When Things Have to Change: How to Find the Willpower to Achieve Your Goals

By Timothy James

“When it is obvious the goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps.” ~Confucius

Do you want to know my biggest fear?

I’ve just come out of the closet, my parents have rejected me, and I am terrified, really, really terrified, because I’m completely alone, and the pain is unbearable.

But it’s not just the rejection that terrifies me—it’s also what happens after that.

With no one to turn to, I find comfort at the bottom of a bag of chips.

Three months and thirty pounds later I’ve yet to leave the confines of my bedroom. I’m wasting away, haunted by dead dreams, dirty dishes, and empty soda cans. The depression is unbearable. I feel like I’ll never be able to turn things around.

I look in the mirror and don’t recognize this person looking back at me. I’ve resigned myself to a life of sadness, solitude, and self-neglect. It feels as though everything is hopeless and I’ll never to amount to anything in life.

Feelings of depression, lack of confidence, and fear of failure drive me to seek comfort with Aunt Jamima instead of with a new diet plan. This vicious cycle of depression and binge eating leads me to a state of paralysis, and obesity. I’ve completely stopped taking care of myself. I feel like I may as well die because my life is over!

Yikes! Dramatic much?

The secret is, not only is this one of my biggest fears, this actually happened!

Spoiler Alert: Eventually, with therapy, I was able to break out of the depression and drop thirty pounds. Equally important, my parents have grown to love and accept my gayness! But that’s not what this post is about. This post is about the five strategies that helped me crawl my way out of the hole and get back to a healthy place, physically and emotionally.

If you’re feeling discouraged and unmotivated to create positive change in your life, these five strategies may help you alleviate your emotional triggers, increase your willpower, and achieve your goals.

Strategy #1: Chunking

Many of us cannot complete the tasks we set out to do because we get overwhelmed thinking of all the work required, which leads to a state of paralysis. Overwhelm is one of my main emotional triggers, and chunking is a great way to alleviate this and follow through with my goals.

Chunking is when you take a large task and break it down into smaller, more manageable pieces. With chunking you will find you have increased confidence and willpower and are able to complete more tasks with less stress.

We basically have unlimited willpower (it’s true! See tip #3: Perception), but when presented with a momentous task the brain becomes overwhelmed and says, “ENOUGH! I’M DONE! BRING ME CHIPS!”

When my depression was at its height I had many days where I didn’t feel like going to the gym and hitting the weights. When I was in this negative emotional state, I found my mind focusing on the long, tiring workout I had planned ahead while feelings of inadequacy and not measuring up to my peers came creeping in. It’s exhausting just thinking about it!

It’s called paralysis by analysis—when you’re overthinking something and you get stuck in a place of inaction. During times like this I feel things are hopeless. I plop my ass down on the couch and prepare for a good long Netflix binge, with a side of chips of course! Then comes the uncomfortable feeling of my potential being wasted and my waistline slipping further and further away.

To get over this state of inaction, I use chunking. I focus on the task at hand and think, “What is the next right move for me in this moment?”

I tell myself that I’ll go to the gym and I’ll do just a five-minute workout. If I want to exercise more after that, I have the option to do so. After the first five minutes is complete, I tell myself I’ll do five more minutes. And repeat.

Eventually the resistance to working out subsides, an hour goes by, and the workout is complete! I’m always in a better mood after I leave the gym, and the emotional triggers that were holding me back oftentimes seem insignificant once my workout is complete and I’ve gotten out of the house.

Strategy #2: Confidence

Confidence is the belief you have in yourself to achieve your goals. After coming out to my parents and feeling alone and abandoned, my confidence was basically non-existent. I needed to get my confidence back if I was going to be successful. Approaching a task with confidence will decrease the willpower required to complete said task, and feelings of self-doubt and insecurity will begin to melt away.

How is it possible to increase confidence, you ask? It’s not as hard as you might think! Start by changing the way you frame your goals.

When I wanted to lose thirty pounds, for example, I felt an extreme lack of confidence pursuing such an ambitious goal. Feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt became debilitating. I felt like I was permanently stuck in a place of inaction, never to achieve my goals.

The truth is, the way I was framing my goal was setting me up for failure.

I found success by chunking my goal down into something I felt was easy, manageable, and achievable. I shifted my focus from losing thirty pounds to losing just one pound. One pound is easy to lose, so I felt confident in my ability to achieve this small chunk of my ultimate goal.

I started paying attention to the small wins and milestones. I began tracking my progress with a fitness app on my phone. A Virginia Tech study found that having a visual representation of your progress provides motivation to reach your goals; the easier a goal is to see, the closer it seems.

Tracking your progress is another great way to increase confidence. It also decreases the amount of willpower required to stick to your routine and diet.

With my renewed confidence, a strategically planned diet, and training regime, I achieved my goal weight and lost thirty pounds! Once I truly believed in myself, I was able to accomplish something that I thought was impossible.

Strategy #3: Perception

Perception is everything when it comes to maintaining willpower. It will make or break your chances for success.

A recent study conducted by Stanford University found that if you believe you have unlimited willpower, you will in turn have more willpower than the average person.

This means that when you believe you have a finite supply of willpower, you’re right! When you believe you have an infinite supply of willpower, you’re right about that too!

You create your own reality. The beliefs you hold dictate the world around you. The limitations you put on yourself are the limitations that also hold you back. Create a new narrative for yourself, one in which you are empowered to achieve your goals, and you will transform limitations into strengths.

Remember back when my depression was at its height and I gained thirty pounds in three months? l had lost all respect for myself and my body. I stopped believing I could achieve my goals. Feelings of hopelessness took over. I was sinking deeper and deeper into an intense and painful depression.

Eventually, I began to realize how my perception was limiting my ability to lose weight. If I didn’t believe in myself, how could I expect to achieve anything? Through meditation, and with a lot of support from some amazing friends, I was able to shift my perception from hopeless to hopeful!

With this shift in perspective, and a newfound love for myself, I began to take care of my body properly. The weight began to melt off and I became the success story you see today.

Strategy #4: Identity

Identity shapes the way we view ourselves and what we believe we are capable of, and it dictates our response to emotional triggers.

Are you a smoker? Do you love to jog? Are you a fat, lazy slob who will never amount to anything? These are all examples of the identities we create that can hold us back or lead us to success.

We constantly use our identity to quickly recognize the things we are good at and things we suck at. Did you ever stop to think about how this identity is based out of past experiences—many of which do not even hold true today? These beliefs will hold you back from reaching your full potential if you let them.

When I gained thirty pounds I had allowed myself to take on the identity of victim, and as a result I became disempowered to change my situation. Eventually I learned to shift my identity from disempowered to empowered, by changing the stories I was telling myself.

No longer was I a victim of circumstance. I accepted full responsibility for my situation and let go of the victim identity. Once I chose to stop playing the victim, I directed my energy toward creating the life I’ve dreamed of.

By shifting my identity so that it was aligned with my life goals, I changed the narrative and opened the door for real change in my life. I also decreased the willpower required to achieve my goals and began my journey on the path to success.

So I know you’re thinking, “How the hell do I change my identity!?”

You can start by changing the stories you tell yourself. Flip the script!

I’m reminded of a time when I was trying to quit smoking (for the tenth time). When I had a bad craving I would tell myself things like “I’m not allowed to smoke.” The language I was using—“I’m not allowed”—is of someone who identifies as a smoker. By speaking that way I was creating a sense of deprivation and giving away my power to the identity of being a smoker.

I found that by changing the story from “I am not allowed to smoke” to “I do not smoke” I decreased feelings of deprivation. It also empowered me to create a new identity of someone who does not smoke.

With this new identity, I decreased the amount of willpower required to quit smoking. I became empowered to make the changes necessary to achieve my goal, and I was able to successfully stop smoking with a slight shift of identity. I felt so proud of myself for this one too!

Strategy #5: High-Level Thinking

We essentially have two types of thinking: high-level and low-level.

Low-level thoughts focus on how to complete a task, short-term goals, and execution of plans.

“How am I going to workout today?” is an example of a low level thought.

High-level thoughts focus on why you want to complete a task, and are charged with a sense of meaning and purpose. They help us to find that extra bit of willpower we need to carry us through tough times.

“Why do I want to workout today?” is an example of a high-level thought.

The high-level thought shown above focuses on the motivation behind the goal. It re-enforces the belief that working out is what’s best for me. Thinking in this way reduces the resistance to the task at hand and reduces the amount of willpower required to accomplish goals.

A study by Professor Fujita in 2006 concluded that people who often engage in higher-level thinking have a higher amount of willpower than those who regularly engage in lower-level thinking.

When I was in a full-blown depression I found low-level thoughts were much more common than high-level thoughts. With my focus on logistical things like the endless steps involved in getting in shape, I would feel overwhelm and sink deeper into depression. Just leaving the house to go workout became an arduous task.

Eventually, I changed my focus to why I was going to the gym and connected to my overall goals of being fit and healthy. With less focus on the mundane day-to-day tasks, a lot of the resistance to leaving the house subsided, and I was more frequently able to get my workouts in as planned.

With continued practice I’ve become more mindful of opportunities to choose between high-level and low-level thinking throughout the day. Just this morning I had an insatiable craving for cream in my coffee! I’m currently experimenting with intermittent fasting, and one of my rules is no cream till after 4:00pm.

The struggle got real. I was ready to give in and make that coffee creamy and delicious. I didn’t care how wrong it was because it felt so right!

Suddenly, as I was about to pour the cream, I started thinking at a higher level. I realized this cream would stop me from progressing toward my larger goal of being fit and healthy and inspiring others. After thinking at a higher level, the cream became much less tempting and I was able to put the cream down.

Thanks to higher-level thinking, I found the willpower I needed to not break my fast!


These five strategies—chunking, confidence, perception, identity, and high-level thinking—are all tools to add to your tool box to help you alleviate negative emotional triggers, increase willpower, and ensure you reach your goals.

These techniques have helped me through some very tough times, but they will help you with any goal in life that requires persistence and dedication. Implement these tools in your life today and see how much they help you!

Let me know how this works for you—leave a comment in the comments section below!

About Timothy James

Timothy is a health coach focused on using simple mindfulness strategies to build habits and achieve weight loss goals. He’s created a free course to create your own self-care routine and get your mind and body in shape with simple strategies you can use today. Click here to get instant access and discover how to stop anxiety, kill stress, and eliminate exhaustion with your free self-care planner!

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