Willpower is a word many treat as synonymous with “strength of character.” Strong people have it and use it to accomplish ambitious ends, and the rest of us simply lack it. But the new science around willpower paints a drastically different picture of what it is, how it works, and how we can all best use it.
The capacity that we call willpower is something that all people have. It is mercurial, shifting in shape and potency over time. Crucially, it is not an inherent trait of a person that is set in stone for their whole life. Instead, it’s something you can learn to use more effectively, target intentionally, and develop through practice.
What Willpower Is and What It Isn’t
Willpower is a mental process that helps you to overcome one thought, decision, or desire in favor of another. In this sense, willpower is another word for self-control.
For example, when you want to relax on the couch but choose to go to the gym instead, that is an act of willpower. Instead of giving in to one impulse, you exert self-control to make a different choice.
Often, we rely on willpower for situations like the example above – moments when one thing would feel more comfortable or satisfying in the short term, but we know something else will be more rewarding in the long term.
In that view, it quickly becomes clear why willpower is a trait we hold in such high regard. It is a tool that can help us achieve some of the most challenging yet appealing things in life – professional success, healthy bodies and emotions, and the money to do what we want.
The problem is that willpower is clouded in misunderstandings. Many people still perpetuate old myths about it and how it works. Let’s see what modern neuroscience says about willpower to clear up the confusion.
The Neuroscience Behind Willpower
According to Kelly McGonigal, Stanford psychologist and author of The Willpower Instinct, many of the conversations we’ve been having about willpower are wrong. It’s not a personality trait, and it’s not always something you can simply “dig deep” and exert. It is an observable, physical process that occurs in your brain.
The prefrontal cortex is a relatively modern region of the human brain that deals with judgment and much of our complex reasoning and higher executive function. What we call willpower is a process that originates in this part of the brain, often to reassess and challenge ideas from the older, more primitive regions.
For example, the motivation to consume rich, sugary foods and seek plenty of rest comes from basic survival instincts. For any mammal in the wild, consuming as many calories as you can today and saving up your energy will increase your chances of survival in the coming days. But often, survival instincts can be unhelpful in the long term.
In this case, we know that over-indulging in sweet, satisfying foods can lead to poor health over time. Likewise, lounging around all day rather than getting an appropriate amount of rest can have several adverse effects.
Willpower is a tool that helps to justify conflicting motivations like these. Sometimes, we choose the short-term option, and sometimes we use willpower to delay gratification.
The Shortcomings of Willpower
Like every thought, emotion, memory, and other process your mind produces, willpower is a resource. And like those similar resources, it is fallible and impermanent.
As a physical process in your brain, self-control takes energy. Your capacity for self-control is not infinite for the same reason that you cannot run forever or solve difficult math problems all day: eventually run out of energy.
Every time you engage your willpower to overcome an instinctive behavior, it effectively reduces your remaining capacity for self-control until you have time to rest and recharge.
Turning down a favorite dessert, returning your focus to homework when there’s a TV show on, even choosing to respond to someone calmly when you want to yell – all these things use willpower. The more you use it daily, the less fuel you’ll have in your tank later. That is one reason you’re more likely to be irritable or make unhealthy short-term decisions at the end of a tiring day: you’ve drained much of your capacity to say no.
Fortunately, you have a great deal of opportunity to influence your willpower. So, if you often struggle with limited self-control, let’s look at what you can do to improve it.
7 Ways to Protect and Improve Your Willpower
Willpower is a precious resource for resisting temptation and overcoming impulsive urges. With it, you can overcome procrastination, instant gratification, and countless other temptations in pursuit of long-term goals.
However, it’s easy to over-exert your ability for self-regulation. And when you do, you can experience a lack of self-control, and good habits will fly out the window.
If you often lack the self-control you want or need for a happier life, try some of the following tips and exercises to preserve and build your willpower to be more resilient over time.
1. Reduce Decision Fatigue
One of the most common causes of low willpower is depleting it unnecessarily throughout the day. Often, you can steadily wear out your impulse control without even noticing.
Avoid putting yourself in situations where you must constantly rely on your willpower. Instead, treat it as a precious resource you want to use sparingly. For example, if you’re a shopper, the mall is a barrage of willpower-dependent choices. Each decision of what to buy and what not to buy takes a bit of energy.
Ward off decision fatigue by setting clear guidelines for yourself ahead of time (“I’m only here to buy pants today”) or by avoiding the scenario entirely. Skip the mall, hide the candy dish, and don’t even talk to your difficult coworker if you can avoid it! Set up your day to minimize the times you’ll need to rely on overt self-control.
2. Willpower Challenges
You can intentionally exercise your willpower like a muscle to develop its strength and endurance over time. Put yourself at odds with your natural impulses to practice overcoming them.
For example, putting a bowl of junk food somewhere you will see it frequently and choosing not to eat out of it for a set time tests your ability to resist temptation. Overcoming desires so you can stick to a commitment engages and strengthens your self-control.
In the short term, a willpower workout like this can leave you a bit depleted. In the same way that running will make your legs tired today but stronger over time, a willpower challenge can also be draining in the short term. Keep this in mind when planning a challenge like this into your day.
3. Own Your Sleep Cycle
Rest is how you heal and refuel your willpower, along with the rest of you. So make sure you’re getting enough sleep, and you’ll be much better prepared to make difficult decisions.
Willpower stamina is highest in the morning and lowest late at night, just like physical stamina. The more recently you’ve slept, the fuller your reserves will be. Unhealthy triggers are most dangerous at night, so be prepared for them. But also give yourself a little grace for not being your best self to resist bad habits when you’re low.
4. Physical Exercise
In addition to the many other reasons it’s essential to move your body occasionally, it also benefits your ability to make decisions and manage your behavior and impulses.
Exercise is excellent for blood flow. Blood flow, in turn, is great for juicing up your brain for all the amazing things it can do, like feeling happy and avoiding bad decisions.
On top of that, exercise is a perfect willpower challenge – pushing yourself to follow through when you feel tired engages your willpower muscle as well as your other muscles. This practice engages and trains your self-control just like it does your body.
5. Set up Easy Landings
Some activities and events deal a far heavier blow to your willpower reserves than others — for instance, a high-pressure exam, an intense workout, or a trying day on the job. So whenever possible, it’s best to stay rested and well-fed ahead of times like these.
If you know you’re going into a situation that will wear you out, you can prepare for the more vulnerable version of you that will be coming out the other side. For example, when you have a busy or demanding day ahead, try to set up the night following it to be easygoing and not rely too much on self-control decisions. Things like planning your evening, making meals ahead of time, and setting expectations with other members of your household can go a long way.
6. Breathing Meditation
Meditation is a massive help to willpower and self-control for two key reasons. First, slowing down your breathing through meditation stimulates blood flow to the brain and, just like exercise, stimulates the prefrontal cortex.
Second, the meditation practice itself is yet another willpower challenge. Each time you draw your attention away from a stray thought and back to your breath, you practice mastery over your thoughts. This exercise is another form of willpower, of managing your impulses.
7. Habits and Routines
Willpower works best alongside another powerful tool for driving healthy behaviors: discipline.
Unfortunately, many people fall into the same trap with self-discipline as willpower — chalking it up to a personality trait, a strength of character one either has or doesn’t have. But just like willpower, discipline is a helpful process we can all learn to use better through practice and understanding.
Where willpower revolves around delaying or overcoming unhealthy choices in the moment, discipline works by making beneficial actions more automatic. With good discipline, we don’t need to rely as heavily on willpower all the time.
One of the core pillars of strong self-discipline is habits and routines. Take the good choices you want to make more often and build them into your day. When you make something like that automatic, you reduce the friction and make it easier to do it consistently without fighting against yourself.
Increasing Willpower One Day at a Time
Willpower can take you where you’re going when every other sign points the opposite way. If you know how and how not to use it, you can crush many obstacles that would waylay you from your goals.
Better yet, you can deliberately challenge your willpower to train it and strengthen your self-control. But if you’re not careful to set up your day so that you don’t overuse it, then a million little bites will suck the willpower right out of you. It can do a lot, but not everything. When you balance these two strategies – exercise and rest – you can develop a reliable well of self-control and use it to build any life you envision.