The Myth of Willpower (How Preparation and Small Wins Add Up)


Yes, the "W" word.  That mythical pink fluffy unicorn called Willpower has been held out as the key to success in nearly every realm of life, from weight loss, to business success, to climbing Mount Everest.  I've also heard, time and time again, "I just don't have the willpower to resist eating that..."  or something along those lines to explain why someone hasn't been able to succeed in losing weight and/or maintaining a healthy lifestyle.


It seems that, much of the time, people equate willpower with strong motivation.  E.G. if your motivation for losing weight is strong enough, you will be able to resist the temptations of poor food choices, etc. because the motivation will give you the will.  Maybe they need to get in shape or risk losing their job, or have been told that their life is in imminent danger from health complications unless they lose weight.  Keep trekking through the forest or climbing that mountain, or give up and die alone in the wilderness.  In these cases, people are absolutely driven by this strong motivation.

From the outside looking in, it seems that these people have enormous willpower because they don't make those bad choices, but when you look just a bit deeper, or even if you ask these people how they "find the willpower" they'll tell you.  It isn't willpower, it's that the alternative (not losing weight) or the consequences of that alternative (E.G. unemployment or death) are negative enough in their mind that it is simply not viable, so they have "no choice" but to make the right choice.  There is no exertion of their will required to stay on track - their deep motivation is sufficient to sustain them because any other choice is unpalatable.

Having a deep, emotionally-resonant motivation is great (that's why we had you go through the 5 Why's Exercise in our article "Find Your Real, Deep Down Why"), and can definitely help keep you on track through minor, or even some not-so-minor, challenges along the way. For most of us, though, for motivation to be strong enough on its own to sustain a fitness/lifestyle journey through serious challenges, it literally has to be life and death.  If the consequences of failure are less than fatal, we can always find a way to accept falling off track.  That is completely normal, and is absolutely OK!

Waiting until the motivation is "strong enough" is a losing game.  Why wait until you've had that first heart attack to really get serious about changing your lifestyle?


What if, instead of just all-or-nothing, black or white choices, you had alternatives?

Scenario 1 - All or Nothing

It's treat day at the office, and someone brought in one of those big Costco packs of chocolate chip cookies.  You're not really hungry, but everyone else is in the break room eating cookies and socializing.

Your choices here are:

  1. Eat the cookies
  2. Don't eat anything

Now, you're not really hungry, so the "best" option would be to not eat anything, but the apparent normal social behaviour, looking at the rest of the group, is to eat the cookies, and we humans are driven towards behaving in accordance with social norms.  Worse yet, if you're used to eating sweets, and those neural pathways that equate eating sweets with the chemical responses in your brain are already there (the exact same mechanism as addicts' responses to cigarettes, alcohol or drugs), you will literally be compelled by your brain chemistry to choose the cookies.

Unless you really dislike sweets, or have a strong negative association with the group of people eating the cookies and socializing, that is going to be a TOUGH choice.

Scenario 2 - The "Better" Option

It's treat day at the office, and someone brought in one of those big Costco packs of chocolate chip cookies, and there's also a fruit platter on the table.  You're not really hungry, but everyone else is in the break room eating cookies and socializing.

Your choices here are:

  1. Eat the cookies
  2. Eat the fruit
  3. Don't eat anything

Now, you're not really hungry, so the "best" option would be to not eat anything.  However, as we talked about with the first scenario, the social norm here is to eat and socialize.  With everyone else eating cookies, and that treat/reward pathway in your brain working overtime, you likely would still feel a compulsion to have a cookie.

In this scenario, however, there isn't just a "worst" and "best" choice.  You have a third choice - a "better" option: to eat the fruit instead.  Making that "better" option choice is more palatable than the "best" option of going entirely without.  You still fit into the social norm of eating something and socializing, and your brain will still get a little bit of satisfaction on that treat/reward pathway, but you haven't made the "worst" choice of eating the cookie.

How much easier would it be to not make the "worst" choice of eating the cookie in Scenario 2?  Now, don't get me wrong, it is still a choice that may require a small act of will, but that small act is much easier than a major effort like eating nothing when everyone else is enjoying cookies.

There is still a problem here, though - we are relying on someone else providing that "better" option for us, and that will not always (or even often) be the case.  This is where the real secrets to long-term success come in to play:  Preparation and the concept of the "Small Win".


Like we said with our second scenario above, if you have a "better" option, instead of just the "best" and "worst", it makes choices easier.  You can choose the fruit instead of the cookie, and not be a social pariah for not eating anything at all.  That's great if you're lucky enough to be somewhere there is always that "better" option available to you, but why rely on luck?  Why leave it in someone else's hands?

"Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity" - Seneca (Roman philosopher)

What if, instead of hoping or relying upon someone else to provide that better option, you brought your own healthier snack?  The simple act of preparation not only gives you that option, but the fact that you've "made the effort" to prepare that option in advance makes it that much more likely that you will take that option!

Consider, though, that you may not know when temptations will present themselves.  You don't wake up knowing what each day will present, so you not only need to prepare ahead, but make a habit of preparing ahead consistently, so that when those choices arise, you have that better option available.

Many times, preparation is not just about what you DO have available, but is also about what you DON'T have.  If you're at home and you're hungry for a snack, and you've got a cupboard full of cookies and chips, even if you have a fridge full of healthier alternatives, the "worst" option is still there.

You may have heard of the term, "The See-Food Diet", where if a food is available, you will eventually eat it.  That is totally me.  Whether those things are there "for guests" or "for the kids", if you are like me, if they're in the house, it will eventually end up in my belly.  If you're like me, you might need to do a Kitchen Makeover, where you clean out all that junk from your kitchen, and replace it with healthier stuff.

Preparation isn't just about what you do and don't eat, either.  Preparation can come into play when it comes to getting to your workouts on a regular basis as well.

Let's use getting to a workout after having a really rough day at the office as an example.  Now, you really feel wiped out.  Your boss is a mean so-and-so, and you just want to curl up at home with a cup of hot cocoa and a box of cookies.  The last thing you want to do at this point is go to the gym and work out, even though you committed to it on your schedule.  Your trainer and your gym buddies are expecting you.

Which of these two scenarios do you think would be more likely to result in you actually getting to your workout after a rough day?

Scenario 3 - The "Un-Prepared" Route

  1. You have to drive home (where the cocoa and cookies are)
  2. Once you get home, you have to dig out your workout gear and get changed
  3. Once you're dressed, you've got to get your water bottle out and fill it up
  4. Once you're dressed and you have your water bottle, you have to get back in your car
  5. Once you're in the car, you have to decide to drive to the gym instead of Dairy Queen (because I'm out of cocoa and cookies, so a Blizzard will have to do)

Scenario 4 - The "Prepared Ahead" Route

  1. You drive straight to the gym from work (because you prepared ahead and brought all of your gear with you)

Remember, you've had a really crappy day.  In scenario 3, you have to make a number of "re-commitments" to get yourself from work to your workout.  At any one of those steps, you give yourself an opportunity to make a poor choice.  I don't know about you, but if I had to go through making all of those choices between work and home, I think my chances would be pretty slim that I'd make it to my workout.  I'm already grumpy and tired from my work day, so if I walk in the door at home, what are the chances I'm walking out again?

In scenario 4, however, because you've prepared ahead and brought your workout gear with you, you've eliminated all of those possible points of failure, except one.  A simple choice I made in the morning when there was no stress or difficulty to prepare ahead (to take my workout gear with me to work, so I could go straight to the gym after) leaves me with one simple choice - gym or home?

Granted, making that choice can be a tough one at the end of a hard day, and that is where the "Small Win" idea comes in.


Gym or home, buddy - what's it going to be?  Well, here we are with the dreaded all or nothing option again - "Work Out" or "Veg Out".  It doesn't have to be that way if you think in terms of Small Wins.

Let's say you're sitting in the car, trying to make that decision.  Rather than make up your mind right there and then whether or not you're going to work out, how about just deciding to drive TO the gym?  There's a "better" option.  You don't have to commit to anything beyond that - just physically piloting your car to the gym.  If you get to the parking lot, VICTORY!  There's one Small Win.

So now you've driven to the gym, and you're in the parking lot.  Why not at least walk in the door?  You can always tell your trainer and training partners you don't feel well, and just hang out and maybe do some foam rolling - you don't HAVE to workout.  If you get your feet through the door, VICTORY!  There's two Small Wins.

Let's be honest, if you get through the door, you're probably not going to just sit around.  The energy of the group and the stink eye from your trainer will combine, and hey presto, you're working out.  Because you had already driven there, and walked through the door, instead of making that big, tough decision to work out instead of veg out back when you first got in the car, let's call this another Small Win.  Three Small Wins, and you've met the goal of getting to your workout!

Remember, without the little bit of preparation in the morning, there would have been a LOT more Small Wins required to get to that goal.  Preparation makes it possible for Small Wins to succeed, and consistent preparation equals results.

How Can You Use "Small Wins" and Preparation To Succeed?