Why Willpower and Motivation Are Getting You Nowhere


Willpower.  Motivation.

Whether it’s fitness, business, sports, or everyday life, we often search for willpower to help prevent us from doing things we know are bad for us. We look for motivation to drive us to get better, accomplish tasks, and get ahead.

But what if I told you that willpower and motivation were just figments of your imagination; that they didn’t exist…at least, not in the way you think they do.



Many people believe they never achieve their goals or constantly fail their New Year’s resolutions because they lack willpower or motivation. But the truth is, it has little-to-nothing to do with either one.

Everyone has willpower and motivation. If that were all that was needed to achieve your goals, well, we’d all be billionaires with six-packs married to Kate Upton, or…sorry ladies, I don’t know who you fantasize about these days…Ryan Gosling?

Anyway, like I said if willpower and motivation were simply enough to achieve our goals, we’d be fine. Everyone making a New Years resolution to get to the gym more, or move up within their company is motivated. Someone who cuts back on going out to restaurants in order to eat healthier has willpower.

But eventually that flame of motivation is going to burn out. You’re going to use up your willpower. Because while these may be the inspiration and fuel for change, they themselves don’t make those changes happen.


The Myth of Willpower & Motivation

Co-Founder of Fitocracy and coach Dick Talens wrote this great article awhile back about The Myth of Willpower. In it he frames willpower as a finite resource and discusses why it’s shortsighted and wrong to blame a lack of willpower for your lack of success.

See, willpower is a crutch; an excuse someone uses when they mess up. They say, “Oh man, I have no willpower.” They may look at someone else who can resist those sweet treats at parties, or only has one piece of bread at dinner, and think they have amazing willpower.

But the truth is, rather than relying strictly on willpower, these people have developed habits to help them get where they want to be. Everything they do, everything they eat, is a conscious decision designed to get them closer to their goals.

Willpower can be a great starting point. In the beginning it will take some willpower in order to resist having that extra slice of cake or whatever other activity you are trying to change.

But relying strictly on willpower is a losing battle. Eventually you are going to run out. Using willpower creates an enormous mental and emotional strain, and at some point everyone breaks and breaks hard, undoing all of the good they may have done.


The same thing can be said about motivation.

The problem with motivation is that it’s an emotion. Emotions are erratic; they come and go. So you can see how relying on something as inconsistent as emotions to develop a consistent pattern of activity is a losing battle.

Motivation is not something you can improve; you can’t get better at it. It’s not a skill or a habit, or something you can practice. It’s a feeling, and often a fleeting one at that.


Motivation Level: Red Forman

How often have you seen something that motivated you; I mean really motivated you? Something that made you want to go out and run a marathon, or climb Mt. Everest; that kind of motivation.

Did you go out and do it? How long did that feeling last? How long before you forgot about it and went back to doing what you were doing? A few minutes…an hour? It probably didn’t last very long.

Much like willpower, motivation isn’t without its use. It makes us want to do something! But wanting to do something, and being able to do it are two very different things. Being able to do something, and do it consistently in order to reach a desired outcome, is again dependent on creating habits.


Create Habits, Create Success


Success doesn’t just happen. Its not some magic combination of willpower, motivation, and fairy dust. Success is achieved by making conscious choices that move you towards a specific goal. These choices are what help build habits.

A habit is defined as a routine of behavior that is repeated regularly and tends to occur unconsciously. Many people don’t realize it, but a majority of the things we do on a daily basis are habits. Most of these things though, didn’t start out as habits, but rather activities we had to perform in order to accomplish a certain task.

When you got your first grown-up job after college, you probably had to be to work at a specific time. This meant you also had to get up by a certain time each day. And after four years of sleeping however long you wanted, this was probably difficult at first. But eventually after doing it enough times, it became a habit. Either that or you didn’t have a job very long.

A habit like getting up earlier so you can get to work on time is a fairly easy one to get into (for most people). But other goals that require you to build certain habits, such as losing weight, eating healthier, etc., can be more difficult.

But fear not! As usual, I got your back! Here are a few tips to make you more successful at developing habits that you will stick with:

1. Dream big, but aim small

It is perfectly acceptable to set lofty goals for yourself. In fact, I would encourage it. “Be all you can be!” as they say.

What prevents people from achieving these goals however is that they are too focused on the goal itself, and not the actions and steps it takes to get there. Lofty goals, by definition, are not something that will be accomplished by completing one or two tasks. Rather, it takes a lot of hard work, dedication and planning to get there.

Instead of just focusing on your big goal, identify what steps you will need to take to get there. If you think it will take months or years to reach your goal, figure out what you need to do on a weekly or daily basis to move you closer towards it.

Take the goal of weight loss for example. Your goal may be to lose 20 pounds in the next 4 months. Great goal to have, and certainly achievable! But what do you need to do today to reach that goal? What about tomorrow?

Maybe it’s working out for an hour after work. Or making sure you stay under a certain number of calories for the day. Whatever it is, it’s these small daily steps that, when taken, will lead you to your ultimate goal.

2. Be specific and plan

It’s important when setting a goal to be specific. This will allow you to create a specific plan to reach that goal.

Take the example above of losing 20 pounds over a 4-month span. To do that, you know you would need to lose about 5 pounds a month, which would be a little over a pound a week. Having a specific goal like this in mind allows you to create a specific plan to reach said goal. If you know you need to lose just over a pound a week, then you can create a caloric deficit to help you do just that.

The problem with goals like “lose weight”, “eat healthier”, or “get a better job” is that while they are great goals, they are also too vague. If your goals are too vague, it is very difficult to create a specific plan to achieve them.

And how would you even know if you do achieve them? “Lose weight” could mean one pound or a hundred pounds. If you want a better job, great! But what job? A promotion? Or a new career entirely? Setting a clear goal not only allows you to develop a specific plan, but also greatly increases your chances of achieving that goal.

3. Accountability

If you’ve followed any of my internet musings before, you know that I am a big fan of accountability when it comes to fitness. But accountability is key when it comes to achieving any goal.

In the example I used earlier about getting to work on time, I said this would probably be a fairly easy habit to create. This is because if you didn’t make it to work on time, your boss would eventually fire you. This is accountability. You are accountable to your boss, and if you don’t make it in on time, there will be consequences. In this case, no job for you!

When setting goals, accountability plays a huge role in achieving them. When you are accountable to someone or something, you are no longer the only person dependent on the outcome; other people are counting on you as well.

Accountability can come in many different forms. It could be a workout partner, or a friend you are trying to lose weight with. It could be your family, who’s counting on you to get that promotion and bring home a bigger paycheck.

Or it could just be you. Admittedly, this is the toughest form of accountability because we are more likely to let things slide, or let ourselves off the hook. So how do you create accountability for yourself?

It’s really just as simple as involving others in the process. If you are trying to lose weight or develop regular workout habits you could find a friend to workout with, or hire a trainer/coach. Not only does each option give you someone to answer to if you miss a workout, but the latter gives you the added financial accountability because you have to pay for it.

The same can be said for any other goal. By simply involving other people in your process and planning, you make them aware of what you are trying to do. At the most, they may want to join you in the process. At the very least, every time they see you, they are likely to ask about it. Either way, you are not only accountable to yourself, but them as well.

4. Embrace the suck

Lets face it…no one is perfect. And nothing is ever going to happen the way we want it to. Life throws too many variables at us to be able to plan for everything. The fact is, no matter how we want things to happen, they usually aren’t going to happen that way.

And you know what? That’s okay.

Some may view these missteps or bumps in the road as failure. They see it as failure to stick with a plan or failure to stay on track…but it’s not. One of my favorite sayings is, “You’ve only failed if you stop trying.”

So if you run into a rough patch, get knocked down, or stumble along the way, don’t fret. Accept it as part of the process, pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and get right back to it. By acknowledging that it’s part of the process not only allows you to plan for it, and get back on track much quicker.


Hopefully after reading this you have a better understanding that, while willpower and motivation play a role in setting and achieving your goals, they don’t play as big of a role as people believe. And they certainly aren’t enough to facilitate effective lifestyle changes.

We all like to believe that forces beyond our control, like lack of motivation or willpower, are the reasons we struggle to get what we want out of life. After all, its easier than blaming our own lack of hard work or effort.

But it’s when we do take a hard, objectionable, look at ourselves that we often find the keys to success. By identifying what behaviors hinder change, and what ones foster it, we can create a blueprint for success. And while it isn’t always easy, it’s necessary, and often the most important part of the process.

So next time you feel like your lack of motivation or willpower are holding you back, take a second and look a little harder. Have you done everything you can to set yourself up for success? Do you have a specific plan of attack, with clearly defined goals? If not, take a step back and create a plan first. I promise it will take you a lot further than willpower and motivation every will on their own.


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