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10 Top Things That Go Wrong With Willpower, and How to Fix Them

Strategies and goals

1. Not having a clear goal in mind
Not knowing exactly what you want, or knowing that but not keeping it in mind, makes it very hard to remember what you need to do or why. If you don’t have a clear, short explanation of your goal that you could give anyone who asked at a moment’s notice, talk with a friend or write down your ideas until you can summarize your goals without even having to think about it. Then make sure to tell yourself about your goals regularly.

2. Trying to pursue more than one goal at a time
While it’s not absolutely impossible to pursue more than one goal at a time, doing so dilutes attention, focus, and mental resources. We only have so much time, attention, and effort we can put into changing our lives: trying to do more than one thing at a time is inviting trouble. What’s the single most important goal you have in front of you? Once you’re well on your way with that single, most important goal, it might be possible to get started on a second one.

3. Not being committed
Being committed to a goal means accepting it, taking complete responsibility for it yourself, and being willing to submit to the changes it will require in your life. (See Why Self-Reliance Requires Surrender.) If you’re not fully committed to your goal, feelings of resentment or rebelliousness, or a tendency to blame forces outside yourself for being in the situation you’re in, will block you from moving forward.

4. Failing to plan out specific steps
Knowing your goal is important, but in order to make real progress toward it, you’ll need to know exactly what you expect yourself to do. At any moment, you’ll need to know what the step you’re working on is and what the next step will be when you’re done with that.

5. Not setting aside time
You won’t make much progress toward your goal if you don’t set aside time to work on it. If you just try to fit it in when you have spare time, you’ll find your goal often gets lost in the shuffle.

6. Not keeping up a feedback loop
Having a feedback loop means stopping regularly (at least once or twice a week) to look carefully at what you’ve been doing to reach your goal and noticing what you need to work on, pay more attention to, improve, handle differently, or keep up. Some techniques for doing this include journaling, meeting with a group, blogging, participating in an online forum, or talking with a friend who’s helping you keep on track.

7. Not paying attention to your thoughts
Building willpower or reaching a goal means changing habits, and changing habits means paying more attention to when decisions are arising and what factors are influencing our decisions. Bad choices are very often choices that we rushed past or didn’t think carefully through at the time. Understanding what’s going on in our own minds when making choices doesn’t always get us to make better choices, but it’s a necessary step to getting better and better at making those choices. For one way to become more aware of your choices and thinking, read How To Improve Willpower Through Writing Things Down: Decision Logging.

8. Not enjoying the steps
It’s easy to think of the steps we need to take to reach a goal as being painful or difficult, but finding the pleasure in those steps simplifies everything. See Using enjoyment as a tool to reach goals.

9 Not preparing
If we wait until we’re actually faced with choices, we may not be prepared to tackle them well. Some choices even pass by before we realize they were coming, unless we prepare by looking ahead. An example is lateness: being on-time means planning intelligently for when to leave for an appointment and getting everything ready beforehand so that it’s possible to leave at that time. Even for choices we recognize as they come up, we may not be mentally or emotionally prepared to tackle them. Paying attention to broken ideas, meditating, and organizing are some of the techniques we can use to prepare ourselves to do better.

10. Taking setbacks too hard
Changing habits is hard, and doing a difficult thing day after day often means some short-term setbacks or failures. Failure doesn’t need to be a pattern: it can be taken as a learning experience. Consider that if a person is trying to quit smoking, their chances of succeeding are much higher if they have tried and failed to quit smoking before than if they had never tried. Even failure is a step forward. It’s not trying at all that we have to watch out for.



  1. Vince  •  Jul 27, 2009 @12:56 pm

    Hey Luc, this is an excellent top ten list. I know I have struggled in the past with will power and confidence and these are some great tips to help people. I found that you can build will power by taking small steps to build up your habit of taking that first step. Before you know it, you are used to being motivated. I found you through Twitter. You can cross-post this to our site and link back to your site. We are trying to create a directory for top ten lists where people can find your site. The coolest feature is you can let other people vote on the rankings of your list.

  2. Luc  •  Aug 3, 2009 @2:01 pm

    Thanks, Vince. Top Ten Top Ten is an interesting site. I think this list may be less entertaining than most of your top ones, but I’m hoping it makes up for that in usefulness.

  3. Morgan  •  Sep 3, 2010 @1:52 am

    Hey Luc, I’ve been following for a while now and I want to sincerely thank you for putting out such outstanding work… You’re helping me so much in reaching what I want! This post is very useful as it touches on several points that have been holding me back, especially numbers 2 and 5. 9 should help me out in the future, too. Thanks so much and please keep it up!

  4. Luc  •  Sep 3, 2010 @9:06 am

    Morgan, thanks for reading, and for commenting. I’m really glad the site has been useful to you. Any suggestions or requests for topics?

  5. Morgan  •  Sep 8, 2010 @1:57 am

    Sure! I’d love to offer some direction. Hopefully these will have appeal for others as well… Also, if you’ve already posted something related to these, sorry in advance! I haven’t gotten a chance to read everything you’ve got on here.

    How do I find people who can support me in reaching my goals, whether by encouragement, having the same/similar goal or even a goal of their own? Are there any tips you can offer regarding how to tell people that I’d like to work on a goal?
    Can you break down how to prioritize tasks?
    What are some quick ways to shake a weird or distracting mood?
    Anything explaining how to identify broken ideas- especially in action- would be super helpful!
    Thanks so much again, Luc! Have a great day!

  6. Luc  •  Sep 13, 2010 @11:50 am

    Thanks Morgan: those are excellent suggestions! I hope to have articles posted on one or more of those subjects over the next two weeks.

  7. Morgan  •  Sep 27, 2010 @9:23 pm

    Thanks so much Luc, these are great! They are super helpful and exactly the kind of guidance and motivation I needed.

  8. Luc  •  Sep 27, 2010 @10:03 pm

    The comments are much appreciated, Morgan. I have several more posts coming from your recent suggestions. Thanks!


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