Willpower is a Tool, not a Lifestyle

When it comes to the mental side of active living, willpower nabs a lot of headlines. But is willpower the key ingredient in a lasting relationship with exercise? Definitely not.

No Pain, All Gain

On my weekly podcast, Happily Ever Active, I smash my listener’s over the head with the following: Our mindset affects the methods we take to get and stay active. Those methods, like what activities we choose and how we do them, ultimately dictate whether exercise is enjoyable enough to warrant repeating week in and week out.

How, exactly, does our mindset to physical activity form in the first place?


To be clear, by mindset, I really mean the beliefs and attitudes we have about physical activity. Meanwhile, culture–what we we swim in everyday–is comprised of maxims and memes, imagery and influencers, as well as the people with which your surrounded yourself on a regular basis. Unbelievably, today’s popular fitness culture is still clinging to the archaic notion that “gains” cannot result without “pains”. Yes, that relic of a buzz phrase proliferated across 1970s gym scene continues to grip our consciousness, influencing how we think about exercise.

This mother-ship of a maxim has spawned many children like “choose the pain of discipline or the pain of failure” or “train insane or remain the same”. The lingering result? The common belief that exercise is a war. That your body is a battlefield. That you’re doing it wrong if it doesn’t suck. Worse, failure under this “pain mindset” reflects some sort of character flaw, an inexcusable weakness so-to-speak.

Under this pain game, where “no excuse” culture thrives and where fun usually goes to die, references to militarism and self-sacrificing high performance sport run amok.

If you’re a smooth self-starter, you’ll use willpower differently

And although, yes, humans can be hardy creatures, capable of pushing limits and displaying incredible feats in the face of excruciating pain, this self-sacrificial “virtue”, reminiscent of the Protestant work ethic that’s dominated Western culture for eons, has few redeeming qualities when it comes to sustainability.

In plainer English, willpower is a tool that’s being sold as a lifestyle.

When Do You Put Willpower to Work?

While willpower goes by numerous aliases like discipline and self-control, all of it amounts to one thing; if you believe stronger willpower is the secret to finally solving your drop-out problem, you better buckle-up tight for the roller coaster of frustration ahead.

Okay, hold on a second. Forgive my manners. There’s subtlety that’s getting lost in the shuffle. To reveal it, I want you to perform a little reflective exercise.

Ask yourself, when do I typically deploy willpower? Do I tend to use it most to start exercising or to finish?

I know I know, it’s impossible to feel like exercising every day, and there will be days when you’ll skip workouts you’ve got planned (that’s okay by the way). But if you have to constantly push the willpower button to drag yourself to a workout, that might just be the best signal your routine is lacking the motivational nutrients required for loyalty.

By contrast, if your a smooth self-starter, you’re likely use willpower differently. Instead of willing yourself to begin, you’ll recruit that mental fortitude to finish that run, that last rep, or that final lap. The bottom line is, not all deployments are created equal and this is telling data about the future of your relationship with your current routine.

Decoding the Data

It begs a question though doesn’t it? Why do some people use willpower mostly to finish and less so to start exercising?

If you don’t like the activities you do, or you do them in unlikeable ways, you’ve likely got a big hunk of activity aversion on your plate. Just like when your parents made you eat those awful Brussels sprouts, plugging your nose works so well before you admit the relationship just ain’t working out. This is to say that if your fitness choices stink or you do them in smelly ways, you’re going to have continuously pump up your tires to keep your routine afloat. That’s pretty darn exhausting.

But doing activities you really like and doing them in enjoyable ways (and even with enjoyable people) couldn’t be more different. Create this and willpower simply becomes a tool, not a lifestyle.

So if you’re truly interested in building a sustainable routine with all those juicy benefits experts rave about, put willpower under the microscope. Doing so could mean finally taking your motivation to move off of life-support.


Dr. Kelly Doell is a mental performance consultant specializing in sustainable fitness. He’s the author of Feel Like It: Makeover Your Motivation to Move and hosts a weekly podcast on the mental side of active living called Happily Ever Active.