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Willpower Does Not Last—Imagination is the Solution

Last updated on July 1, 2022

For most people, “willpower” more closely resembles “won’t power.” What we don’t realize is that willpower is the enemy of change because of the pain/pleasure principle at work. Your mind is known to move away from pain and towards pleasure. 

Let me explain why. When your mind focuses its attention on what does not work, it interprets it as a painful experience and will, in turn, reject the desired assignment. 

Take the example of someone choosing to go on a diet. Start by examining the word diet, composed of the first 3 letters “die.” From the start, the brain is not happy and will create obstacles around the goal.

 Maybe a person will be able to stay on the restricted diet for a limited time using “the fist,” which is an expression representing restriction, rigidity, and complete absence of freedom of choice. 

However, what the mind will ultimately do is sabotage the person’s efforts, create temptations, and have that person imagine all the things they have been missing, like eating their favorite dessert and snacks. Due to this phenomenon, diets never work. They focus on willpower and deprivation. 

What you focus on expands and becomes your reality. Right now, do not think of a delicious piece of pie a la mode. Don’t imagine the flaky crust, baked and golden brown, and the sweet juicy apples with a hint of cinnamon. Stop visualizing a fresh scoop of cold and creamy vanilla ice cream melting over that sumptuous slice. 

How did that work for you? Can’t get it out of your head, right? So, what happened to your willpower?  It’s useless. You end up without free will,  discouraged, and defeated!

Shift the Focus to What You Want Instead

Over many years, working in a 28-day addiction center in Manhattan, New York, I came to understand the concept of the “revolving door.” As counselors, we used to identify which individuals were more likely to be successful with their treatment plan and stay clean and sober long-term, and which would most likely return shortly after leaving the facility.

I will never forget the time when I asked the patients, “What do you plan to do with your new healthy life?” and the majority answered, “ I am planning not to drink or do drugs anymore.” It was the best recipe for failure!

On one hand, as the saying goes, “a failure to plan is a plan for failure.” On the other hand, the focus shouldn’t be on what you don’t want anymore; it should be shifted to what you want instead.

However, one patient answered, “My plan is to take my wife and my two boys to the park for a picnic.”

This man had it all mapped out in his head. He could vividly see himself playing with his kids, laughing, filled with energy and enthusiasm. He would even describe the exact location, where he would lay out his blanket on the grass close to the lake where he used to go as a kid and where he enjoyed watching people kayak and paddle board. 

I would never forget this story because, for the first time, I really understood the power of our imagination and how it gives us the ability to change the course of our existence by simply using images. Similar to watching a movie on our TV screen, we can feel all the emotions as if they are really happening to us, and we catch ourselves crying, laughing, or being scared, depending on the movie we choose to watch. 

Imagination is the Best Tool for Change

So let’s examine how imagination really works!

Let’s break the word down. The first 5 letters of imagination are “imagi,”  which translates as image, opening the door to the world of fantasy versus reality. Did you know that your mind does not know the difference between what’s real and what’s imagined? Your mind will create a reality in line with what you think you want. So, when you begin to imagine yourself looking the way you want to look, feeling the way you want to feel, and doing the things you want to do, then you begin to change your focus and create a new reality. 

In the future, when you decide to make some changes in your life, apply these three steps to avoid the “willpower trap” and to help you reach your goal successfully:

Step 1: Be clear about your goal. 

Ask yourself the question, What do I really want? and not What don’t I want anymore? Be careful; your computer mind does not recognize the “not” and the “don’t” and will program your mind with the wrong message. Framing your goal using positive language avoids this confusion.

Step 2: Create the details of your vision.

It’s not enough to say, “I want to be thin” or “I want to stop smoking.” It’s important to be clear about the change you want to see in order to live the dream you would not have dared to live before.

Step 3. Repetition is key to developing a new habit or behavior. 

Neuroscience teaches us that it takes 28 days to create a neural pathway in the brain for a new positive emotional conditioning. Practicing your new habit for this length of time will engrain it for the future.

If you want to reinforce the power of this three-step process, I recommend you add the use of positive affirmations. My favorite ones that I use in my “Fresh Start program” are:

I Can

I Do

I Will

Victory to ME

Victory is Mine 

Next time you identify a change you’d like to make in your life, utilize the three steps outlined here to make your dream a reality.

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Edwige Gilbert - Coach
Edwige Gilbert

Edwige Gilbert, Transformation Guide and Founder of New Life Directions, reinvents lives and creates fresh starts driven by a purposeful vision. As an international speaker and author ofThe Fresh Start PromiseandVictim to Victorious,Edwige turns stress into success by clearing unwanted habits and behaviors, creating self-confidence and exuberant enjoyment of life, or as she calls it in French, “Joie de Vivre.”

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