The Myth about Willpower

What is Willpower?

hand reaching for a fairy cake

At Eat, Move, Be Happy we regularly have conversations with people about the habits they want to change and how, for all sorts of reasons, they think they can’t. Typically these habits are about healthy eating and exercise. And what we hear are comments like:

‘I can’t resist the cake/chocolate/crisps, I haven’t got the willpower.’

‘I am too tired to exercise today. I will try harder tomorrow.’

‘I haven’t got the willpower to resist all the things that are bad for me, so what is the point in trying?’

They think about willpower as something you either have or you don’t.  And people who have it are better in some way, than those who don’t. Using this logic, people who can resist a slice of cake or get out of bed half an hour earlier to run in the morning are somehow seen as being better than people who eat cake or stay in bed and snooze. 

And that is ridiculous, right?  That seems to seperate us out into “have” and “have nots”, or “elite” and “lower” classes and by implication, we are destined to stagnate with no potential to improve or choose not to eat the cake. 

So I started wondering about this mystical willpower that seems powerful enough to influence people’s belief in their ability to make decisions and shift habits to more healthy eating and to exercise more consistently. 

I thought answering the question, what is willpower? was a simple enough place to start an exploration of willpower. Why do some people seem, on the face of it, to have more willpower to resist temptation and stick to their intentions than others? I wondered if this was actually true and, if so, where people who have more willpower get their supply?

However, it turns out the answer to the question ‘what is willpower?’ is not so simple. Understanding this is tricky. There are many variations in the definition of willpower and how people think about it. Even dictionary definitions vary and this in itself creates confusion. 

Rather than beating ourselves up because we ate the cake, is there a different way? And what part does willpower play?

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