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The Pillars of Willpower Part 2



“I know what I need to do, I just need to do it”.

In part one of this blog we discussed the idea of willpower, and how people tend to place immense value, in addition to their own sense of self-worth and self-efficacy in it’s hands.  However, in our experiences, great success stories that many attribute to an individual’s willpower are actually more likely the result of that person taking specific steps to set themselves up for success.  

Armed with the information below you too can take control over your fitness goals; success or lack thereof is not simply a product of one’s willpower.


Proper Goal Setting

Goal setting truly is an art, and entire lengthy blogs (heck, books!) can be written on the topic.  We certainly won’t have time to go too in-depth on goal setting here, however below are a few tips to help ensure your goals set you up for success.  Goal setting is where the entire fitness journey starts, so do not skip here!


  • Focus on behaviors, not outcomes.  I want to lose 20 lbs in 3 months is a specific and measureable goal, which is great.  The one problem though, is that it is focused on an outcome which in some ways is outside of your control.  You cannot FORCE your body to lose weight at the exact rate you want it to.  What you can control however, is your exercise- “I am going to workout 4 days per week”- and nutrition- “I will make sure 75% of my plate consists of vegetables and lean meat for most meals”.
  • Set challenging but realistic goals.  Ask yourself how confident you feel in your ability to complete the behavior based goals you came up with from step 1.  If your level of confidence is not a 9 or 10 on a 1-10 scale, try starting with something a bit less demanding.  Maybe once you build some momentum with the more manageable goal, the more demanding one will be less daunting.
  • Figure out your “why”.  Take some time to reflect on, and iron out the real reasons why you want to reach your goals.  Envision how your life will be different after you have met them.  Write down your “why”, and put it somewhere where you will see it as a reminder each day.  This sort of reflection can really help boost motivation in moments where it is lacking.

Proper goal setting is the first step towards setting yourself up for success, and reducing the amount of reliance you place on willpower.  As I said above, those 3 rules by no means cover all of it, but they are a good place to start.


Game planning

You have come up with your behavior-focused goals and you are feeling pretty good.  The next step in the process is to set up a concrete game plan for how you will incorporate those behaviors into your week.

Game planning will help weave your goals into your busy schedule.  If your goal is to food prep, you should sit down with your calendar and iron out the specifics, such as: what day and time you are going grocery shopping; what day and time you are going to prep food; how many different options you think you need for variety; identification of upcoming challenges to this routine (ie. kids dance recital during grocery shopping time) and what you need to do to modify your plan.

With proper game planning, you should be able to come up with a schedule that reduces the tax on your willpower and sets you up for success.  In some ways, preparing and planning for hard situations so that you do not have to exercise much self-control to begin with, is much more important than “having” it at all.  Whatever “having it” even means.

Look out for your future-self

At our “best” any one of us is capable of making the decision to have a salad instead of a hamburger, or go to the gym instead of sitting on the couch after a long day at work.  The problem is that we are rarely “at our best”.

Every day, each and every one of us faces countless decisions.  What should I wear?  What should I eat?  How should I constructively write this email to an employee/coworker/client?  How should I avoid traffic?  How do I respond to my kids inappropriate question?  

Even the smallest decisions add up and lead to a phenomenon known in the psychology world as decision fatiguethe deteriorating quality of decisions made by an individual, after a long session of decision making.”

Since we know we will be hard pressed to make rational and smart decisions related to our fitness goals when we are tired after a long day of endless decision making, it is important to take steps to look out for our future selves now, when we’re more fresh and rational.

Throw out the junk food you know you won’t be able to resist later; pack your workout clothes in your gym bag to take to work so you don’t have that excuse not to work out; stock up on a variety of healthy snacks and put them out in the open so that they are hard to ignore.

Those are just a few examples, but the point stands that it is important to “decision proof” your environment when you are feeling motivated and rested.  This way you do not have to rely on willpower when you are tired, cranky, and far from the state of mind that you were in when you set your fitness goals to begin with.


Let’s end with some examples…

Every single person reading this blog is capable of exercising great willpower and self control in many aspects of life.  Let’s dig a bit deeper down into the reasons why you are able to do so.

Moms and dads.  You are able to exercise great willpower when staying calm and caring in the face of the many challenges of parenting.  If you work to solidify and internalize your exercise goals even half as firmly as you do your goal to be a good mother or father, I bet it would be way easier to put that willpower to use in your fitness journey as well.

Any reader who has worked their butt off to get a good job, promotion, or graduate from college.  How exactly did you reach that level of success?  Did you simply “will” it to be so, or did you come up with a game plan that you stuck to for years, and that was based upon the foundation of well thought-out goals?  I would imagine it was the later.

Anyone who has dealt with, or known someone who has fought addiction.  Did that person just quit smoking and never look back, or did they have to take steps to decision proof their life?  I imagine that person probably removed anything and everything from their environment that could trigger a relapse.

When put into the context of other areas of life, of course it makes sense that we wouldn’t simply rely on willpower to get the job done.  So make sure not to make the same mistake with your fitness goals either.  With proper goal setting, game-planning, and changes to your environment, we are all capable of reaching our health and fitness goals.

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Thanks for reading!

Sawyer Paull-Baird, Fitness Director AFS-Ann Arbor

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