Is There No Such Thing As Willpower?



The bills are piled up high, your bank balance is at an all-time low, and you’re afraid to check your credit rating. It’s a predicament you find yourself in frequently, and each time you vow to spend less, save more, and invest better.


Your noble financial goal starts off great. You create a realistic budget that covers the necessities with a little left over for savings. For the first week, your resolve holds strong. You stick to your plan and deny yourself the typical temptations. Until your hard work has started to line your pocket with extra cash, you get online payday loans to cover the bills that are due first and work your way down the list.

Things are looking good but then, like every other time you try to fix your finances, your good intentions start to fall apart. Your favorite store has an unbelievable sale. The very next day, your friends suggest a weekend away to catch up. Your kids ask (politely) to go see the latest Spider-Man and you can’t watch a movie withouta large popcorn.

With the dawning of each new day, there’s another temptation chipping away at your self-control. Soon enough, it will chisel your commitment down to nothing, and you’ll find yourself overspending again.

But there’s still one last defence when you turn to a mysterious inner resolve in order to resist your inevitable backslide: willpower. It’s a self-made resource of discipline that many Americans call upon at their hour of need thinking it will help them resist temptations and ignore invasive thoughts. If you just will it hard enough, it will happen.

Those who manage to quell their desires have greaterwillpower(both in intensity and amount) than those who give in right away. If only you had more of it you could finally kick your overspending habits to the curb and start saving in earnest.

There’s just one issue with this idea. There may be no such thing as willpower.

Dr Carl Erik Fisher, a psychiatry professor who specializes in substance abuse and compulsive behaviors at Columbia University, calls it “a dangerous, old idea that needs to be scrapped.” He thinks that “willpower [is] shot through with moral overtones, and [that’s] what leads people today to attach such shame and guilt to their perceived failures of willpower.”

Dr. Fisher says the concept has its origins in the Victorian era, when people subscribed moral judgements about those with substance abuse problems. These desires were labelled as sinful and only those who held enough willpower to resist them were good, honest people. Over time, it evolved to include the idea that willpower is a finite resource that could be depleted.

Just like you won’t get anywhere fast with a car’s tank on empty, you won’t attain any goal when your willpower is tapped out.Or so how traditional thinking goes.

Dr. Fisher argues this idea distracts those searching for a solution from an answer that works for their personality. When this is the fourth or fifth time you’ve failed to cut back on spending, it’s too easy to assume you have less willpower than your peers is which is why you’re destined to make the same mistakes.

What he calls an attempt to willfully muscle through your problems will mostly end up in failure. A far more successful way of tackling issues of overspending, overeating, or other compulsions should rely on emotional regulation that helps you develop skills that:

  • distract yourself from temptations
  • change physiological responses to stimulus (or that thrill when you land a deal)
  • help you withstand the negative emotions of denial
  • reframe realistic expectations.


It can be a challenge to nurture these skills. Often times it requires you to look at the root cause of your financial problems so you understand why you feel compelled to overspend. It’s hard work but the results of your efforts are worth it. Unlike willpower — an elusive power that may or may not pull through in the face of temptation — these techniques can help you identify the issue, your initial desire to overspend, and ways to stop it.

Remember this the next time you feel like you’re spiralling downwards into a well of negative thoughts. Think of the Titantic, a ship that was publicized as biggest and strongest of its time. A single iceberg was all it took to rip apart its hull and sink it. Willpower is similarly mythologized as an unstoppable force people can use to push through temptations. And just like the steamer, it may not stand up to the worst of them.

The next time you feel the tug of temptation — whether it’s a half-priced Fendi bag, tickets to see the Baltimore Orioles, or even one too many Starbucks trips — work through Dr. Fisher’s 4 steps. It may take time but they’re far more effective than simple willpower.