Will Power Doesn’t Work – Joe Bernstein – Medium

Lies Told About Change Part 2 — Will Power

I’ve changed a lot in my life. Anyone that knows me or of me knows about the 150 lbs I lost after growing up obese. Some people know about how I recovered myself from chronic anxiety, negativity and fear based living. Others are aware that I transformed a lot in my social and romantic life. And still others are familiar with the fact that I up and quite a 14 year career without knowing what the hell I was going to do next and successfully started a coaching business.

I was so successful at changing myself that I learned how to create my living helping other people change. With so much of my life being focused on how we change, I’ve become aware of the misconceptions, misunderstandings and outright lies that surround the concepts of change, transformation and creation.

In this series of blog posts, I will expose some of the more popular bull shit about change. Each post will have a concept to digest and an example from my own life or from a client’s work. See part 1, here.

Today’s Topic…Will Power

Here is the lie “Will power is the only way to change.”


I’m tired of this myth. In fact I’m tired of so many complex human experiences being reduced to the most simple and surface level strategies. Anyone who has studied change, transformation or success knows that will power is not the primary tool for change. Especially if you desire lasting change.

When I lost 150+ lbs, I didn’t rely on will power. In fact I almost never engaged it at all. When I did, it was for momentary bursts of action that took me out of my comfort zone.

Now that I have your attention, let me become more honest. Will power is a very important tool when it comes to creating change. Yet it’s played out, over utilized and often applied to the wrong situations.

Worse, we are such a black and white thinking culture that those that don’t successfully change using will power are considered failures or weaklings. The idea that will power is what is needed to be strong and disciplined is a deep source of shame for so many people in our current world.

When we rely simply on will power it’s like an athlete relying only on strength. Even an elite powerlifter is relying on much more than strength. They rely on speed, mobility, technique, mindset and body positioning.

You are going to need to develop the skill of imposing will over the parts of you that are committed to staying the same. And that is only the tip of the iceberg. You must also develop mindfulness, insight, inquiry, emotional intelligence, routine, commitment, creativity, flexibility, resilience, pacing and growth mindset to create powerful and lasting change in your life or business.

Let’s take my client John as an example. He came to me as a man in his late 40s who had always struggled with diet and exercise. He wanted to lose weight and stop having so much of his life consumed by the lack of confidence he felt when carrying a bit more above his belt.

He had been to personal trainers, nutritionists, dieticians, doctors and had joined various gyms and weight loss membership programs over his years of being consumed and challenged by food and body. It was clear to me that a path that focused on discipline and will power was not what he needed. Most of the other professionals he had seen and diets he had tried simply relied on the power of will to follow through and that clearly wasn’t working.

John ended up clearing loads of digestive disorder, losing 30 lbs and creating a consistent movement practice in his life.

So what did work? We focused him on mindfulness, allowing himself to do what he loved instead of forcing action via will and engaged his creativity. Here is what helped John change his relationship to food and body for good.

  1. Leaning Into Enjoyment– John is a scientist by trade but artist at heart. Instead of telling him to use will power to restrict his eating, I asked him to use his artistic tendencies to fall more in love with food. I taught him to shop, cook and eat with a focus on beauty and satisfaction. I asked him to focus on having many colors on his plate. I asked him to take photos of his food, not for accountability but to engage his love of photography. These simple shifts had resulted in him snacking less, enjoying food more, diversifying his use of produce and slowing down to enjoy the creation he had in front of him. He also instinctively ate less.
  2. Mindful action– I taught John to slow down as he walked through the city and especially when he ate. He learned how to engage mindful eating. This impacted his digestion and his portions. He was able to feel his body more and know when he was full. I also asked him to eat some of the “less than healthy” foods on his list and see if he really loves them when eating mindfully. He didn’t, so naturally he stopped eating the crap that feels good when checkout but is repulsive when check into yourself. Try eating a big mac or a bag of chips slowly with intention. You won’t finish it.
  3. Pleasurable Embodiment– I asked John to never go do any kind of exercise that he did not enjoy. So he stopped going to the gym. He wanted to start doing yoga, but felt embarrassed to go to classes. Instead of asking him to use will power and “tough it out” and just go, I engaged him in a process where it was okay to start at home while we worked through his emotions around being seen moving his body. He eventually started a regular practice. Once he gave himself permission to stop going to the gym when he didn’t want to…he started loving the gym and lifting weights again. It was now his choice rather than something he is “supposed to be doing”.

We also worked on emotional competence, resilience at the workplace and his beliefs about love and relationship. He travels extensively so we also had to help him cultivate flexibility and creativity to keep up with his healthy eating and movement practice while traveling.

This is just one small example. I’ve got dozens to share from where the tool is not more will power but a more robust set of tools. Human beings have complex emotional systems, old patterns, challenging beliefs and competing commitments.

If you end up getting one thing out of this reading I hope it’s this simple idea…

Will power is a short term strategy to overcome fears, build routines and grow discipline but it is not a core strategy, plan or cure all for growth, change and transformation. Use it when it’s wise, evolve past it when willpower isn’t working.

When creating change, we need to be more strategic, mindful, intentional and powerful in our journey. It’s not a linear path, it’s not a logical process and it’s going to require a whole hell of a lot more than will power.

Have you tried to use will power, over and over again but find it only takes you a few weeks or months before things break down? People who create lasting change in body, mind, career, business or love life engage a team to help them grow.

It’s your turn.

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