Setting Effective Goals to Reduce Willpower Strain

Mara Unkefer
Hand holding compassJamie Street on Unsplash

If you've read a few articles on willpower, you likely know that it’s a limited resource. There’s a maximum on how long you can white-knuckle your way through things you don’t want to do.

Most people focus on how to increase willpower. Exercises and strategies you can take to raise your maximum and make yourself more productive. That’s great, and they’re useful exercises, but willpower alone will not get you where you want to go. Finding ways to stay on track without exercising willpower can dramatically shift your progress.

Get Your Subconscious Working for You

You’ve probably heard that you only use 10% of your brain. That’s not true — your whole brain is busy, but you only have conscious control of 10% of what’s going on. The vast majority of judgments, prioritizations, decisions, and actions you make are happening in the background in your subconscious. Many of these processes are running on default programs designed to maintain the status quo.

One of the reasons change is hard is that you’re often working against these defaults when you want to make a shift. As long as your current programs keep running, you’re going to stay in the same place. How can you change the defaults? Give your brain a destination in the form of a concrete goal.

Set Your Autopilot

A well-formed goal sets the compass in your subconscious. It’s not going to change all your bad habits overnight, but it is going to serve as a guide when your brain hits a grey area while making a choice. These small course corrections can add up to major moves over a few months.

When your brain knows exactly where you’re going, it helps those default programs work for you instead of against you. It’ll make decisions for you without you even realizing it, without using an ounce of your precious willpower.

Setting Your Navigation

The catch? You can’t just pick a big, nebulous goal and tell your brain to get to work. There’s some setup involved and some conditions to meet.

1. Believe it can happen.

This is non-negotiable. If you don’t really believe what you’re aiming for is possible, your brain is going shift right back to default programming. If the big thing you want seems too big, pick something smaller that takes you in that direction. Make it as tiny as it needs to be — a small step in the right direction is still movement in the right direction!

Fear is the number one cause of reverting to a default program. When you believe something is realistic for you, fear doesn’t kick in to knock you off course. I could write an entire book on this topic alone, but suffice it to say — start small and you can build up to the impossible.

2. Identify (at least a few of) the actions needed to get there.

When faced with ambiguity about what to do next, your subconscious mind will always opt for the familiar choice. If you’re trying to get off the default program, you need to have some idea of what to do. This doesn’t mean you have to have a full step by step plan, but you do need to know which actions serve your goal and which hinder it.

Make two lists: Specific steps that need to happen and repeated actions that need to be taken. For example, if your goal is to lose 20 pounds, a specific step could be joining a gym, while a repeated action is going to the gym. Willpower takes care of the membership, and now that you’ve spelled out that showing up at the gym is the priority, you’ve reduced ambiguity when faced with decisions like “should I go to the gym today?”

3. Set a timeline for your specific steps.

Once you’ve picked a goal that you believe you can accomplish in 6 months or less, look at your list of specific steps and designate when they need to happen. Repeat actions are simple to keep track of, but you can’t go to the gym if you haven’t taken the specific step of joining the gym yet. It’s beautiful to have a grand long term vision, but you need to have a present focus to help your brain prioritize actions in your day-to-day.

Most of your subconscious evolved for short term survival — it’s not built to make decisions in service of long timelines. Understanding what needs to happen this week helps your brain keep you on track.

4. Designate a time to review & revise.

There’s a good chance that life won’t follow the exact timeline or milestones that you initially laid out. Maybe you got there early. Maybe something was more complicated than expected and you haven’t made the progress you’d hoped. Maybe you got completely off course and haven’t made any progress at all. Maybe you got started and realized a month in that your priorities have changed.

It’s all ok.

If the path were easy to predict, articles like this wouldn’t exist. Regular evaluation allows you to input what you’ve learned and tailor your efforts to changing conditions. I review my goals at the beginning of each month to determine what’s working, what’s not, and what’s no longer a priority. Then I get back to it. There’s no time to waste mourning missed marks, readjust and give it another go.

Enjoy That Clarity

Following this routine will help provide clarity to your subconscious and direct your actions. Will it cut out the need for willpower all together? Lol no. At least it hasn’t for me (if you figure it out, please let me know!!). It will, however, help keep you aligned with the path you’d like to take.

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After a decade of laboratory research in molecular biology, development, and behavior, I shifted my focus to science communication. Today I write stories about science, education, and whatever else strikes my fancy.

Baltimore, MD

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