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Brain Embroidery

The Surprising Fact About Willpower

Creative Commons LicensePhoto credit: Hey Paul Studios

Many of us think that the way to achieve our goals is with willpower.  We start the year of getting back in shape by resolving to only eat vegetables, fish, and salad while exercising every single day – NO MATTER WHAT!

So, when we give in and eat that chocolate or don’t go for our walk, we focus on the one day we didn’t perform perfectly and leap right to the belief that it’s because we lack the willpower to achieve our goal.

We give up.  We’ve never had the willpower and we never will.

Never mind that we’d done really well for the last 20 or 30 or 40 days.  We fell off the wagon and that proves it – no willpower.

What If Our Success Doesn’t Depend on Willpower?

What if succeeding is dependent on something else entirely?

All progress in life requires that we do something differently.  It requires that we change something that we’ve done F O R E V E R into something new, something we’re just starting to do.

The old way is comfortable.

The old way feels fine.

The old way got us exactly where we are today… tired, out of shape, bored, angry, depressed, stuck.

You’d think if we’re actually feeling that badly that we’d want to change.  Ha!  Despite the fact that we want:

  • Energy
  • Love
  • Enthusiasm
  • Engagement

We don’t want to change.  We want to stay comfortable.  We want to magically be better without being different.

Naomi Dunford of IttyBiz put it exactly correctly when she wrote about her effort to eat more healthily:

Several times a day, I will complain to anyone around that what I’m doing is hard.

And then I realized that, especially when I’m talking to my boys, I’m delivering the wrong message.

I do NOT want them to think that what I’m doing is hard.

I do NOT want them to share the limiting beliefs that have kept me eating cheese sandwiches for twenty years.

I want them to know the truth.

The truth is, eating vegetables is not hard.

Planning meals is not hard.

Getting out the blender to make a smoothie is not hard.

No element of the process is hard, independently or grouped.

The sum of the whole is NOT greater than the sum of the parts.

NOTHING about what I’m doing is hard.

It’s changing that’s hard. [emphasis added]

I wish she was wrong, but she’s not.  And it’s all because of the ruts in our brain.

Getting Out of Our Ruts Is Hard

I can just hear you yelling, “RUTS IN MY HEAD?  Are you nuts?” – Well, to be honest, that’s a question I get quite often and up to this point, nobody’s been able to send me to a “quiet place with no stress” even though I wish they would.

To reduce this to the basics –


The more a behavior is repeated, the deeper the path it carves into our brains.  The deep paths are ruts and just like a ball rolling along, when we fall into a rut, it’s easier to stay in the rut than it is to change.

Let me give you an example with no emotional resonance.

I drive 45 miles to work.  Each day before I leave, I check traffic on the internet.  And, even when I can see that there’s an accident, I resist taking a less familiar route.


Can you believe it?  I’d rather sit in traffic than try an unfamiliar route.

Ok, so now I have to admit it.  I am NUTS.

Resistance (to Change) is Normal

Like all of you, I resist change – any kind of change, even change that’s good for me.

What are my fears as I attempt to get healthier – that I’ll have to give up, F O R E V E R, all my comfort foods – bread, rice, potatoes, pasta, muffins, chocolate (in any form).

I look in the mirror and I am strong.  I don’t need bread, rice, etc.  Not while I’m standing in front of the mirror; but when I’m facing dinner, I need them.

Not that I really need them, but what would dinner be without them?

Different.  And, that would be change.

It is amazing to me the amount of terror that comes into my heart at the thought of life without my carbs.  Logically, I tell myself that committing to a healthier lifestyle doesn’t mean that I’m giving up all my favs F O R E V E R, it just means that I’m reducing the amount of carbs I’m consuming.  But the habit trail in my brain craves the old way.  It craves the comfort of the known, easy choice.

It’s a rut.

In many cases, ruts are evidence of skill.  People who play the violin develop lots of folds where the fingering hand is in the brain.  Folds are the sides of the ruts.  The more the practice, the deeper the folds.  They represent real effort on the part of the violinist.  In this case, they are good.

But, when we’re trying to change, they’re not so good.  Over time we can create new habits and build new paths in the brain.  But it takes time.  It takes being conscious while we’re making changes.  And, it takes patience.

Patience with ourselves, knowing that we won’t always get it right.

Patience with the process.

We are well designed.  The more we practice, the better we get and the stronger the paths in our brain.  That’s why Michael Jordan is so good at what he does.  He practices and practices and practices.  Long after everyone else has gone home, he’s still practicing.

And what we need to remember is that everything requires practice, even eating vegetables.

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