When Willpower Fails – A Friendlier Path To Your Goals

Jan 18, 2018 | Change

It’s that time of year when, for many of us, willpower for our resolutions or goals begins to wane.

Even if we’re still powering through, it can feel like we’re forcing ourselves to do something that we don’t really want to do.

Accomplishing goals means creating change – and let’s face it, change is hard. It doesn’t mean you’re a flawed person. In fact, it makes perfect sense given how our brains function and respond to change.

But what if you’re just going about this process of getting to your goals the wrong way? What if there’s another way that’s friendlier to yourself and to others?

In a battle of willpower, who are you fighting?

David DeSteno, psychology professor at Northeastern University, says that the idea that one needs willpower or self-control to accomplish goals is wrong because it sets us up for internal conflict.

When you’re powering through the present for the sake of a future payoff (e.g., saying no to a sweet so that you can lose weight or be healthier), it can feel like a no-win situation. In essence, you’re forcing yourself to do/not do something that would feel good now, and this puts you at odds with yourself.

And if it’s you against you in that moment, then you can’t win. As DeSteno says, “Your mind is fighting against itself.”

This battle of willpower also requires mental effort that can feel too taxing or stressful.

Not only that, but when you lose the battle of self-control, you feel like a failure. This in turn makes you feel even less capable of reaching another goal in the future – see the downward spiral? – until the mind simply concludes, “I don’t do goals.”

All for one and one for all

Since we don’t really want to throw all goals out the window, what’s the solution?

DeSteno says we should stop feeling miserable with the focus on willpower and instead focus on social emotions such as gratitude and compassion. His theory not only makes some intuitive sense, but it’s also backed by research… and even some prior posts by yours truly 😉 (see below).

What these social emotions do that willpower does not, is to shift our mind’s focus toward the value of social connection and the future.

In terms of evolution, this is what we needed to do to survive. Our survival depended not on individual achievements or personal goals, but on making and maintaining social connections. If we didn’t care about others and behave morally – if we didn’t consider the interests of others before our own – we wouldn’t be accepted into relationships and communities which we needed to survive and propagate.

Social emotions and self-control

First, gratitude. DeSteno’s studies have shown that gratitude directly increases self-control. He found that the ability to delay gratification of a financial reward increased directly in relation to the amount of gratitude study participants felt. Specifically, people who felt either happy or neutral were willing to forego $100 in a year for only $18 today. But for those who felt gratitude, it took $30 to forego $100 in the future.

In addition, other studies have shown that gratitude improves neural activity in a part of the brain integral to controlling impulses and delaying gratification called the pre-frontal cortex. (For more details on the studies, as well as tips for practicing gratitude, click here.)

Second, compassion. DeSteno’s studies link it to gratitude, showing that when people feel grateful, they will also demonstrate more compassion or caring for others. They donate more of their time to help others, make financial decisions that consider their partners, and are more likely to be loyal to those who’ve helped them. Compassion was also linked to a 30% increase in perseverance in the face of difficult tasks.

And in terms of our brains, the ability to have compassion and to understand another’s view point comes from the area called the pre-frontal cortex, which – not coincidentally – is also linked to delaying gratification and goal direction.


In addition to compassion for others, self-compassion has also been found to improve one’s motivation to succeed.

Because many people see self-compassion as letting oneself off the hook, they tend to avoid it when they’re pushing toward a goal. However, research shows just the opposite: that people are highly motivated to succeed when they have self-compassion. In fact, studies have linked greater self-compassion to less rumination, perfectionism, and fear of failure.

(For more on self-compassion, including tips for practicing it, click here.)

Wire to connect, wire to achieve

In today’s society, it’s easy to lose the perspective of our common humanity in the focus on individual success and achievement.

But this research on social emotions confirms what neurobiologists say about our brains: we are wired to connect.

Yes, we want to achieve success; but if we can relate those goals to how we connect with others – whether in our work, homes, communities or the world – we might just find we’re more motivated to achieve them.

3 ways to refocus your goals

So as we approach the end of January, when (not if) you find your willpower waning, try re-framing your goal(s) around gratitude, compassion and social connection.

On your path toward your goals this year, ask yourself:

  1. Who and what are you grateful for? And who and what are supporting you in moving towards your goals? (By the way, this can include yourself!)
  2. If you reach your goals, who might you be helping and how? Who do you want to help and why?
  3. Where can you start being more self-compassionate? What can you stop beating yourself up about (e.g. prior lapses in willpower)?

The bonus of this approach is that simply by asking yourself these and similar questions, by shifting your focus and attention, you’ll be rewiring your brain and improving your neural connections to your brain’s CEO, the prefrontal cortex – which means you’ll likely be improving your thinking all around!

If you’d like some more information or support in improving your brain and getting to your goals, contact me.

Photo by Kevin Gent on Unsplash.


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Jen Riggs Blog

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Jennifer is the creator of Pathways to Change, a framework for mindful leadership development that integrates coaching, neuroscience, mindfulness and mind-body principles.

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