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Mindpower vs. willpower

Updated: Jul 12

Post it notes with the words I've got this

How are you doing with your New Year Resolutions? Perhaps like many, you'll have broken your resolutions by the end of January, if you haven’t done so already. January can be a long, dark, back to work, frugal month and resolution slips according to the researchers are often cited as lack of personal control, excessive stress and negative emotion. You really DID intend to be at the gym each day before work, but …

The problem with willpower

Willpower is your ability to resist short-term gratification in pursuit of your long-term goals or objectives. Deny the donuts now, to get your beach body for the summer. Sounds straightforward, but … willpower suffers from 3 significant problems:

1. It involves change and your brain avoids change. Change can bring risk but it also involves more thinking effort. Your brain has a tendency towards cognitive laziness and changing your habits simply involves too much mental effort.

2. Your brain has a current moment bias. Your brain focuses more on present moment benefits ('donuts – yum!') than on future payoffs (looking good on the beach in summer) when making decisions, even if it leaves you worse off in the long run.

3. Your willpower is a limited resource. Just like your phone battery, willpower has its daily limits. Use it up first thing, by saying no to those donuts and it’s harder to use it for that run after work. That’s because willpower relies on the capacity of your Pre Frontal Cortex (PFC), the seat of your brain’s executive functioning. Just like having too many apps running on your phone, you can quickly use up your PFC’s daily resources by making too many decisions, planning, multitasking, holding too much information in your short-term memory, having to control your emotions, being hungry or low in blood sugar, being tired etc. All of life's normal day-to-day challenges use up your brain’s daily capacities, severely limiting what’s left over for willpower.

From the brain’s perspective, it’s no surprise then that creating new year lifestyle changes is difficult and comes with a low success rate. So is there a better way?     

All of life's normal day-to-day challenges use up your brain’s daily capacities, severely limiting what’s left over for willpower  

The benefits of mindpower

Well, yes. One easy brain hack is to make as much of the habit automatic, so that it doesn’t need to rely on the scarce resource that is conscious thought. It makes sense to put the gym kit by the door the night before or to move the contents of the snack drawer to a cupboard upstairs or to put your phone in a different room when you’re watching a movie. These easy hacks make preferred behaviors more automatic and help remove the potential for cognitive dissonance, or inner conflict.

A new goal often creates cognitive dissonance, the term used to describe the mental state where we hold two conflicting thoughts (’I want to lose weight, but I want to eat pizza with the team at work too’). Such a conflict causes anxiety or stress in the error detection centres of your brain (the Anterior Cingulate Cortex and the Insula). The resulting brain distress causes you to either alter your behavior (‘I will choose the salad instead’) or alter the belief (‘I can start the diet next week - my weight is ok’). If your willpower resources for the day have dwindled, the decision will make itself. You will probably temporarily alter your belief, and then regret it afterwards.

A much more effective brain-smart strategy is to proactively alter your underlying beliefs, to reduce cognitive dissonance

A much more effective brain-smart strategy is to therefore to proactively alter your underlying beliefs so that instead of the brain upsetting itself through cognitive dissonance, it operates in a state of cognitive coherence, whereby all future behaviors sit within an integrated and coherent value system. Cue something like Parts Therapy ..

Resolving inner conflict through mindpower & Parts Therapy

Parts Therapy** aims to overcome subconscious or inner resistance, caused by self-sabotaging, conflicting inner motivations. You might think you don’t go to the gym because of laziness, but it could instead be a part of you that is protecting you from being judged or rejected by others. Determining the real underlying cause of your inner conflict, assessing the validity of it and then finding a replacement role for that part may help you to more easily meet your goals. That original part who was acting as your personal security may get promoted in your mind to say ‘head of charity bike rides’ for example, which then opens up a whole new range of aligned exercising possibilities and motivations.  

All of these explorations and negotiations occur within the quiet calm state of a light hypnotic trance, making access to subconscious beliefs much easier. The original reasons behind any inner conflict were probably valid when they were originally created by your mind, but although you have moved on in life, your inner drives can continue to play on a loop, automatically, for years, if not decades. If you hear yourself repeatedly say: 'I want to do .... but I keep ending doing .... instead. And I've absolutely no idea why that is', then exploring your subconscious in something like parts therapy may be helpful for you for 2 key reasons:

1. The reasons behind your inner conflict is not always apparent to your conscious and when your conscious and subconscious mind are in conflict, your subconscious mind invariably wins. Integrating your inner most drivers or parts creates a more integrated inner belief system where all beliefs are in harmonious alignment with your goals. This makes it far more likely that you will automatically achieve your goals, without any cognitive dissonance. ‘Sorry I can’t come to the cinema on Weds, it’s my new exercise class night. How about Thursday instead?’)

2. When told what to do, the human brain can behave like a 2-year old. With a strong need for autonomy, it is normal for you to rebel against instruction or lifestyle ‘advice’. Something like Parts Therapy however creates deep sub-subconscious motivation through a strong sense of personal agency. You hear your own mind telling itself what needs to change. When the suggestions for change come from you, those new changes are powerfully and automatically accepted by your mind, in a way that they may not be if suggested by a coach, therapist or lifestyle influencer. You are unlikely to reject your own deep sub-conscious thoughts.

When your conscious and subconscious mind are in conflict, your subconscious mind invariably wins

So in summary, if changing habits is hard work and you find yourself self-sabotaging, then see if there is a more brain-smart approach; one that changes your beliefs at a deeper subconcious level, making your behaviors more congruent with your goals. One that relies on mindpower, rather than willpower.


What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences.

I’m Debbie Jeremiah, a leadership learning professional with an interest in the mind at work and accessing the subconscious through regression, parts therapy and hypnotherapy.  These are my own thoughts and opinions and as such, may contain inaccuracies and biases.

Parts Therapy** is just one method to change inner thoughts. Other variations include Ego State Therapy, Resource Therapy, Voice Dialogue, Internal Family Systems, Inner Child Work, Yagerian Method, along with a variety of other hypnotherapy methods. Results are not guaranteed. For any concerns you should always consult your own medical practitioner.

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