Does It Take Willpower to Lose Weight?

March 14, 2013 — Leave a comment
Willpower or Discipline?

Willpower or Discipline?

Willpower is vastly overrated.

Willpower is the ability to resist short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals. The American Psychological Association defines willpower as “a conscious, effortful regulation of self by the self.”

That seems straightforward. You should be able, through a conscious effort, to resist temptation in order to achieve a worthy goal such as weight loss. The problem is that willpower does not work when it comes to making healthy lifestyle changes.

In research studies (by the American Psychological Association) participants regularly cited lack of willpower as the number one reason for not following through with healthy lifestyle changes.

In a clinical oncology study of 9000 cancer survivors, less than 5% were able to switch to the recommended healthy lifestyle changes. The number one reason given by these cancer survivors for their inability to make a healthy lifestyle change was: “I don’t have enough willpower.” What group of people have a stronger motive to maintain a healthy diet than cancer survivors? What could be worse than cancer relapse or recurrence and then be faced with going through treatment again. Obviously, you cannot rely on willpower.

The problem with willpower is it is limited. It runs out and needs to be replenished. It has been described as being compared to hanging on the edge of the cliff – you only have so much strength and can only hang on so long.

Trying to lose weight by sheer willpower is impossible.

For example, suppose you have decided to lose weight, eat healthy, and give up sugar. However, late in the afternoon you become fatigued, have sugar cravings, and feel the need for a boost. You are tempted to take a break and have a pastry and a cup of coffee, or perhaps a soda and some chips.

If you’re counting on willpower to get you past the temptation, lots of luck. It won’t work.

Most likely your sugar craving and fatigue is caused by low blood sugar – a “sugar low” – which causes the subconscious part of your brain to start seeking immediate sources of glucose (blood sugar). This causes the craving for foods like ice cream, sodas, or pastries that will provide a fast source of glucose.

Now you have a conflict. The conscious part of your brain seeking long-term goals is pitted against the subconscious part of your brain seeking immediate gratification. Your subconscious will win every time.

What can be done?  The solution is to replace bad habits with good habits. Willpower requires decision-making capability (a conscious, effortful regulation of self). Habits don’t require decisions – you just do it because you do it.

Habits are strengthened every time you practice them. Every repetition for that behavior makes the neural pathway more effective, which in turn makes it easier to repeat that behavior.

How do you create a habit? Habits are created by discipline and discipline is training to act in accordance with rules. No military depends upon willpower for victory. A military is built on discipline. A championship sports team is built on discipline. It is built on drills repeated over and over to produce habits. Habits build champions.

This is the progression of forming a habit:

  • Habits are formed by discipline.
  • Discipline is formed by following rules.
  • Rules are the result of decisions.
  • Decisions are the result of goals.
  • Goals are the result of motivation.


Habits shape our lives and we can shape our habits. To be successful in losing weight, do not depend upon willpower. Depend upon habit. To learn more about forming habits, I suggest you read The Power of Habits by Charles DuHigg. To read an interview by Maia Szalavitz of Charles DuHigg about his book click here.

The Power Loop click here

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