How to Achieve Your Goals Without Needing to Rely on Willpower

goal-setting self-awareness whole-hearted living Aug 24, 2021
Woman confident in achieving her goals


Willpower is a funny thing. It's dependent on SO MANY factors - Did you wake up on the right or the wrong side of the bed? What did you eat? What didn't you eat? How much stress are you experiencing? What’s your current level of willpower in the first place? And even if you were an unstressed and incredibly healthy human being, it wouldn’t take long for you to notice that willpower isn’t an infinite resource that you have at your disposal. Instead, it's like a muscle whose strength and energy is limited. It can only do so much. No wonder it comes and it goes. And no wonder so many of us have lost count of the number of times we've started trying to accomplish a goal only to fall off the wagon again.

Think about the word ‘willpower’ and what it means. ‘Willpower’ refers to your ability to will yourself to do something or to stop yourself from doing something that, though tempting, may not be that good for you (think excessive amounts of chocolate, potato chips, fried foods, or whatever your “vice” is). Willpowering your way to a goal requires that you tune out your natural desires and mentally decide and act on what you should be doing instead. But here’s the kicker: As emotional beings with wants and desires, we can't simply suppress and out fight our desires from existence. If you want to be successful in accomplishing your goals, rather than being successful one day and unsuccessful the next, relying on willpower alone isn’t going to do it.


We’ve known for years that knowing is not the same as doing. So many of us know what’s good for us but we don't do it. So many of us talk about doing it and never actually do it. We say we value this and believe in that but when it comes to it, our actions and life choices rarely reflect those values and beliefs. Is it because we’re incapable and dishonest human beings? Nope. Not at all. It’s for one reason and one reason only: A majority of our actions don’t operate from conscious intention; they operate from mental habits or shortcuts that your brain has created to prevent you from having to make decisions all of the time.

These shortcuts or automatic behaviors that we each have help us preserve energy and that’s precisely why they exist. And all would be fine and dandy if these shortcuts were all positive shortcuts. But they aren’t! Our brain’s shortcuts can be good ones or they can be bad ones. What accomplishing our goals all comes down to, then, is learning how to work with these shortcuts or automatic behaviors that our brain creates to help our brain create positive ones that help us become more of who we want to be rather than negative ones that take us further and further away from it.





How can you help your brain create positive shortcuts?


I’m so glad you asked! Here are the most effective ways that I’ve found - through my own goal-setting and through working with clients to achieve their personal goals - to make it easier for your brain to automatically do the things that you want it to do.

We are having a live chat about this and other happiness- and healing- related topics in my free and private online community, The Happiness Hub. Hurry up and join us! What are you waiting for? :)


Ask why!


One way to help your brain create positive shortcuts is to get in touch with the reason why you want to accomplish your goal. In order for you to be successful in accomplishing your goal, your reason for wanting it needs to be greater than any obstacles or resistance that might come up along the path to achieving it. The key in getting in touch with the reason behind your own goal is to not just stop at the basic reason behind it. Go deeper. Really uncover what this goal will make possible for you in your life.

One of the ways I like to do this with my clients during our coaching sessions is by letting the question “Why?” guide our exploration of their goal. My client will let me know what their goal is and I'll ask “Why do you want to achieve this goal?” And they might tell me “Oh. it'll help me to be in better physical shape” or “It'll help me to be better employed in my company”, or “It'll help me to get the kind of partner I really want”. Again, I'll ask “Why?” “Why do you want that? Why do you want to be better employed in your company?”” Why do you want to be in better physical shape?” or “Why do you want to attract a better partner?”

Again they'll answer this question and I'll ask them “Why?” and we'll do this as long as we need to to get to the deepest reason that exists for why they have this goal in the first place. Oftentimes the reason for our goal is much deeper and much more evoked from our heart than we might see from the surface at first. The more we can uncover this deep rooted reason for our goal, the better we'll be able to address challenges and obstacles to it as they come along.


Take a laughing break.


Yes, taking breaks isn't just something that’s considered an act of self-kindness or self-care. It's also something that will help you stay with your goals for longer than you would have if you didn't take a break. So take a break from what you're doing and watch something funny or something you just simply enjoy. Research consistently shows that taking a laughing break actually helps you to stick with your work longer!


Understand what really motivates you, from your heart.


We can only fool ourselves for so long... If a goal of ours isn’t really our own, we won’t be able to work at it for long. That’s why it’s super duper important to make sure that every goal you’re working towards is internally motivated, meaning it takes into account YOUR personal wants and desires. If not - for example, if you’re just working towards the goal of going to college for a degree that your parents think you should have - you’ll be setting yourself up for (eventual) failure.

As I mentioned earlier, we can't simply out fight our natural wants and desires. A much better approach to setting and achieving our goals is to understand what it is that really motivates you and to set goals that are a function of your own personal wants and desires. Rather than making your goals difficult to achieve because they aren’t inherently your own (i.e., you’re doing it more for mom, dad, wife, husband, etc) and are actually in conflict with the desires that live in our heart, why not make them easier by ensuring that they’re a direct representation of the wants and desires that live in your heart? Beginning any goal setting journey by aligning the goal with what lives in your heart and soul, to me, seems like the path of least resistance. And it also happens to be the path of greatest success.


Beginning any goal setting journey by aligning the goal with what lives in your heart and soul, to me, seems like the path of least resistance. And it also happens to be the path of greatest success.





Make the thing you want to do an easy choice.


Once you’ve aligned your goals with who you really are at your core and what you really want for your life, it helps to make the thing that you want to do the easiest choice and make distractions or obstacles to it more difficult. Speaking of the path of least resistance, one of the most important things we can do that will guarantee our success in achieving our goal is to make that goal a much easier choice than it would be otherwise. Make it such an easy choice that you can’t possibly choose anything else. That’s one of the most impactful ways to do this is by paying attention to your environment.

Say, for example, that you want to watch less TV (this was a personal goal I had ~10 years ago). It would help you to have a TV in a room that’s not the room where you spend most of your time, right? Or to not have a TV in your house at all… By taking the TV out of the main room of your home (e.g., the living room), you're making not watching TV a much easier choice than it would have been if the TV was in the front and center of your living room.

If you want to read more books, you might similarly decide to put the TV in a room that's not the main room in your home. If the TV is in the front and center in your home, it'll likely act as an obstacle to you reading in the evenings. To get to the book you'd have to first get through the TV. And we often know how that goes...

The same applies to eating healthily. If you want to eat fewer unhealthy snacks, you probably wouldn't want to have an unlimited supply of potato chips in your pantry, right? And you also probably wouldn't want your partner to bring back a super-sized version of your favorite sweet treat from Costco every weekend, right? These things would make it really hard for you to accomplish your goal because your ability to achieve your goals has much less to do with you and much more to do with the situation and environment you find yourself in. When we can understand just how powerful our environment is, we can also more easily understand why willpower just isn't enough.


Your ability to achieve your goals has much less to do with you and much more to do with the situation and environment you find yourself in.


When we can understand just how powerful our environment is, we can also more easily understand why willpower just isn't enough.


So when you want to successfully accomplish a goal, create conditions in your physical environment that guarantee that you’ll be successful.

  1.       Make your goal the easier one to achieve by wiring it into your routine so it becomes automatic (e.g., leave a book on your coffee table, where you usually drink your evening tea), and
  2.       eliminate competing options (e.g., move the TV out of the room or out of the house altogether).


Remember: You’re operating on default a lot of the time. Make sure that that default is a good one.


You’re operating on default a lot of the time. Make sure that that default is a good one.


Track your progress and do it visually.


As goal oriented humans we’re apt to forget about all the small goals that we accomplish on the way to a bigger goal. In actuality, there are many steps that we need to accomplish on the way to achieving the big goal we want to achieve. 

Some people love tracking their behaviors with excel spreadsheets and the like and many others don't. Whether you’re a spreadsheet junkie or not, what research suggests is that it might help you succeed in your goal if you track something that's meaningful to you and do it visually. For example, you might want to draw a graph of how much money you've saved of the $350 you need to save in order to purchase that new [whatever you want]. Having some sort of visual representation of your goal like this will go a long way in helping you to achieve your goals and according to research, will help you more than simply looking at your bank statements.





Stay accountable.


Let’s not forget about accountability. Because we're operating on autopilot much of the time, a big way that we can help ourselves is to really hold ourselves accountable to our goals. One way we could do this is by making our goals known - telling others about them, etc. What this will do is it’ll help us to stick with our goals because we want to be the kind of person that holds to their values and does what they say they're going to do. This is one of the reasons why coaches and therapists are so great. They know what your goals are and not only do they give you the tools to help you attain them, but they’re also there to hold you accountable when your willpower ebbs and flows... and when you need someone outside of you to remind you of your values, why they’re so important to you, and how dedicated you are to achieving them.


Don’t wait. Celebrate now.


Something else to keep in mind that will help you to accomplish your goals without needing to rely on willpower is to reward yourself consistently. Oftentimes we save any sort of celebration or reward until the very end. But according to research, to stay the long haul  and accomplish that goal, we need to reward ourselves in small ways along the way. So whatever you do, don't save all of the celebrating until the end! Be sure to reward yourself along the way too.

How do you know when you're doing this goal thing right? How do you know when you’re doing a good job at incorporating these elements that don’t require willpower? Well, you begin to do the things that you want to do without forcing it or without feeling like you even tried. That's how you know that you've got your brain’s natural internal shortcut mechanisms working for you, not against you.


Remember: your brain isn't against you. It's actually here for you but in order to have it work for you to the best of its ability, we have to train it a little. All the focus in the world on cultivating willpower or forcing yourself to do something that you know is good for you won’t do you much good. Focus your energy instead on training your brain with the elements we shared in this article. You can't force yourself to work out or learn that new skill but you can create habits, routines, and ways of thinking that naturally support you to work out or learn that new skill.


Here’s to accomplishing your goals!


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