• Philip Stratton

Lesson 005: There's No Such Thing As Willpower

Updated: Sep 21, 2020

People talk about willpower as if it is some supernatural power. A force that requires Jedi-like mastery that can be used to alter the fabric of space-time in order to prevent cookies from entering your mouth. But there isn't a supernatural power or magic involved, nor is there willpower. There simply are your choices. And your choices result from what you believe to be true regarding who you are and the consequences that will likely result.

In a post on the Becoming Minimalist blog, guest writer Lama Farran outlined the 8 characteristics of people who are successful at getting out of debt.

  1. They are goal-oriented and have a clear focus.

  2. They take steps to change auto-pilot spending habits.

  3. They work hard to identify the difference between needs and wants.

  4. They don’t “Keep up with the Joneses.”

  5. They communicate openly, honestly, and regularly about finances with their partner.

  6. They are patient and disciplined.

  7. They find ways to have fun while paying off their debts.

  8. They are not afraid to ask for help.

Do you see these characteristics in yourself? If not, why not? The answer isn't due to a lack of willpower, it's a lack of proper motivation.

Let's say Steve's objective is to reduce his expenses by $100 per month in order to invest that money for retirement in 35 years. A recurring expenditure is his daily coffee purchase on his way to work. Average cost is $5 per day and he works on average 20 days per month. A common response of someone like Steve might be, "Sure, I could save the $5 per day, but I just don't have the willpower to pass by the coffeeshop each day without stopping for my favorite grande, bone dry, five-shot ristretto, extra-whip, two-raw-sugars cappuccino. Plus, I have plenty of time to start saving for retirement. I'll start later and just increase the amount."

On the other hand, if that $100 per month were needed to pay for critical medication that Steve or his child needed, he would not only stop buying the daily cappuccino, he would tell himself a story about the coffeeshop that would make him feel good about bypassing that awful establishment everyday.

Nothing changed except the reason for wanting to reduce monthly expenses by $100. In other words, the why of the story changed. In his massively popular TED Talk, Simon Sinek explains the importance of understanding the why behind our decisions before we consider the what and how aspects. It is the why that truly provides the motivation behind our actions. Once we understand our why, the right choices become much clearer as we face the many decisions we make each day.

Understanding our why helps us define, or redefine, who we are. We are able to correlate our behaviors with our values. Furthermore, we are able to identify behaviors and habits that we are no longer willing to engage in because they are inconsistent with our self-identity. This is very important because behavior changes tend to be temporary when they seem unnatural. Seth Godin said it very well in his book Purple Cow, "Who you are trumps what you do".

Define your why. Write a short description of who you are. You might include things like what you value in your life (family, friends, freedom), what would you like to have in the future (security, a special purchase, millions of dollars), or what you would like to do (retire, travel, leave a family legacy). Then, start viewing your world through that lens. You won't need to rely on some mysterious willpower force when faced with a tough choice, you'll know why you're making the right choice.

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