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Willpower Day 11 – Using Cognitive Psychology.

When you have a willpower failure, rather than trying to “just forget about it and move on” you should try to understand how your thoughts contributed to it.

When you have a willpower failure incident, identify

Situation Trigger > Thoughts > Behavior.

For example,

My boss was unfair to me at work today > I’m too tired to exercise > Skipping exercise.

I’m going to outline a couple of different approaches for responding to the thoughts in upcoming blog posts but let’s start with just helping identify the specific thoughts – a critical first step.

(We also already talked about one essential way to combat thought distortions – regularly priming your thinking about your big overall goal and the benefits you expect to experience as a result, so that these thoughts are as salient for you in decision moments as your impulsivity driven thoughts).

Examples of thought patterns that might precipitate a willpower failure.

- I’m going to exercise later or I exercised earlier, so it’s ok to overeat now.

- The other people I’m with are eating lots, so I should get to eat lots too.

- I’m taking my own bags so it’s ok if I drive to the supermarket (if your goal is to help the environment).

- I’ll eat more now and then I’ll eat less later.

- I’ll skip my exercise tonight but I’ll do it tomorrow.

- It’s impossible not to overeat at parties.

- I didn’t have any chips that people were sharing yesterday, so it’s ok if I overeat today.

- It’s other peoples fault I’m going to eat or not exercise (because I had a fight with my husband, people pushed food on me, or my boss is making me overwork).

- I may as well give up because I’m never going to be successful at my Willpower Goal.

- Meditation is hard work.

- I’m too tired to exercise.

- I didn’t procrastinate yesterday, so it’s ok if I procrastinate today.

- I did meditation or yoga the last 3 days so it’s ok if I skip today (if skipping a day leads to actually giving up)

- I’ll just eat a few chips out of the bowl and then I’ll stop.

- If my plan is to do some meditation after dinner, I’ll just watch TV for a little while and then I’ll do it.

- I’ll enjoy watching TV tonight much more than I’ll enjoy doing meditation.

- I’ll enjoy eating this muffin now more than I’ll enjoy being a healthy weight later.

- I’ll enjoy procrastinating now more than I’ll enjoy the results of sticking to my Willpower Goal.

- This burger and fries has a salad with it, it’s healthy! (There is research showing that adding a 100 Calorie salad to a plate results in people giving a lower calorie estimate for the whole plate compared to without the salad.)

- I’ll pick at food while I’m cooking and then I won’t eat any later.

- I can’t stand this craving (and not recognizing that any craving with pass and also return at some later point regardless of whether you give in to it or not).

Of course it is ok to give yourself a break on a busy day or take a moderate approach to things. I’m talking about times when thoughts cause willpower failures that you later regret.


There are some patterns in thoughts that lead to willpower failures that can help you learn how to identify your specific thoughts

- Dealing Making
- Negative Predicting
- Underestimating your ability to cope with doing something hard.
- Blaming others
- Justifying
- I’ll give in to temptation now but I won’t later i.e., I’ll allow myself to have a willpower failure but cognitively reframe it as not being a willpower failure.
- Overly positive predictions.
- I’ve made some progress with my goal, so it’s ok if I act in a way that’s inconsistent with it.

See if you can match up these “types” with the specific examples I have written at the start of the article. (You’ll notice that there is some overlap between the categories).

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Willpower Tips, Day 10 – Priming Thoughts About Your Goals

Priming Thoughts About Your Goals

A good way to combat thought distortions is to regularly prime your thinking about your big goal/value so that these thoughts are as salient for you in decision moments as your impulsivity driven thoughts.

This is particularly important when you can’t prepare for every situation in advance and will need to make small choices on the fly. In those moments, you want to ask yourself

“What is the decision in this situation that is most consistent with my big goal/value?”

Put Some Triggers in Your Environment

You might need to put some reminders in your environment that prime your thoughts about your big goal. The aim is to prime thinking about the big goal (and the benefits you expect from achieving it) rather than a “to do” reminder about a specific behavior.

You can get really creative about this.


- If your goal is exercise, draw a picture of your 60 year old future self doing something active & fun, and put it somewhere you’ll look at it.

- If your goal is spend quality time with your children, put a photo of yourself playing at the park with your kids next to where you keep your afternoon tea snack so that you’ll see it mid afternoon each day.

- If your goal is be kind to the environment, make a clay model of healthy planet earth labelled 3012 and make some little clay figures of of your descendants to live on it.

- If your goal is heart health, write yourself a sticky note but cut the sticky note in the shape of healthy heart valves.

Remember that all these little strategies might just improve your big goal-behavioral consistency a little bit (e.g., the one session CBT exercise increased fruit and veg consumption about 20-30%). You’re unlikely to find a single strategy that completely takes care of the problem if your willpower goal is hard.

If you come up with any fun willpower goal priming strategies, please share them with me via FB or Twitter @DrAliceBoyes.

Goals Vs. Values

In some ways, you need to make your Willpower Goal more of a “Value” than a “Goal” so that it’s not affected by situational factors. For example, most people have a value of not cheating on their spouse and for most people this commitment is not influenced by situational factors. It’s easy to see how you’d want not cheating on your spouse to be more than just a goal – you’d want it to be a value, something that you commit to independent of situational factors.

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Willpower Tips, Day 9, Giving Yourself Proper Comfort for Emotions that Precipitate Willpower Failures.

You probably already know some of the emotions that precipitate willpower failures for you.

Even if you think you already understand them well, you’ll probably want to develop a more intimate and sophisticated understanding of them.

For example, these 4 categories of emotions often occur at the same time.

1. Anger or it’s synonyms (such as irritated or annoyed)
2. Anxiety and it’s synonyms (such as overwhelmed)
3. The “low” emotions category including sad, lonely or disappointed.
4. The self conscious emotions category, including shame, guilt or embarrassment.

Don’t just understand 1 or 2 of the emotions you were experiencing prior to a willpower failure, understand the full spectrum of emotions you were feeling.

When you have a willpower failure, try to understand the triggers in terms of:

- Situation elements (e.g., end of the day, end of the week)
- Thought elements (more about this coming up in another post)
- Emotion elements (single emotion words)
- Physical elements (e.g., tired)

Proper comfort for emotions (rather than opting out of the gym, procrastination, eating, yelling at your family etc)

When you know which emotions precipitate your willpower failures, do you know what gives you proper comfort when you’re feeling those emotions? Do you know what helps you feel secure even though you’re experiencing a particular emotion (e.g., helps you feel secure even when you’re feeling overwhelmed or when you’re feeling ashamed)? What helps you feel like you can cope with having the experience of the difficult emotion (as opposed to cope with the situation trigger, e.g., you can cope with feeling irritated until the feeling of irritation passes, or can cope with feeling hopeless until the feeling of hopelessness passes)?

Do you use giving yourself a break from sticking with your willpower goal as comfort for your emotions?

For each of the emotions that triggers willpower failures for you, write a short list of coping strategies that work for you for that emotion. You might need to do some learning and exploration around this.

For example, touching your own skin releases Oxytocin so if you’re feeling ashamed or overwhelmed, touching your own skin can be a good way to help you feel more secure while you’re having those feelings (You can do something like touch your own hands in a caring way).

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Willpower Tips, Day 8

Studies have shown that if you only think about behavior you’ve done that’s consistent with your willpower goal, you’re likely to end up doing behavior that’s inconsistent with your goal. You need to record your willpower failures too.

For example, in binge eating treatment, the standard recording is:

- Planned eating times (not more than 3-4 hours apart), done in advance.

- Daily self monitoring of what person actually ate and when, associated comments (such as thoughts and feelings), and labeling of binge incidents with a letter B.

- Weekly monitoring of weight, how many “good days” person had (out of 7), how many incidents of binge eating occurred in the week, and menstrual periods (if applicable).

- If the person purges, they also record this in the daily and weekly records.

What recording of willpower successes and failures would work for your willpower goal?

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Willpower Day 7 – Using Small Tweaks to Change How Much Effort It Feels Like to Do Something

Sometimes making a very small tweak will make something feel like a lot less effort to do.

Here’s a few examples from my own life.

- I started buying passata (sieved, crushed tomato in a bottle) and it dramatically increased how often I make my own pasta sauce. I don’t know why using whole peeled tomato seems like more effort but it does. (If you’re in Chch, I buy it here).

- I have a cleaner come to my house on Friday afternoons which means putting things away on Friday mornings before she gets here, and increases the probability of putting things away. When I get home from work on Friday, it feels like my efforts have magically multiplied.

- I found some instant corn masa mix which has dramatically increased making burritos. I only make 1 at a time so I used to get frustrated that I would end up buying a pack of 8 and throwing most of them away. Now I just mix a few tablespoons of the mix with water and can make burritos on the spur of the moment.

- I discovered that I could line my big pan (one that goes on top of the stove rather than inside it) with baking paper meaning I don’t have to clean it and therefore use it more often.

Of course there are alternative solutions to the above problems but these are the ones I actually use.

theicebreak’s Date in a Box

Another option that fits into the category of things that make desirable behavior A LOT easier is theicebreak’s Date in a Box. The theme for this month’s box is Under the Stars. (It’s free shipping in the US only, sorry kiwis). Full disclosure: I’m an advisor to the company but I <3 the Date Boxes.

What You Can Do

Can you think of any tweaks related to your willpower goal that would make behaviors that you want to increase feel a lot easier?

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