One of the biggest misconceptions about losing weight is that requires a ton of willpower. If you have enough willpower you’re good to go, but if you don’t - you’ll probably just fail. This …
My name is Patrick McGilvray, and I’m an experienced marathoner, ultra runner, Sports Nutritionist, Master Life Coach, and weight loss coach for runners. I’ve dedicated my life to helping runners just like you properly fuel your body and your mind. So you can get leaner, get stronger, run faster, and run longer than you ever thought possible. This is Running Lean.
Hey there, and welcome to Episode 119, of Running Lean. My name is Patrick McGilvray, the weight loss coach for runners. And today, why willpower doesn’t work. So one of the biggest misconceptions about losing weight is that it requires you to have a ton of willpower.
Like if you have enough willpower, you’re good to go. But if you don’t, you’re just going to fail. And this couldn’t be further from the truth. Listen, willpower helps, but it will only get you so far. There are other forces at work that have to be addressed if you want to lose weight and be able to keep it off for good.
So in this episode of the podcast, I’m gonna explain why willpower doesn’t work and what you should be focusing on instead. And listen, if you’re the kind of person who wants a little help with all this with losing weight, with being able to keep it off, you know, maybe you do really well when you have some guidance and support, I want you to know that I’ve just opened up my brand new immersive coaching program called the Running Lean Coaching Project.
This program combines the best elements of group coaching and also includes personal one-on-one coaching with me to help you get the knowledge, the guidance, the encouragement, the accountability that you need to hit your weight loss goals and your running goals.
And our whole focus for the month of April is going to be on building healthy habits that stick. There’s an art and a science to habit change. And all month long, we’re going to be doing live trainings, q&a sessions, workshops and coaching to learn how to ditch the old habits, those old habits that aren’t serving you and replace them with healthy new habits that will actually get you to your weight loss goals.
I hope you’ll join us you can learn more and sign up now at runningleanpodcast.com/join, I would love to have you in the Running Lean Coaching Project where the project is you!
All right, this topic has been one that I’ve been thinking about for a while now, why willpower doesn’t work. And one of my clients actually asked me this question about the difference between willpower and mindset. And it really got me thinking about what I wanted to talk about today and how I wanted to frame this conversation.
So willpower is one of these things that is kind of misunderstood, I think. And willpower is actually defined as control exerted, to do something or restrain impulses. So willpower is actually your ability to control yourself and control the decisions you make in certain circumstances. The thing with willpower, though, it often reflects an internal conflict.
And willpower typically feels like there’s some sort of struggle, you know, just look at the definition: control exerted. So you have to exert some sort of effort and restrain impulses, like it doesn’t feel like there’s like this conflict and struggle going on when you think about willpower. So, here’s an example of what this might look like. So let’s say you’re trying to stick to your food plan, maybe you’d cut out eating sugar, because you know, it’s bad, sugar bad.
So you’re like, okay, I’m not eating sugar right now. And you’re going along fine. And everything’s good. And then you decide on a Sunday afternoon, you’re like, I’m gonna make some chocolate chip cookies with the kids, this will be fine. I haven’t been eating this stuff. It’ll be a fine morning for cookies, I’m just gonna help the kids make these cookies, though. They can eat them or whatever.
So you start making the cookies and everything’s going along beautifully, until you start cooking those cookies. And you can start to smell them. You know, you know where I’m going with this, right? Like the whole house is filled with that smell of fresh baked chocolate chip cookies. Hello. And then they come out of the oven and they’re all gooey and melty.
And this is where you have to have willpower, right? And you feel yourself struggling to not eat the cookies and then you’ve got this internal conflict going on. Because what you want right now in that moment, did you want to scarf down like six to eight of those amazing, gooey, gooey, warm chocolate chip cookies, right? So that’s what you want right now.
That’s what’s like driving your attention. That’s what all your attention is focused on, your energy is focused on, you want these cookies right now. But long term, what you want for yourself is to be, you know, to be the kind of person who’s no longer driven by this obsession with sugar, right?
Someone who has developed a better relationship with sugar delivers a different relationship with food. And you know that eating these cookies right now, will absolutely set you back. Right? It’s not in alignment with who you want to be. But there’s a struggle right? There, you’re fighting against this urge to not eat the cookies.
And that urge is so strong. And you’re just like, you know, white knuckling is like the willpower. That’s our definition and sort of the way we think about willpower, right? You’re just fighting this urge not to eat the cookies, right? So that struggle, that’s what willpower feels like, it’s a battle.
You’re battling against the cookies, like you against the cookies, who’s gonna win? Sometimes it’s you, sometimes it’s the cookies, right? So let’s say you’re in the same situation, but you’ve had a bad day, maybe you know, stress it, you’ve been stressed at work, or the kids have been driving you crazy, or you haven’t been sleeping well. Maybe you’re overtraining, you’re rundown and you’re tired, you’re already like drained of energy, then what?
Well, in that situation, your willpower is going to be greatly diminished, greatly diminished. And your ability to muster up the willpower to not eat the cookies in that moment is just not going to be there. And the cookies will win. I’m going to tell you right now, the cookies win, but when have you ever been there before? I’ve been there before I know exactly what this feels like. And this is not an uncommon situation.
I hear this all the time from people, they really struggle in these situations. And they think that they just don’t have the willpower to stick with it. But here’s the thing, most people are relying on willpower alone, because that’s all they know. Right?
When you even think about changing your diet, and like losing weight, just thinking about that is going to cause a little bit of an internal struggle with you, right, because what you’ve tried in the past maybe hasn’t worked. Or you’re thinking about the discomfort that’s going to be involved with changing your diet and not eating the cookies every time you make them.
And you have this preconceived notion about willpower, which is like, either you have it or you don’t. And you probably believe that your willpower, the willpower that you’re able to muster up isn’t going to be enough to get you through the tough spots, because maybe you’ve tried it in the past and it hasn’t worked.
So this is the way most people see willpower. They see it as an exertion of energy. And as a form of struggle, it’s a struggle, it’s a battle to stick with your diet. And this image comes to mind if somebody just like white knuckling it and like sweating, the sweat’s like dripping off their forehead, they’re frantically trying to keep themselves from eating the chocolate chip cookies.
And they keep looking at the cookies. And then there’s this internal dialogue going on. Right? This is the image that comes to my mind anyway. But this exertion of energy, it implies that what you’re doing is a struggle. And it’s hard. It’s hard work. It’s a battle. And there’s this internal conflict that you’re experiencing, right.
But here’s the thing, it doesn’t have to be a struggle, it can actually feel pretty much effortless, to change your diet and to not have that urge to eat the cookies. And that’s the freedom that comes from doing the inner work of actually changing your mindset and changing your habits. When you change your habits and you change your mindset, now even the cookies become easy and effortless.
There’s no longer a struggle. When you’ve created a new mindset and developed new, healthier habits, these internal conflicts that you used to have they’re just a thing of the past. There’s no more struggling, no more white knuckling it, no more sweating over the plate of cookies. Sticking to your plan becomes easy and effortless.
I know what you’re thinking you’re like, Patrick, this seems crazy. I don’t see how I could possibly do this. Because it’s so hard for me right now where I am. And I get that I really do. And I want to share a story with you about my experience with needing something more than willpower.
So About 15 years ago, actually, on April 9, 15 years ago, so April 9, 2007, was the day that I decided I was no longer going to drink alcohol. So this is actually just a few days from now. And this episode should come out on the eighth. So it’ll be the day after this episode comes out will be me celebrating my 15th anniversary of sobriety.
And I decided to quit drinking, because at the time, my drinking had become unmanageable. And I felt very out of control. And I was using alcohol as a coping mechanism. For decades, really, I was using alcohol to dull difficult emotions. You know, I had all these feelings, and I couldn’t deal with them. And as long as I was drinking, I really didn’t have to deal with the failure.
And that way I didn’t have to feel anything really, I was just numbing out to whatever it was that was going on with me. And to the outside world. I seemed like I was doing okay, I had a job, you know, married, kids, house, dog all these things, right. But on the inside, I was miserable. I was drinking to excess every day, I felt physically sick, pretty much all the time. My marriage was falling apart. In fact, my wife left me because of my drinking.
I was a hot mess. I had two little kids at the time. And I decided one day I woke up one day, it was a Monday morning, it was the day after Easter 2007 April 9th, I woke up, I was feeling sick again. And I decided at that moment that I never wanted to feel that way. Again, I made a decision at that moment that I never wanted to drink again.
Now, of course, I’ve made this pledge to myself a million times before. But this time, it was different. Because I had this thought as I was laying in bed, feeling miserable, wondering if I was gonna be able to go to work or not. And I had this thought at that moment, that for the first time in my life, I was going to ask for help, that I couldn’t do this alone.
But I could do it if I had some help. And I didn’t know what that was gonna look like. But I knew that I was going to find somebody to help me, so I ended up getting some counseling and things like that. And it worked out pretty well in the end. But there were so many times where I had tried to quit before and I couldn’t do it.
And so, after making that decision, I started doing the work of developing a new mindset, this is where I kind of first learned of this concept of like, really, you know, you need a new mind, you know, when it comes to making big changes like this and the same, this exact same principles apply.
When you want to lose weight, when you want to stop eating sugar, when you want to, you know, start feeling better, and start getting healthier, these are big changes. And these things can be very challenging to do on your own especially. But they’re very challenging to do if you’re just going to rely on willpower alone, to get you through all the tough stuff.
And I’m going to tell you right now, if I was to rely on willpower alone, to keep me from drinking these last 15 years, I would not have been able to do it. I’m going to tell you right now, because there were many times over the last 15 years, where I did not have willpower. There were experiences that happened with me in my life where, you know, for example, I lost both my parents, you know, about two years apart early on in my sobriety. And that was very, very challenging for me and my family.
Because my parents were fairly young, you know, in their 70s. I ended up getting married in sobriety and then 10 years later getting divorced from that person. And these were all very challenging times to get through. I like quit jobs, I started new jobs, I changed careers, I did all kinds of things. And I’m going to tell you right now, that if I was relying on willpower to get me through all this stuff, if I was relying on willpower to keep me from taking a drink, it would never have been enough.
I wouldn’t be where I am today. I had to develop a whole new mind. I had to become the kind of person who no longer drinks alcohol. I had to become the kind of person who no longer used alcohol as a way of solving my problems as a way of numbing out, right, I had to start to experience life on life’s terms.
So I decided alcohol was no longer going to be a solution for me, and I had to figure something else out. And what I had to figure out was adopting a new mindset, a mindset of someone who no longer used something external, to feel better on the inside.
Same exact thing when it comes to food. If you’re relying on willpower to get you through, to help you to lose the weight, and get you through all the tough stuff, I’m going to tell you right now, it’s not going to be enough, you’re gonna get stressed out, you’re gonna have a hard day, you’re gonna fail, you’re not going to get enough sleep, you’re going to be, you know, fatigued, mentally, emotionally, physically.
And in those instances, if you’re relying on willpower, I’m going to tell you right now, it’s just not going to work. You have to develop a new mind. Gotta change your mindset. I wouldn’t be sober today, if I was relying on willpower to keep me sober. In order to make these big, profound changes in your life, like changing your diet, losing weight, no longer eating junk food, or training for a marathon, these things require more than willpower, they require a shift in your mindset.
Willpower comes and goes. It’s like an emotion, think about willpower, like an emotion that you have sometimes, right? Like, sometimes you have it, and sometimes you don’t, it’s very strong when it’s present. But when it’s gone, it’s like it’s gone. Right? Think about emotion, maybe you’ve recently had anger, frustration, stress, even a positive emotion, like motivation.
All of these emotional states come and go. They’re not constant. Sometimes they’re around for a while, but they’re always in motion. They’re like, they wax and wane, right. And that’s what happens with our emotions, which is good, we want to, we don’t want to be feeling the same emotion all the time. This is a good thing, right?
Because it means you’re not going to feel sad forever, you’re not going to feel lonely or stressed out forever. It also means that the positive emotions come and go too, and we just have to accept that as part of the deal here, right. So, for example, if you’re relying on the feeling of motivation to always be there, it’s not going to always be there. It comes and goes, you have to create your own motivation. If you want to, you know, go and do something, if you’re not feeling motivated to run, I’m gonna tell you right now, you need to create that motivation, it’s not going to just be bestowed upon you, in some magical way.
I talked about this in great length, in an episode called the secret sauce of self motivation, it’s episode number 62. Definitely check it out. Because it really talks about how to get yourself motivated and get out the door and things like that. But willpower is like an emotion and the way that it comes and goes. So it’s not something you can rely on to be there all the time.
You can’t rely on willpower alone to be there, to get you through the tough stuff to keep you from eating those chocolate chip cookies, or whatever. Whatever your chocolate chip cookies are. Mindset, on the other hand, when you change your mind, this is something that is much deeper, it’s stronger, it’s much more powerful and much more consistent.
Think about your mindset as like a standard that you set for yourself. Right? If you have a standard, like for me, I have a standard. It’s like I don’t drink alcohol. That’s a standard that I set for myself 15 years ago, and I never fall below that standard. So for me, not drinking alcohol is easy and effortless. It does not require any willpower at all.
Today, I can tell you with 100% certainty that I have no desire to drink alcohol, even when it’s like in my face. I can sit at a bar. And I do this sometimes, you know, I go to bars and I’ll eat dinner sitting at the bar talking to the bartender or people around me and things like that. And there’ll be alcohol all over the place.
I don’t even want it. That’s freedom right there. That is like True, true freedom. This can be the same with your relationship with sugar two. So if your standard is I don’t eat sugar, then, you know, eating those chocolate chip cookies I talked about earlier. That’s not going to be thing you have to worry about. Because that’s not who you are. You just don’t do that.
I haven’t had sugar in like two years. None. And that’s a lie. I had sugar about 18 months ago. On my birthday, I had some dessert. But I’ve had one, you know, serving whatever of sugar in last two years, which is why I put it that way. But not eating sugar is just something that I don’t do. It’s just not.
It’s a standard that I have set for myself, I don’t eat sugar. And so it’s easy. It’s effortless. I have this new mindset. And your mindset is based on on a lot. I mean, it’s a big topic, right? It’s based on your beliefs, your values, it’s based on the standards that you set for yourself.
Your mindset is your thoughts, your feelings, all these things, but your mindset beats willpower every single time. Your mindset is what’s driving your behavior. Your mindset is what’s actually creating, you know, whether or not you have this willpower.
Because willpower, think of it like an emotion, okay. So, you have to understand that you, you create your mindset, this is something that, you know, may may be something that you’ve had for a long time, but it’s something you’ve created, you’ve create your own mindset, and you can change it. It’s not set in stone.
Think about this, think about something you do easily and effortlessly right now. like brushing your teeth before going to bed. I’m hoping you do this regularly. Okay, if you don’t, get on that. Okay, so brushing your teeth before you go to bed, right? My guess is that this is like something that you do is so automatic, it doesn’t take willpower to do it, right.
It’s just something you do, you don’t have to be like, okay, I really, really got to brush my teeth here, right? It’s just part of your daily routine. It’s what you do, it’s who you are, you would never think of going to bed, I hope without brushing your teeth.
But it wasn’t always like this for you. Like when you were a kid, brushing your teeth was a struggle, try getting your kids to brush your teeth today, like before going to bed, it’s a struggle, it’s a battle, right? They don’t know what’s good for them, you’re telling them it’s good for them, but they just don’t want to do it.
There’s no internal motivation, they haven’t developed the mindset yet. They haven’t developed the mindset of somebody who just brushes their teeth every night before they go to bed. They will eventually, right, but it takes a while. Just like us, it’s the same way with when we’re trying to change our diet or stick to our workout schedule or stick to our food plan.
Think of yourself as that little kid who doesn’t want to brush their teeth, you’re not going to always feel like doing it. But the more you do it, the easier it becomes, the more you do it, the more it just becomes a part of who you are, the more you do it, the more effortlessly it becomes for you.
You develop your mindset over time, it doesn’t happen overnight. And I know a lot of people get impatient, they want to go fast, they want to stop, they want to stop eating sugar and then stop craving it right away. Because it’d be way easier to give up sugar if you didn’t crave it, right. But that’s the part that takes time.
Just like anything else worthwhile in our lives, it takes time to change your mind. Okay? So you’ve got to be patient with yourself. And one big part of your mindset is how you talk to yourself. So trash talking yourself will not get you there, you have to love yourself through this process of change.
Change can be hard, it can be hard, I get that totally. But beating yourself up every day, because it’s not going fast enough just makes it harder. You can’t hate yourself thin. So I just want you to understand that willpower is fine. And it’s something that you know, you can use at times, and you’ll have it at times, but there’s going to be times where it’s just not going to be there.
And what you need instead is to have developed the mindset of somebody who stays on track of somebody who doesn’t give in to those urges of somebody who doesn’t rely on sugar, or junk food or alcohol to feel better. You have to develop the mindset of somebody who does these things, and it becomes easy and effortless for you.
Because willpower is not going to be there all the time. You can’t rely on it. But you can definitely rely on your mindset. Okay. And remember that we’re going to be spending the whole month of April over in the Running Lean coaching project on the art and science of habit change. So you’re gonna learn exactly how to create the mindset you need to ditch those old habits and make healthy eating healthy habits.
Healthy workout habits, healthy running habits, something that you do easily and effortlessly. And we’re gonna have fun doing it. Just so you know. I hope you’ll join us just go torunningleanpodcast.com/join. Love you all keep on Running Lean. I’ll talk to you soon.
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