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What is Willpower?

When you think about the word willpower, dieting and exercise may come to mind. And for a good reason.

The roots of the English words will and power are worth a quick mention. The word will combines the notion of determination with one's purpose or wishes. And the word power suggests an ability to do (or not do) something.

This makes sense when you think about documents like a last will and testament or a living will that grants others power to execute our wishes when we're gone.

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The fields of neuroscience are helping us understand motivation and willpower in ways that redefine how I grew up understanding whether I was good at refraining from eating another donut. Dr. Irena O'Brien of The Neuroscience School suggests that learnings in the neurosciences are challenging the notion that willpower is a muscle that gets depleted which leads to us giving in to the sugary temptation.

While this blog focuses on willpower (and by extension, motivation), you might also want to check out my Leadership Meets Life blog post Increasing Your Capacity for Mental Complexity. It highlights the work of Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey to understand better how we often live with competing commitments that undermine our aspirations.

Why Doesn't willpower Seem to Work?

Author Benjamin Hardy in his book Willpower Doesn't Work, believes the reason willpower is necessary for a situation derives from one of four fundamental sources:

  • You don't know what you want, and are thus internally conflicted.
  • Your desire (your why) for your goals isn't strong enough.
  • You aren't invested in yourself and your dreams.
  • Your environment opposes your goal.

Hardy asks: "Want to change? Then change your environment. Stop the willpower madness already."

Executive coach and Fortune 100 leadership guru Marshall Goldsmith notes: "If we do not create and control our environment, our environment creates and controls us."

While literally "controlling" our environment may be a bold aspiration, the point is clear. The environment we set up around us—or agree to be part of—is a system in which we work. The environment we tolerate—or create—impacts our success.

Best-selling author James Clear of the run-away success Atomic Habits puts it this way: "You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems. Your goal is your desired outcome. Your system is the collection of daily habits that will get you there. This year, spend less time focusing on outcomes and more time focusing on the habits that precede the results."

Clear adds, "If you genuinely care about the goal, you'll focus on the system."

See my earlier Leadership Meets Life blog post, System or Heap?, to learn more about systems.

So, Do I Still Aspire to Have Willpower?

Well, of course. I'm not suggesting willpower is a lost cause. We need willpower in the moment for many things, including managing our anger at the jerk who cut us off in traffic. But we can do many things to supplement our willpower. For example, if I run a tight schedule and am uptight while driving on the highway, I've increased the likelihood of experiencing others as "jerks." Maybe they really need to go to the potty, or someone in the car is having a baby (You get the idea.).

The point is that willpower will be most successful when we create more intentional environments and surround ourselves with systems structured to help us succeed. The truth is, I don't eat many donuts anymore. But if I kept a box of donuts in my office, I'd be creating an environment that sets me up for failure.

Our Predicting Brain

Neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett and author of Seven and A Half Lessons About The Brain, adds another vital dimension to this conversation on willpower.

050522_Phil Blog - Image 2Feldman Barrett explains that our brain plays an enormous role in a function called body budgeting. "The scientific name for body budgeting is allostasis," she notes. "It means automatically predicting and preparing to meet the body's needs before they arise."

The brain constantly calculates and predicts what our body needs to stay alive. When we go on a long hike in the heat of the day without taking water along, our body is literally predicting what parts of our body can do with less so that other parts will have what is needed. I found this out the hard way when I got heat stroke on an international trip to the Middle East.

As things were getting bad inside my body, my brain was busy predicting what to turn off for conservation. When my body stopped sweating, even in triple-digit heat, my brain conserved whatever moisture was left in my body to protect my internal organs for as long as possible.

We can help ourselves out by anticipating our needs. For example, drink water before we get thirsty. Eat something healthy before the hunger pangs have us pulling into that building with the golden arches.

Dr. Irena O'Brien notes that neuroscience is helping us understand the importance of self-compassion when it comes to willpower. Be kind to yourself. You will get hungry and probably grumpy. Be mindful of what's happening in the environment around you. Become aware of your thoughts and feelings. Be mindful of the limitations of others around you. No one is perfect.

O'Brien also notes an effective strategy for self-awareness by envisioning what our future self (like two years or five years from now) would tell our present self. She suggests you might even want to draft a letter from your future self to help you see how important it is to [fill in the blank].

A Growth Mindset

Renowned psychology professor and researcher Carol Dweck spent much of her career at Columbia, Harvard, and Stanford developing a theory that compares a fixed mindset with a growth mindset. In her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Dweck explains the vital difference.

Someone with a fixed mindset focuses on their limitations and the "cards they were dealt." They make excuses and struggle to take ownership of things they believe are beyond their ability to influence.

On the other hand, with a growth mindset, someone would instead focus on what they can do to impact a situation positively. People with a growth mindset assume they are constantly learning and can adapt to conditions as needed.

Adding the notion of willpower to mindset, it's easy to see that a fixed mindset would tend to view the environment as conspiring to keep them limited. A growth mindset would focus on how an environment could be changed to increase the likelihood of success.

Someone with a growth mindset takes ownership of their own decisions, including mistakes from which they can learn. Someone with a fixed mindset focuses on how the situation or environment keeps them from succeeding.

Blogger Jennifer Smith shares this graphic that helps differentiate the two mindsets.


Take-Away Questions

  • What "willpower hacks" have you discovered?
  • What strategies have you put in place to create an environment at work or home that helps you succeed?
  • As a leader, what do you do to be kind to yourself?
  • How have you learned to pay attention to what your body is saying before you find yourself working from behind?

Whats Next

Next month my Leadership Meets Life Blog and Podcast will focus on the neuroscience of making progress in leadership and life. We'll look at what Dr. Irena O'Brien calls the progress principle and evidence-based ways to structure our environment for success.

I can't wait to hold myself accountable on this one! 😉

Resources to Explore


Let me know how you’re connecting with the Leadership Meets Life Blog and Podcast. I’d love to hear from you! You can reach me directly at philb@designgroupintl.com or by visiting my website.


Phil Bergey
On the journey with you,
Philip C. Bergey


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Philip C. Bergey
Post by Philip C. Bergey
May 5, 2022
I walk alongside leaders, listening to understand their challenges, and helping them lead healthy organizations that flourish.