Willpower is Never Enough

Willpower is not enough. It will never be enough to reliably make big changes in your life.

Willpower is like voluntary, self-manufactured stress. Unfortunately, we prove to ourselves over and over that we are unreliable, even if we are desperate for change. The only thing we can rely on is our ability to avoid change. Change usually happens to us, rather than because of us. But what can we do to increase our odds of consciously making a positive change?

It’s not nothing

Although I said that willpower isn’t enough, we won’t be abandoning it entirely. It is a necessary component, but it must be willpower that is fueled by clarity of purpose. We must clarify the desired change and consciously resolve to attain it.

I want to get more consistent about making plans, for instance. In addition to spending the time to write down what “done” looks like, I also find it difficult to keep my priorities in mind and stick to the plan. This is the desire, but it’s very vague. How will I achieve this? 

Transformative stress

In order to make a big change, we need at least one other source of stress to change.

One potential source is a partner. Someone on your treatment team who holds you accountable. Unless that person is a coach or other paid assistant, this method can be inefficient and exhausting for everyone involved.

A better source of change is your environment. The things you encounter daily that set you on particular courses of thought and action. The stimuli that shape your outlook and opportunities. This is a good place to start.

Routine & visual cue

I will start my plan for change by making the target behavior –in this case planning– a routine part of my day. I set my calendar to always be the only thing open first thing in the morning. This is a visual cue to start my day by making a plan. 

Next, I will copy my daily tasks, ranked by priority, to a sticky note and put that right at eye level. That way, whenever I look up, I am reminded of my priorities. I need to have this list in front of me at all times to stay on track and maintain urgency throughout the day.

But how do I prioritize? 

Ask yourself, “What is this unfinished task preventing me from getting?” The answer should always be money or happiness. If money or happiness is not directly on the other side of finishing this project, it’s not a priority. Money and happiness are the priorities. Simple.


We also need to stick to the plan and finish tasks with urgency. This means using a timer for almost everything. Remember, we can’t rely on our own internal sense of urgency, especially with new routines.

Plan for switching

It is critical that, when the timer goes off, we stick to the plan by switching tasks. Switching can be very difficult for atypicals. If we get hyperfocused on a task we can justify neglecting other important tasks. They fade away in a haze of stress. 

Anticipate this challenge by making a plan for switching before you begin. Write down the end state of the project on its calendar event, make a new estimate for time required to complete the project, and schedule a time to resume. 


If the project is a bottleneck –one that prevents you from making further progress until it is complete– then it might be more difficult to pull yourself away. These tasks set off alarms in our brains which make them difficult to de-prioritize. 

In this case, you’ll want to pause and consider all of your other projects or responsibilities and the consequences of delaying each one. Then, make a CLEAR AND CONSCIOUS decision to prioritize your efforts based on greatest gain. Once the decision is made, resume pursuit of the chosen task with maximum effort and workmanlike resolve.

Shocking truth

The truth is, most of us need a shocking personal moment to prompt real change. An event that irrevocably disrupts our normal routines and forces new patterns of behavior. That’s nothing to be ashamed of. Even if change must be forced upon us externally, at least we can recognize that moment as an opportunity and embrace it.

It will be painful and unnatural. There might be grief. But that is necessary growth. Just remember that willpower is never enough. If change is difficult, that does not indicate that there is not something wrong with you, or you don’t want it badly enough. You can only rely on yourself to stay the same. Find other sources of stress that can increase the healthy, transformative stress that makes change possible.