What to Do When Willpower Isn’t Enough

by | Oct 5, 2016
Photo by StepanVrany

Photo by StepanVrany

When I first started grad school I had to adjust to a pretty tight schedule. Classes started at 9am and continued all morning. Immediately after lunch I was expected to show up at my rotation lab and get to work on my experiments. (In the first year each student “rotates” through a new lab every quarter to find a good fit for a thesis project). I’d stay in lab until 5-6pm then head home, make dinner and study.

As a first year student in a new lab this schedule was not negotiable. That meant the only time I would be able workout was in the morning before classes. Factoring in breakfast, a 40+ minute commute and shower, I needed to get up at 5:30am to make it to class comfortably with my coffee.

Waking up in the pitch dark on a cold morning is not fun. And in the first couple of weeks the siren song of my warm, cozy bed kept me from making it to the gym regularly. While staying in bed usually felt like a great idea in the moment, I always regretted it because I could never shake the foggy-headed feeling I had all day if I didn’t get my blood pumping in the morning.

My best intentions weren’t enough. I needed a way to push through my inertia and build a morning workout habit.

It was during this time that I learned to appreciate The Power of One. That is, the value of seeing every repeated event as a new opportunity to experiment with behavior change.

Because I had to wake up and go to class five days a week no matter what, and I was always a little disappointed if I didn’t make it to the gym, every morning was a new chance to get it right.

Start with what you know

Like any good dieter (this was 2004) the first thing I tried was willpower. I would turn off my shrieking alarm, drag myself out of bed and slog out the door in a funk, no matter how much it hurt. As you might expect this approach only lasted about three days.

One thing I learned from my willpower experiments was that I was actually quite tired in the mornings, so I wasn’t just being lazy. Waking up is a bummer no matter what, but actually needing more sleep makes getting out of bed that much harder. I also knew I was really tired because I could feel that I didn’t have my normal energy during my workouts, and found it hard to focus in class and lab.

All my life I had been a night owl and stayed up past midnight. But after a few days of dragging myself like a zombie around campus I knew that an earlier bedtime needed to be part of my plan.

Adjust when you learn something new

Getting more sleep helped a lot, but it still didn’t solve my problem. As winter approached, being well-rested didn’t make a compelling enough case to get me to the gym on a consistent basis. Outside the bed was COLD, and fumbling around my drawers in the dark trying to pack up my gym bag was not what I wanted to be doing first thing in the morning.

My new experiment was to pack my gym bag and lay out my workout clothes and shoes before getting in bed at night so it was all ready to go. It only took a few extra minutes in the evening, but made a huge impact on my motivation first thing in the morning.

Eventually I learned it was even smarter to lay out my workout clothes right next to my bed so I could get dressed while still half under my covers and not have to get cold.

Once I figured all this out the conversation in my head went something like this:


Rational Brain: Ugh, time to get up.

Emotional Brain: Are you sure? This is comfy.

Rational Brain: I know, I know. I’d like to stay too, but missing workouts sucks.

Emotional Brain: Yeah I know that, but we can go tomorrow. I really don’t want to move.

Rational Brain: That’s bullshit and you know it. If we don’t go today why would we go tomorrow? I’ll make a deal with you. Don’t worry about the gym. We’re always happy once we get there. Just move your feet off the side of the bed and put your pants on. It’ll be easy.

Emotional Brain: Damn you and your logic. I guess that’s easy enough. Fine.

Rational Brain: See, that wasn’t so bad. Now just put on your shoes and grab your bag. Do you want some toast and peanut butter?

Emotional Brain: Yeah, that sounds good.

Rational Brain: Woo hoo! Victory! Alright, let’s move.

I had finally reached a place where my lazy Emotional Brain didn’t have a real case to make for keeping me in bed. After my strategy worked that first time my habit stuck for good.

I didn’t get it right in the first week or even in the first month, but by making slight adjustments in my plan each week I ultimately figured out a solution that worked for me.

The Power of One is that it treats each opportunity to change your behavior as a learning experiment rather than just a verdict of success or failure. For instance, had I decided after the first few days that “success” meant that I had to use willpower in order to make it to the gym each morning, I would have become deeply disappointed with myself when I couldn’t keep up this behavior.

But when I forced myself out of bed those three days and couldn’t do it on the fourth day I used that opportunity to learn that it wasn’t something I could sustain, so decided to try another strategy moving forward.

The key is to accept your past behavior for what it is: the best you could do at that time, under those circumstances, with the knowledge you had.

You can then turn it into an opportunity to learn something new by asking yourself the following questions:

  1. What worked well in my experiment?
  2. What didn’t work well?
  3. What could I do different next time?

After my first experiment I learned that willpower can work, but has its limits. It didn’t succeed in the long run because I was tired and getting out of bed made me uncomfortably cold. My next experiments required getting more sleep and finding a way to stay warm when I woke up so that leaving bed was less jarring.

It is tempting to weave an unsuccessful experiment into a negative story about yourself by assuming you’re too lazy or aren’t cut out for it. But you should avoid this trap since it doesn’t help you learn what might help next time.

Remembering The Power of One can help you keep the perspective that one failed experiment doesn’t make you a failure, it just means you have another experiment to run.

As you are asking yourself the three questions about what worked, what didn’t, and what you can change moving forward, it is essential that you are honest with yourself, especially about what didn’t work.

Don’t ignore your Emotional Brain if it is telling you it is too tired or too cold to get out of bed. You may be able to use rational willpower to override it once in awhile, but that isn’t how you will form a lasting habit.

Your Emotional Brain usually gets its way in the long run, so it is more effective to acknowledge and address its concerns rather than ignore them. Instead, use what it tells you as inspiration for what to try next.

In many cases feelings are easy to placate with a simple adjustment. Going to bed a little earlier and laying out my clothes at night were pretty easy concessions to make for such an impactful habit. If you’re open to experimentation and honest with yourself about your results, you can learn to work with your Emotional Brain rather than against it.

The Power of One allows you to tackle big, impactful habits with simple and harmless experiments. It creates a safety zone for failure, without the crushing sense that you are a failure. The Power of One means that every day, every meal, every workout and every choice is a new opportunity to succeed.

What have you learned from The Power of One?

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11 Responses to “What to Do When Willpower Isn’t Enough”

  1. Cassie T says:

    What a great article! I’ve noticed that it can be easy for me to talk myself out of cooking some night, even when there’s not that many obstacles in the way. After weeks of consciously thinking about it I’ve noticed that little things like having the kitchen cleaned up when I get home (which usually just means making sure the dirty dishes in the sink are moved to the dishwasher before I leave for work) and making sure to have food in the fridge can go a longgg way. Finding something fun to do while doing something you consider a “chore” has helped me a lot too. Now I fold laundry while watching one of my guilty pleasure shows on Netflix and I listen to podcasts while preparing dinner. My inner monologue for meal prep tends to go something like this:

    Emotional Brain: I don’t want to cook. What if we just snack on granola instead?
    Rational Brain: No, because every time we have granola for dinner we end up eating way too much and feel gross.
    Emotional Brian: I guess… but cooking is going to be so much work. It’s been a long day. Can’t we just snack and watch TV?
    Rational Brain: It’s won’t be that much work. It usually only takes us 15 minutes to throw something together. The kitchen is already clean and there’s leftover chicken in the fridge.
    Emotional Brain: But we need a vegetable. I don’t want to chop – it’s boring.
    Rational Brain: How about we listen to a podcast while we chop?
    Emotional Brain: Ooh, a podcast? That sounds fun! Deal!

  2. LOVE this post! I struggle with willpower on a regular basis. Whether it’s getting up early for a work out or putting down that second cookie. I believe that some times you need to listen to your body and you know when you’re too tired and it’s better to get the rest versus getting in a work out but it’s all about balance!

  3. Brilliant article. I live on the West Coast in BC, and rain is something we get A LOT of. My emotional brain tells me I don’t like being wet and cold in the morning so I shouldn’t go for a walk before work. My rational brain says, yes you do, you’ll feel great and you love being outside – stop being prissy pants!. So, off I went this week and bought great rain pants and a bright umbrella. Emotional brain is now happy as emotional brain loves color and and the connection to nature when walking through the forrest. Rational brain is like – Yeah! I told you so :).

  4. Elisabeth says:

    I often forward your emails to my husband, who struggles with a lot of the things you write about. This was his response to this post, which I thought you’d like to see:

    “Wow. I felt like this was written specifically for me and what I think after I “fail” to do something. Super duper interesting and well written.”

    Thank you for this post, and for helping him see that many others share his struggles.

  5. Barbara Wall says:

    Great article! I swim every day, and now that it is getting colder it is hard to get up! Once I have my coffee in hand I am out the door. I have also heard that people go to bed with their work out clothes on so they are good to go once the alarm goes off.

    Thank you Darya

  6. Kimberly says:

    Love this! I have set far too many challenges for myself where I say “I will do XYZ for 30 days.” Sometimes, I can gut it out for the whole 30 days by using all of my willpower reserves, other times, I end up giving up. But either way, the behavior never turns into a sustainable habit. I can see where this approach is MUCH more likely to bring lasting change!

  7. Lotta says:

    I´ve been having the EXACT SAME struggle for the past few months, except I´m a PhD student. With a similar schedule though.
    I successfully implemented morning workouts a few months back by betting on it with my husband. If I failed to get up to work out in the morning for 2 months, I would have had to watch sports with him. Worked out perfectly, as I find watching sports excruciatingly boring and a tremendous waste of my time, so getting up early was easier.
    Now I am back to staying in bed and feeling sluggish all day 🙁 After reading this article I think maybe I should place another bet 😉

    • Darya Rose says:

      Be careful with external motivations like bets, they tend to not last long term. Better to find intrinsically motivating reasons to get up.

      I’m so glad I’m not a PhD student anymore 😉

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