You Have Plenty of Willpower! Change This Instead

I was on the phone with one of my coaching clients the other day, and we were talking about her biggest struggle: Alcohol.

She’s in good shape. She eats clean 95% of the time, she’s sleeping well, her weight is down. She walks at least an hour everyday, and tosses in a few intervals here and there. Her biggest battle is with the wine.

When I was working at gyms, my fellow trainers would say she needs to get rid of the alcohol to take her to the next level. Maybe so, but they’re missing the point. Getting down an extra 5 pounds and losing an inch or two off her waist isn’t worth giving up the wine.

She enjoys wine. She enjoys the social element of wine. She likes the taste. It enhances the quality of her life more than losing an extra 5 pounds would.

Over the past decade of personal training, I’ve been less interested in the effects of alcohol on fat loss, or how to spilt up my macronutrients, or why cruciferous vegetables make us all so gassy.

I’ve always been interested in behavioral change. Why do some people love the gym and others despise it? Why it is so difficult for her to cut out the alcohol? And why in the hell do those fitness freaks continue to eat those cruciferous vegetables and whey protein shakes even though they’re farting all over the place??

I digress…

Too many fitness professionals chalk it up to “not having enough willpower.”

I call bullshit. I think that’s a cop out. It’s lazy advice that often just generates more shame and self-criticism than true change.

What do they think will happen? All of a sudden a light bulb will go off, and they’ll say, “OMG! YES! This is the piece of information I was missing this entire time! Now I’ll be able to get in shape. More willpower! That’s the answer! Why didn’t I think of that?” No bro, no they won’t.

So if it’s not willpower, then what is it?

As the conversation went on, this client of mine casually mentioned that the only time she really wasn’t drinking in her life was when she was in grad school.

“That’s interesting,” I said, “Why was that?”

Did she have more willpower in her younger years? Not really. 

Did her tastes buds change for those three years? Nah.

She said she was dating a guy who didn’t drink, so they just did other things instead. She didn’t really think about it at the time, she just stopped drinking.

The fitness world too often poo poo’s this sort of information.

Our internal and external environments are huge factors of change. Check it out:

Her external environment shifted – her social life no longer revolved around drinking.

Her internal environment (or her “why”) had changed – she was more interested in this new dude than she was in wine. We see this all the time with women who immediately quit smoking when they get pregnant. Their “why” has shifted to something bigger than themselves.

Through years of training and coaching clients, rarely is “lack of information” the problem. I have clients who bring me research articles. Rarely is it a lack of desire. I’ve had clients cry on the gym floor and open up about years and years of struggle. And rarely is it a lack of willpower. I’ve had clients who haven’t missed a day of work in a decade, plus have three kids, and clean their garage every weekend. Have you ever cleaned a garage? That’s serious willpower. 

Shape Your Internal Environment: Find Out Why

First, we have to figure out why we have this goal in the first place. Why do you want to change Habit X? 

In our Next Level Human Coaching Group, my partner Jade Teta tells a story of a client of his who gained and lost the same 100 pounds for decades. Until one day, she overheard Jade and his brother discussing research about how overweight parents are more likely to raise overweight kids.

In that moment, she looked over at her daughter. She vowed to never gain that weight again. And to this day, she hasn’t.

For my client, losing an inch around her waist is not a big enough why to give up alcohol.

Typically, our why has a mix of selfishness and altruism. If it’s 100% about ourselves, it’s probably not powerful enough. If it’s something completely outside of ourselves, it’s also probably not going to be enough to move the needle.

The most important thing to remember is that your “why” is yours. Too many of us borrow goals, values, and motivations from what others tell us they should be. Whenever my client brings up wine, I ask her why she wants to lose 5 more pounds in the first place? She likes the way she looks, she likes the way she feels, and she is a healthy individual. 

“Because it would be nice to be down an extra 5 pounds.” is not powerful enough. Why does she drink wine? Because it tastes good, and it’s a lot of fun, and she bonds and builds relationships with a glass or three. 

My coaching? Keep drinking the wine, you’re doing fine. 

Shape Your External Environment: Make Bad Habits Harder

Once we discover why were are doing something, and it’s powerful enough, we need to shape our environment so that it fits our goals.

There are essentially two versions of ourselves. The Advanced Self and the Monkey Self.

The Advanced Self has a ton of self-control, no cravings for bad habits, and walks a smooth game. The Monkey Self is a loose cannon. It’s the one who cheats on his girl. It’s the one who eats the entire chocolate cake. It’s the one who watches an entire Netflix series instead of knocking out work projects.

We need our Advanced Self to shape our environment before our Monkey Self becomes active (because it inevitably will). We have natural energy flows throughout our day and week. We need to capitalize on these high-energy periods – to act when motivation is high.

For most people, it’s after a long day of work, or a fight with their significant others that their bad habits kick in. When they’re exhausted or hungry. When they’re sad or angry. 

These emotions and states will naturally arise again and again, so we need to set up our worlds so that when they do happen, it’s much easier to say “no.” 

Don’t grocery shop when you’re hungry. Don’t leave Cheetos in the cabinet. Take the batteries out of your television remote so it’s harder to crash down and binge House of Cards right after work.

By making bad habits harder to do, we are less likely to do them, and we will slowly replace them with new, more powerful habits.

If you really want to change something, first ask yourself why you want to change it. Then, don’t try to have “more willpower.” Create an environment where willpower isn’t needed. 

And if you find yourself at a crossroads between losing 5 extra pounds or drinking wine, choose the wine. Always choose the wine. 

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