The willpower paradox:  Using the right skills at the right time.

Blog Post created by NDC.Treatment.Team on Nov 11, 2020

Often I’ve heard patients say, ‘I haven’t been able to stop, so I must not really want to stop.’ But as many of you know, just ‘wanting’ or willpower by itself is not a solid foundation for recovery.   Not to say that it is not a factor that contributes to success, but too often relying only on willpower results in caving into craving when faced with smoking situations.   Successfully negotiating the highly reinforced triggers to smoke, and instead putting in place different habits or ways of thinking when the thought of a cigarette happens, is best done with solid planning rather than just brute force.


Muscle power is a useful analogy for willpower.   Willpower can energize a quit attempt, or help a person to develop or activate strategies to manage smoking situations.  Like a muscle, it can strengthen or become fatigued.  Most people do ‘want’ to stop on some level. But over time the conflict between hoping for a change and the discouragement inherent in ‘not succeeding’ becomes tiring.  Hope for success fades not because of the lack of ‘willpower’ but because the strategies to manage the reinforced impulse to smoke haven’t been fitting or sufficient.


Willingness to learn from experiences and to try new strategies is a much more rewarding approach than expecting brute force to overcome deeply rooted addictive habits.  Thoughts and urges to smoke are going to happen and won’t be willed away.   They will fade over time and can be reduced, avoided, outlasted, and outsmarted.   Doing something different, taking a deep breath, thinking about reasons for stopping, calling a friend, taking a walk, or having a sip of water are all things that can cause that urge to dissipate or collapse.  The intensity of caving can be muffled and withdrawal symptoms eliminated with nicotine replacement or other medications.  Build the willpower muscle by celebrating little successes and taking things a day at a time.  Use willpower to make a plan rather than as a blunt instrument to overcome all.


Michael V. Burke, Ed.D

Program Director and NDC Counselor/ CTTS