Willpower Doesn't Always Solve Your Problems

To overcome most challenges, willpower isn't the only requirement. In fact, as a rule, you obtain results when your attitude and desire are accompanied by other resources.
Willpower Doesn't Always Solve Your Problems
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 15 November, 2021

Willpower isn’t the solution to all problems. As a matter of fact, although we’ve long been told that we all have an internal engine capable of helping us achieve everything we want, the reality is completely different. For example, a depressive disorder isn’t simply overcome by the sufferer’s desire to “be okay”. Likewise, an addict’s therapy program won’t work effectively just because they want it to.

Let’s face it, it’d be wonderful to have an invincible kind of willpower that solves anything and everything. Indeed, no doubt you’d love to have the kind of ability that gives you the capacity to stop smoking, stop using your mobile so much, and achieve success in everything you do. In fact, to overcome all of your problems and limitations, hence becoming a happier person. However, sadly, this isn’t the case.

In reality, this energetic and amazing ability that you’re able to put into practice at certain times is unfortunately easily exhausted. In fact, willpower is short-lived and can’t solve everything. Let’s look a little more closely at this idea. Also, let’s consider applying a series of different approaches that’ll prove to be much more useful in your life.

“Many people think that what the addict needs is willpower, but nothing could be further from the truth. When a person has lost control over a drug or activity, attempts to control its use almost never work.” 

-Arnold M. Washton-

man before two roads activating willpower

Why willpower isn’t as useful as you think

For years, willpower has been viewed as being more powerful than it really is. In fact, we’ve been made to believe that it’s enough to combine our desire, effort, and motivation and everything we hope for will happen. With this in mind, you probably went to the gym twice a week, for a run every evening, and cheerfully studied every day to pass your exams and get promoted at work.

Of course, there’ll always be those who possess enough willpower to achieve success. However, for the rest of us, the reality is usually a little grayer. In fact, the truth is that inner resolution isn’t enough for most of us to achieve glory. Furthermore, we shouldn’t ever tell anyone that to overcome their anxiety, phobia, depression, or psychological trauma, all they need is willpower. As a matter of fact, there are important nuances here that we must consider.

Let’s take a look at them.

Willpower is a limited resource

Professors of psychology, M. Muraven and R. Baumeister from the University of California conducted an interesting study. It concerned the subject of self-control and willpower. They claim that exerting self-control isn’t always successful because it depletes your available resources. In fact, self-control and willpower are like muscles and they get tired.

In addition, the study states that this dimension is very sensitive to your emotional state. As a matter of fact, if one day you feel sad or upset, that can be enough for this internal force to completely collapse. In this case, the emotional component overrides the cognitive component and you stop acting.

In other words, low spirits reduce your ability to think, decide and plan. Consequently, eventually, you’re left with no desire to do anything…

Common enemies that prevent you from maintaining your desire to “work hard” to achieve something

Willpower is an essential ingredient in many of the things you do. It’s impossible to deny its usefulness. However, you also need to recognize its limitations. They’re as follows:

  • Achieving something doesn’t always depend on your attitude. Sometimes, there are multiple factors that are beyond your control.
  • Occasionally, you overestimate your resources. Indeed, you might think that certain goals are easy until you finally try and achieve them.
  • Willpower requires a high level of cognitive energy. For example, attention, problem-solving, planning, focusing, etc. However, your brain resources in this regard are limited. Of course, it’s impossible to give 100 percent every day. This is because of the effect on you of variables such as stress, feelings of discouragement, a bad night’s rest, or physical exhaustion.
  • You’re often sabotaged by automatic negative thoughts.
  • Sometimes, there’s a lot of willpower but little planning. In this case, you have the desire and the intention, however, you lack the technique.
Woman studying thinking about willpower

What else do you need apart from willpower?

You already know that willpower is a limited resource. Furthermore, you realize that it won’t necessarily help you achieve all your goals. For this reason, it can be helpful to think that reaching a goal (whatever it may be) is like a recipe. This recipe requires many ingredients for it to turn out to be truly exquisite.

One aspect of which you can be sure is that people with addictions or mental problems don’t lack the desire to improve themselves. As a matter of fact, the vast majority yearn to feel better and take control of their lives. However, this requires more than just willpower.

More than just willpower

Organizational psychologist Benjamin Hardy wrote a book called Willpower Doesn’t Work on this very subject. He proposed the following guidelines.

  • Change your environment. Organize your life so that everything around you drives you to achieve your ultimate aim. This may sometimes mean leaving aside certain people who, due to their attitude, prevent you from focusing on your goal. Making changes at home, changing routines, and even spending time in different places can also be useful. In this way, by changing your environment you avoid falling into old harmful patterns.
  • Plan. If you want something, draw up a plan. You can adjust the plan as you go along.
  • Discipline. Act, even if you’ve no desire or motivation to do so. There’ll be days when you’ve no willpower or spirit. In these moments, discipline is what pushes you to continue. In fact, sometimes, the simple act of acting and moving, simply because you have to, generates a change in your brain. Then, positive emotions appear again.

Last but not least, when motivation fails, remember your motives. In other words, visualize what it is you want to gain or achieve. You’re not a machine with unlimited resources. You’re a person whose strength sometimes fails. This is completely normal. Always remember to accept yourself, treat yourself well, and act accordingly.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Baumeister, R., & Vohs, K. (2007). Self-regulation, ego depletion, and motivation. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 1, 1–14.
  • Baumeister, R., et al. (2006). Self-regulation and personality: How interventions increase regulatory success, and how depletion moderates the effects of traits on behavior. Journal of Personality, 74, 1773–1801.
  • Martijn, C., et al. (2002). Getting a grip on ourselves: Challenging expectancies about loss of energy after self-control. Social Cognition, 20, 441–460.
  • Muraven, M., & Baumeister, R. (2000). Self-regulation and depletion of limited resources: Does self-control resemble a muscle? Psychological Bulletin, 126, 247–259.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.