Why Willpower Wasn’t Enough

man at beach

A few months ago, I gave a speech on personal change based on the research in my latest bestseller Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success. At the end of my presentation, a fellow approached me and said, “You could use this on yourself, couldn’t you?” He then poked me in my rather large stomach and laughed.

In short, “Physician, heal thyself.”

So, I decided it was time to put the principles in Change Anything to work on myself. Sixty pounds lighter, I can now say with great personal resolve that if you understand the principles behind personal influence, you can change anything. Here’s what I’ve learned.

Escape the willpower trap

The most common mistake we make when trying to change our unhealthy habits is to assume that if we just apply enough willpower, we can change.

My co-authors and I studied 5,000 people working to overcome personal challenges and found that willpower alone rarely helps us overcome bad habits. It turns out there are actually six sources of influence that shape our choices. According to our research, those who apply all six sources of influence in combination are ten times more likely to change.

Create six sources of influence

I began my transition from relying on willpower to harnessing the sources of influence by creating a personal motivation statement. This statement reminded me why I wanted to get healthy. When I was tempted to eat unhealthy foods or slack off in my exercise regime, I thought about my grandchildren and how I wanted to be healthy so I could spend time with them for years to come.

Second, I had to learn the skills I lacked. It turned out I knew far less about nutrition and exercise than I thought. So I became a student of food preparation and exercise methods.

Third, I moved to the social domain. I transformed accomplices into friends by asking those who tempted me with snacks or desserts to cease and desist. I even asked them to encourage me when I made healthy choices.

Fourth, I worked with a personal trainer who taught me how to both exercise and prepare healthy foods.

Next, I inverted the existing economy. I placed money in an envelope, gave it to a friend, and told him to mail the money to an organization I despised every time I missed a weekly goal. That helped keep me on track!

And finally, I took control of the space around me. Brian Wansink from Cornell University, found that people eat 92% of whatever is on their plate—regardless of how big it is. The difference between 12-inch and 9-inch plates totals 33% more calories! I decided to put my kitchen on a diet by trading out my large plates and bowls for smaller ones.

Be the scientist and the subject

Nobody has designed a change program that perfectly suits your needs, temperament and circumstances. Instead of embracing an off-the-shelf program, start by studying you and your weak moments. Successful changers turn bad days into good data by learning from their setbacks and adjusting accordingly so their plan evolves in a deliberate direction on the path to success.

I finally experienced success when I quit relying on my willpower alone to change me and instead created a tailored, multifaceted plan with strategies in each of the six sources of influence.

Photo by Kyle May

12 thoughts on “Why Willpower Wasn’t Enough”

  1. Kerry

    I really like your approach and how we are educated and told over and over just to use brute force or will power to get over a challenge.
    These 6 steps are really interesting, I especially like the first one, remembering loved ones and using our love for them as source of motivation.

    My favorite statement is your last one, there is no off the shelf program for everyone on how to change habits. In an age of one size fits all programs, sold online and in bookstores as the new miracle recipe, this is very refreshing.

  2. That’s a really great and rather scientific approach there, Kerry. I wished there were more people explaining how to win in life using tricks like those. One of them is Heidi Grant Halvorson who did so in her great book Succeed. I hope a new era of personal transformation is approaching. One in which that transformation actually works very well. :)

    Oh, and that trick with donating to hated organizations is a bit extreme. It’s looks pretty much like beating up yourself. I think this will better just be a last resort option.

  3. “people eat 92% of whatever is on their plate—regardless of how big it is. The difference between 12-inch and 9-inch plates totals 33% more calories!”

    Talk about wake-up call.
    I work out daily and try to make sure to always eat a salad but decreasing “my plate size” would propel me from in decent shape into great shape.

    Thank you for the nice, easy little tip.

  4. Impressive – well done.

    I like the reflective and scientific approach, I think we can waste a lot of time and effort doing things that just don’t work otherwise. If at first you don’t succeed – try to work out why – then try again differently.

    I also feel strongly that those of us advocating some sort of cause need to ‘walk the walk’ – at least to some degree. Most of the time we’re not telling people anything they don’t already know, but if we’re good we can get them to believe it . . . and they need to see it working in our own lives for that.


  5. I completely agree with this article and funny it is the same way that I lost so much of my own weight. I became depressed several years back and gained much weight. After overcoming my situation, I turned to my weight but couldn’t do it alone. I found trust and help in friends and family who were able to help push me to reach my goals. If I were to write a book about my own weight loss, I’d end up giving a list of names of people who helped me.

    Great article that really resonated with me

    1. Kerry.

      I didn’t realize until looking at your new book that you were the Kerry Patterson of Difficult Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer — three books that I treasure in my professional library.

      You and your team are doing great work in assisting me and many others to create more wholesome relationships in the workplace and everywhere!

      Thanks to all of you.

  6. “The difference between 12-inch and 9-inch plates totals 33% more calories! ”

    The amount of calories would be based on the area of the plate, not the diameter. Therefore the 12-inch plate would have 78% more calories than the 9-inch plate.

    Basic math fail. Much as would be expected from this pseudoscientific nonsense.

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