The Problem With Willpower

Posted by Jill Chivers in Attitudes and Habits, Shopping, Clothes and Emotions

Today I’d like to talk about willpower. Anyone who has ever tried to break a bad habit or develop a new one has stumbled across this thing called willpower. It certainly comes up quite a lot in the “addiction” literature.

And the general wisdom seems to be that willpower is a limited and exhaustible resource.

Meaning: we mere mortals don’t have a great deal of it and what we do have runs out pretty darn quick.

Well, see, I struggle with that a bit. I have tonnes of willpower. How else could I have gotten through a masters degree by correspondence over a period of 6 years? How else have I built three businesses from scratch? How else have I managed not to become 200 pounds, despite my love of carbohydrates? Sure seemed like I was using willpower to achieve those things.

But here’s what I’ve learned:  Just because we have willpower in one area of our lives doesn’t mean we have it in all areas.

And finishing a degree, succeeding in business, and keeping my weight at a manageable level are all areas that I have willpower in. But that don’t mean I got it everywhere.

I’ll tell you this:  I did NOT succeed with my own year without clothes shopping by using willpower.

No way! Willpower, I’ve learned, is something to be relied upon only in areas of my life that I’m already strong in. And I knew that I wasn’t strong when it came to my shopping habits when I started my own “year”. In fact, I knew I was weak.

I know it’s unpopular these days to use words like weak – we prefer to use terms like development area and area for improvement. But it was a weakness.

In December 2009, I knew I had a weakness – shopping. And I knew that willpower was not going to be the thing that kept me on the straight and narrow and allow me to succeed.

I say this to our members early in the piece. Relying on willpower to keep you from shopping is setting yourself up to fail. So, it begs the question: what do you do, and use, instead?

Here’s my top five willpower-free techniques, custom built for over and compulsive shoppers:

1. Stay out of the stores.

This idea is the simplest of the 5 strategies and could be categorised as Simple Avoidance. Nothing wrong with avoidance, and lots right with it. Why?  Because avoidance works. You can’t fall in love with a gorgeous shaped jacket that’s 50% off if you never see it, can you?

We don’t buy things we don’t see, so instead of relying on willpower when you are standing in front of something gorgeous that you just love – avoid that scenario altogether.  Walk on by.  Don’t go in.

The simplest solutions are often the best and you can’t get any simpler, or more effective than this.

Remember that staying out of the stores extends to those virtual stores as well. Unbookmark your favourite online stores, and unsubscribe from those online catalogues.

2. Chunk it down.

This non-willpower strategy is that you don’t bite off too huge a piece and attempt to chew it all at once. In our year-long program, I often suggest to members that they chunk down their challenges into one-month challenges, or even 7-day challenges.

You can almost anything for 7 days, even things you think are just too hard to do. Our brains are amazingly receptive to these chunked-down suggestions – our unconscious mind (which is often the engine driving the train) are a bit like 5 year olds: they’ll believe anything we tell them.

So, if you tell your brain that “it’s just for 7 days”, it’ll go with it.  Then when you get to the end of those 7-days, you recommit to that same, chunked-down, bite-size challenge.

See how much easier that is to do?

3. Take action – just do it and don’t overthink it.

There’s no way to get around this non-willpower strategy:  sometimes you just have to do it. Just unsubscribe from that online catalogue – don’t agonise over it. Just walk past that store – don’t look in the window. Just put it back on the shelf and walk out – don’t negotiate with yourself.

What I’ve found important about this technique is not engaging in any dialogue about it – hence “just do it”.  If you engage in discussion, then you’re calling on willpower, and these are the non-willpower approaches, remember?

This strategy is based on action where there is no discussion – you just do the thing.

Keep walking, put it down, unsubscribe.

4. Prepare in advance.

I’m a big believer in preparation. A stitch in time saves nine, and all that.  What’s great about this strategy is you prepare before willpower even comes into the equation.  You sidestep the need for willpower by setting yourself up to succeed in advance.

How?  By anticipating where you might be tripped up, and putting in place a plan about how you’ll deal with it when that moment arrives. Don’t wait to be tripped up – you’re not in a resourceful state then, and so whatever action you take may not be the best for you.

If you know that shopping after work is your downfall – “I’ve had a stressful day, I’ll just pop in HERE for a little look-see” – then plan around that: schedule something else for immediately after work.

If it’s receiving a catalogue in the mail that triggers you – cancel the subscription. If what trips you up is having a coffee with a girlfriend on Saturday at your favourite shopping place where you can oh-so-easily just stroll into the stores, change where you meet.

Think ahead, be honest about your trigger and trip-up points.  Prepare for them.  Don’t fall into the same hole, especially not when you know where it is.

5. Keep going.

Perfection is neither expected nor possible, and often we are hardest on ourselves. If you are slaying your own shopping dragon, then don’t set yourself up to fail by expecting perfection.

There’s no such thing as the perfect journey anyway, so stop looking for it. If you have a set back then try this: pause, learn what you can from the experience, recommit to your goals, draw a line under it (close the file), and move on.

There’s no sense sifting through the ashes once you’ve taken the learning’s out.  The goal is progress, not perfection.  So, all you need to do is keep moving in the direction of your goal.  For today, that is all that is required, and all that is possible.

What these techniques add up to setting yourself a structure that acts as a foundation for success. Put the framework in place first, and then rely on that framework as you journey on. A strong foundation will hold up a lot better under pressure than willpower.

And if you’d like to view this post another way, check out the graphic recorded sketch that the talented Lynne Cazaly has done – love your work Lynne!



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