Willpower vs. Won’t Power

tugofwarI got spammed by a company that wants me to go to its site and take some sort of psych test to assess my willpower. The comment said their studies show that “when it comes to being disciplined and making healthy lifestyle changes, men tend to have a stronger resolve than women” and that “women may have a little more difficulty staying away from temptation and sticking to healthy habits this year.” Apparently, 46 percent of women rated their willpower as good compared to 61 percent of men.

Since the company has obviously made up its minds about my determination to stick to my resolve based on my gender, there doesn’t seem much point in following through. But besides that, the study seems dubious.

Their sweeping statements about men and women’s relative resolve was based on approximately 200 self-assessments, which isn’t exactly a “study” but more of a poll. Many things could skew the results. Perhaps men who didn’t have a strong resolve when it came to health resolutions didn’t want to go on record as having a weak resolve and so didn’t respond. Perhaps women are harder on themselves than men are, and see any infraction as a lack of resolution where men let it slough off. Perhaps men overrate themselves. Perhaps women have a better knowledge of themselves. Or perhaps men and women interpret their resolve differently. For example, if someone vows to eat healthier and passes on a second piece of cake when normally they would eat three pieces, that could be interpreted as sticking with their resolve and having willpower.

The poll revealed that “if pressured by a friend to “pig out” (after eating healthily for an entire week), 7% of women would totally give in, 46% would only share some of their friend’s junk food, and 47% would stay disciplined and eat healthy. For men, 8% would give in, 41% would share, and 51% would stay disciplined.” Not exactly a resounding indictment of women or a pat on the back for men. Assuming that the participants in the poll were equally divided between men and women, only four more men than women claimed they would stay disciplined. Which means that almost half of both sexes say they won’t. (The poll didn’t reveal if in fact more men would stay disciplined, only that they said they would.)

New Year’s resolutions are always difficult. By making a big yearly resolution, you’re setting yourself up to fail because it’s very difficult to make a major change all at once and stick with it. For one thing, habit is too strong. For another thing, you have to retrain your family and friends so they don’t pressure you back into your pre-resolve lifestyle. For still another thing, once you’ve broken the resolution, there seems less impetus to re-resolve.

Willpower in action seems more like “won’t power,” — “I won’t eat potato chips. I won’t go off my diet. I won’t sleep in instead of exercising.” For myself, I stay away from “won’t power.” The more I say I won’t do something, the more I want to do it. As for willpower, I think it’s highly overrated. I try to do the right thing for my health most of the time, and if I get side-tracked, I don’t beat myself up for it.

One thing for sure — I won’t go to the spammers site and rate my willpower. And I won’t even need any willpower to stick with that resolution!


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+

3 Responses to “Willpower vs. Won’t Power”

  1. rami ungar the writer Says:

    So far, my New Year’s resolution to give up my vices is going well, thanks to hypnotherapy. I’m finally cutting back on the junk food and living a healthier lifestyle.

  2. Malene Says:

    I love the “won’t power” – I may have to use it with my friends, Hope that’s ok. I will credit you, of course 🙂

    My version of the ominous New Years Resolution is to review my idea of what would make me “better” and then pick the 3 top items that I want to work on in the year coming. For instance, for 2013I have decided that I’m going to be a little less hard on myself, embrace a more vegetarian lifestyle and really try hard to give sugar the boot from my diet. That’s it. Nothing more, nothing less and I have 12 months to work on getting better at those things. Usually, when I take stock at the end of the year, I find that indeed I ended up more or less setting myself in the direction I intended at the beginning of the year.


    • Pat Bertram Says:

      That’s a good idea — thinking of resolutions as a direction rather than a destination. If you’re eating less sugar at the end of the year than the beginning, you’re doing well. I’m going to adopt that attitude.

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