Ills of the Will: Why Willpower Fails Us


Ask what it takes to realize a goal and you will typically receive a response similar to this: motivation, a strong desire, willpower, etc…   You may be surprised to learn however, that when it comes to reaching goals, traits such as these are not strongly correlated with success.  In fact, an improper understanding of motivation and its role in reaching long-term goals is a major cause of failure. Here’s why:  motivation, willpower, and desire all originate in the hypothalamus – part of the midbrain. The midbrain’s function is to attend to our short-term wants, needs, and desires.  By nature the midbrain is fickle, and as our moods fluctuate so too does motivation.  Consequently, an individual who relies on motivation or willpower as a primary strategy for attaining their goals is relying on nothing more than the fickle whims of the midbrain.   A sense of meaning or purpose however, is strongly correlated with the completion of long-term goals.  Jigoro Kano, a distinguished educator, understood this principle. It is one of the reasons he chose the nomenclature Judo over the then commonly used term Jujitsu. Kano was astutely aware that Judo was more than an activity, and saw the value in the principles the art exemplified. The do in Judo is in essence the Japanese pronunciation of Tao. I won’t go into detail over the philosophical implications, suffice to say that as we integrate the principles of Judo into our lives they tend to become more harmonious and abundant. I can attest with the utmost sincerity that I have yet to see anyone make a serious study of Judo who has not improved in spirit or character. Keeping in line with one of the governing principles of Judo – seiryokyu zenyo (maximum efficiency with minimal effort) – I have included an exercise that can be useful in helping prioritize and realize goals in an efficient and realistic manner. This measure will also help you assess the likelihood that you will complete a particular goal.

  1. Make a list of things that you want to accomplish.
  2. Prioritize these goals in order of importance.
  3. Rate each of the goals that you’ve listed on a scale from one to ten in terms of how much effort you are willing to exert in order to complete the goal. Below is a guideline

1 = no effort

5 = will work hard and give up competing priorities at least 50% of the time.

10 = will work hard to attain this goal and sacrifice competing priorities nearly 100% of the time.                      

  1. Now rate each goal from one to ten in terms of how meaningful it is to you.
  2. Add both numbers.
  3. Reorder your goals highest scores first.


Most people will note a strong correlation between goals they find meaningful and a willingness to exert effort in spite of competing priorities.  You may notice that some goals that you’ve listed did not score highly. It is unlikely that you will actualize these goals and may benefit by diverting energy or resources devoted to low scoring items towards ones that you find meaningful.

Robert Burge, MA

Contributor Bio – Robert is a judo nidan, Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt, and has a master’s in mental health counseling. He is the head instructor of the University of Kentucky judo club and an assistant instructor at Valhalla Grappling Academy.

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