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  • The Illusion of Willpower: Why Can’t You Just Stop

    If you have tried to use willpower to quit drinking but failed in the past, I want to let you know that your past failed attempt(s) say nothing about you, your ability, or your character; instead, it says everything about the method itself. 

    In reality, most people who rely solely on willpower to change their behavior will fail at some point. Although many people were made to believe that willpower is the key to quitting alcohol, it is not the answer to long-term behavior change. In our society, we have a lot of misconceptions, especially about alcohol and sobriety. If you have fallen into the trap of relying on willpower to cut down on alcohol, you are not alone.

    What is Willpower 

    Let’s first take a look at what willpower is. I like this definition by John Ortberg, the author of The Life You’ve Always Wanted, who says, Willpower is trying very hard to not do something you want to do very much.” It truly captures our experience of using willpower – the hard battle of fighting against one’s own desires. Forget about an addictive substance like alcohol for a minute. Just think of a time when you tried to resist the temptations of your favorite dessert. Everyone knows how hard that is. 

    When there is an internal war between our own desires, willpower may help us win a few battles in the short run, but in the long run, it is bound to fail if that is all we have.


    Why Willpower Doesn’t Work: Ego Depletion 

    Many people falsely believe that willpower is something some people have and others don’t. That’s a misconception. In reality, willpower is more like a battery we all have, and the battery gets low and runs out sometimes. Experts describe willpower as like a muscle that gets fatigued when overused. 

    In the 1990s, some researchers put together an experiment to test their hypothesis of a limited reserve of willpower, or what they call Ego Depletion. In the study, they brought a group of participants into a room filled with the smell of fresh-baked cookies. In front of the participants was a table with two plates on it. One held delicious looking cookies and another, a bowl of radishes. One lucky half was asked to sample the cookies, while the other half were made to eat the radishes only. Afterward, both groups were asked to spend 30 minutes solving a puzzle that, in reality, was unsolvable. Of course, the poor participants were unaware of that.

    In the result, while the lucky cookie-eaters persevered for nearly 19 minutes on average, the people who previously had to resist the temptation of the cookies gave up on the puzzle after about 8 minutes. The researcher then concluded that radish-eater subjects’ self-control appeared to have depleted faster after they exerted it to resist the temptation of cookies. 

    If trying to resist the temptation of eating cookies for a short period of time can significantly reduce a person’s ability to exert self-control in a sequential task, then imagine what an almost impossible task it is to ask someone to constantly resist the temptation of the drink that they want very much, for not just hours, but days, months, even years.


    Key to Long Lasting Change: Your Belief

    Please don’t get me wrong. Willpower still has its place in your journey to quit drinking, especially in the beginning. However, to achieve long-lasting changes you need to change your beliefs. For example, many people want to eat healthily, but what separates those people who succeed from the ones that don’t is their belief. People who can adapt to a healthier diet, consciously or subconsciously, have at some point decided that eating healthy equals joy, vitality, and longevity, and not eating healthy equals feeling bloateddrowsiness, and illness. With these beliefs, the hard work of adopting a new lifestyle becomes a means to reap the rewards of what they truly want. 

    If you want to start to shift your beliefs about alcohol today, check out this FREE Checklist on the 12 Common Misbeliefs About Alcohol. Remember, real change and transformation happen at a deep, subconscious level. May you find peace, joy, and true freedom from alcohol. 


    Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Muraven, M., & Tice, D. M. (1998). Ego depletion: Is the active self a limited resource? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(5), 1252–1265.