The reason willpower isn’t a great long-term strategy

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Let me clear something up. You’re not secretly lazy. You are not weak-willed. Everything would not be better if you just tried harder.

Really.

I know you probably don’t believe this because I held onto these beliefs for so long. I’m going to talk about willpower in relation to changing your relationship to alcohol, but in truth this concept applies to anything in your life you want to change.

The first time I stopped drinking I was 22 years old, and it was a long, drawn out slog with my willpower. Don’t get me wrong, using willpower did work. It worked for a whole year.

That year, all of my focus was on saying no. Turning down drinks at a party. Avoiding cocktails at happy hour. Declining wine with dinner.

I said no over and over again, and it wore on me. I didn’t want to be different from my friends. I just wanted to be normal, and saying no a thousand times did not make me feel normal. And it was exhausting.

You’re not secretly lazy. You are not weak-willed. Everything would not be better if you just tried harder. Really.

There’s an ongoing debate in the scientific community about willpower: do humans have a finite amount that decreases with use, or is our capacity for willpower determined by our personal beliefs about it (e.g., whether we think we have a lot of willpower or very little of it)?

Either way, willpower isn’t a great strategy for long-term change because it focuses on the moment before you say yes to an action (in this case saying yes to a drink) rather than what triggered your desire to act in the first place. If you can intervene before the desire to act has been ignited, then you can skip willpower altogether because the desire never appears.

The problem was that I always just focused on changing an action: don’t have a drink. But my desire to drink did not materialize out of thin air despite the fact that it sometimes felt this way. In fact, my desire to drink hadn’t always been with me. I wasn’t born wanting a drink to quell social anxiety. I learned the behavior in college.

What then prompts us to act? Our emotions, which in turn are triggered by our thoughts.

What if, instead of just focusing on the action, you could roll the tape backwards and started taking a look at the feeling and thought that started the chain reaction? Instead of having to use willpower every time you have a desire to drink, you could start figuring out what’s driving desire.

The problem was that I always just focused on changing an action: don’t have a drink. But my desire to drink did not materialize out of thin air despite the fact that it sometimes felt this way.

Once I understood that my desire to drink didn’t just appear and that I could work on identifying the thought and the feeling that preceded it, I had a completely new framework for producing change.

One of the most important thoughts that I identified during this process was “I just want to be normal.” It might seem innocuous, but for me this thought was toxic. When I thought, “I just want to be normal,” I immediately felt shame, and I didn’t like the way shame felt one bit. I wanted to get as far away from that feeling as quickly as possible, and I knew from experience that a great way to numb that feeling was to have a drink.

Exerting willpower over and over again in this environment is pretty difficult, especially if you’re not practiced at sitting with uncomfortable emotions.

Instead I learned how to start slowly changing the thought, “I just want to be normal.” It was a thought I had a lot of practice thinking, so it certainly didn’t change overnight. Once I started to unpack what was fueling it, namely a narrative that people in our society who struggle with alcohol have a character defect, I began to chip away at it.

For me, this has been a much more sustainable and ultimately easier process. Instead of focusing on saying no over and over again, I was able break the pattern so that using the word no became unnecessary.