of us, helplessness and shame come up.

Here’s what willpower actually is. It’s an emotional commitment to a way of doing things with intention and purpose. 

Here’s where the meaning that goes with “good old-fashioned willpower” causes a problem. It’s been turned into something you have. A limited resource, like the power on your phone. However, as the day moves on or the power diminishes, you are more likely to give in, which gives you a reason to mess up — so you do. 

Unfortunately, it commonly means that if you lack it, you are morally weak. You stick to your commitment — morally strong. If you don’t, you are weak. 

At this point, problem solving stops. There are no options. For example, you start binging on whatever so you can escape your moral weakness and uncomfortable feeling. And the cycle continues.

Don’t make a meaning of it. Don’t morally judge yourself by saying you were bad today or you were good today. Notice. Do things to take care of yourself. Add energy. Take a walk or a shower. Renew your commitment and start again. Have specific strategies for what might derail you. The funny thing is people who rate themselves high on willpower usually lack a plan for dealing with setbacks.

Mental fitness is an everyday commitment and choice to learning, adapting and letting go of limited old-fashioned concepts. 

Stanford professor Kelly McGonigal has written a book called the Willpower Instinct. I recommend it. Willpower is not a simple thing. A lot goes into it. She does a great job of explaining what goes into willpower, and how you can use it to change.

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