What the Experts Are Saying About Willpower

  • How to Develop Stronger Willpower

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    Almost everyone has a mental list of goals they want to accomplish and traits they wish they possessed. Many people believe it’s just a lack of willpower standing between their current state and a future in which they are (for example) healthy, fit, organized, and accomplished. But is that really the case? Does willpower truly exist? And if it does, is it something you’re born with or can you develop stronger willpower to get more done and change your life for the better? Here’s some background...MORE on what willpower really means, and how you can boost yours to increase your productivity and control.

    What is Willpower?

    One online dictionary defines willpower as “control of one's impulses and actions; self-control.” The term is often used interchangeably with drive, determination, impulse control, or the ability to delay gratification. You may have heard of Walter Mischel’s so-called “Stanford marshmallow experiment” or “marshmallow test,” in which young children were left alone with a tempting snack and told they could either eat it right away, or resist it for a few minutes to earn two snacks later. Follow-up research found that the kids who displayed an ability to delay their gratification - i.e., didn’t grab the lone marshmallow - went on to become more successful adults, getting higher test scores and better jobs and maintaining a lower body mass index, among other measures. This study and others like it are often used to suggest that willpower is something inborn or developed at a very young age. (Critiques of the study’s current popularity argue that its sample size was small and that, when the details are examined more closely, its predictive powers are far from reliable.)

    Use of the word willpower was first documented in the late 1800s, but obviously people had (or lacked) the quality we now think of as willpower long before that date. For the purposes of this article, let’s think of willpower as the ability to make yourself do something you don’t want to do (e.g. choose salad over pizza) in order to reach a goal (e.g. weight loss.)

    Is Willpower Like a Muscle?

    Can you build up your willpower, as you might work out to strengthen your muscles? Some research has suggested that it’s possible – but the muscle in this case is the mind. It seems that for people who think their willpower will increase the more they use it, this is true – they manage to stay in control when asked to perform increasingly difficult mental tasks throughout the day. But those who believe willpower is easily depleted find their cognitive abilities dipping as the difficulty of their assigned tasks increases. The results were similar in tests done over a period of weeks.  

    Walter Mischel of the marshmallow test says that self-control is like a muscle in a slightly different way: sometimes, children and adults who do have this control can simply choose whether or not to “flex” it.

    What is decision fatigue?

    The “deteriorating quality of decisions made by an individual, after a long session of decision making,” or decision fatigue, is why judges have been observed to be more likely to deny prisoners parole when their case is heard later in the day. It’s also why supermarkets put the candy right next to the register. These “impulse purchases” are perfectly situated to test your lack of willpower, brought on by the decision fatigue of having trudged through the store deliberating about what you want to cook. (The candy will look especially tempting if you’ve also had to calculate what you can afford to buy at the store; it is this mental fatigue, rather than an inherent lack of control, that often causes people struggling to make ends meet to eat junk food.)

    Is there a difference between willpower and discipline?

    Discipline (or, if you prefer, self-discipline, because once we’re adults, few of us have anyone else around to monitor whether we’re getting everything done) and willpower are often thought of as one in the same. Here’s another online dictionary on self-discipline: “the ability to make yourself do things when you should, even if you do not want to do them.” That sounds very much like willpower, right? But some see the two as distinct approaches: discipline involves a set of rules and punishments, while willpower requires pure effort; or, willpower is the driving force that motivates you to develop self-discipline.

    Ultimately, unless you’re a linguist, the words you use to think about this probably don’t matter. (Except that if you think about them too long, they could distract you from actually accomplishing anything.) Instead of trying to name the internal power that you wish you had more of, concentrate on why you want more willpower, discipline, control, or whatever you want to call it. Do you want to get up earlier? Stop procrastinating? Eat more salad and less pizza? The way to get there, no matter what you believe about willpower or discipline, is by creating daily routines, developing good habits, and learning to focus on the task at hand.

    Willpower and Focus

    You don’t want more willpower just so you can say you have it; you want it because you believe greater self-control would help you get more done. Instead of relying on sheer determination, a more practical way to get stuff done is to master a few tricks to help you focus on the task at hand. Starting with small steps like setting a timer so you can work uninterrupted in short bursts or going into a project with a specific aim (for example, “go through the closet and remove any clothes that no longer fit me” rather than “organize the bedroom”) will allow you to accomplish the tasks on your to-do list whether you have willpower or not.

    Willpower and Routines

    Remember the study that found you can strengthen your willpower by believing that you can strengthen your willpower?  If that approach feels too nebulous to you, don’t worry - there are more concrete ways to build up your self-control over time. One of the best is by using a daily routine. If a certain mundane task (say, drinking enough water or buying ingredients for that salad you want to eat) currently requires great effort on your part, adding it to your routine will make it feel so natural that you’ll soon start to do it without even trying.

    Creating a daily routine and sticking to that routine does require some planning and attention, at least at first. But once you get into the habit (more on that below) you’ll follow your new routine

    instinctively, no willpower needed. You can use daily routines to help you with all aspects of your life, from cleaning and organizing your home to meal-planning and meeting goals. If that seems like a lot of work, consider this: you already have a routine – a time you tend to get up, a method of buying or cooking the food you eat, and so on. The question is whether you want your routine to be an intentional choice that works for you, or just a pattern you happened to slip into.

    Willpower and Forming Good Habits

    If you look up willpower in the dictionary, you might find a sample sentence such as this one: “He conquered his drinking problem through sheer willpower.” While we can’t say that no one has ever really done such a thing, we can acknowledge that for most people who successfully quit drinking, smoking, or any other habitual behavior they want to drop, the change in behavior depends on a shift in daily routines and, in particular, regular habits. A former drinker might attend AA meetings or stop socializing with heavy-drinking friends. They might alter their route home, so as not to pass their favorite bars, or make a conscious decision to replace their usual weekend brunches with (sober) weekend hikes. This takes considerable planning and effort, of course, and isn’t a guarantee against setbacks along the way. But it doesn’t require the sort of constant vigilance that we usually associate with willpower.

    If you’ve ever tried to lose weight, you’ve probably heard the beach ball analogy. Eating healthier or smaller portions, some say, is like trying to hold a large inflated beach ball under the surface of a swimming pool. You can manage it for a while when you give the task your full attention, but get distracted for one minute and the ball pops back up.

    Think of the beach ball as a buoyant representation of decision fatigue. There are only so many things a human being can concentrate on at once. That’s why it’s easy enough to diet using only willpower for a short time, but it’s even easier for schedule changes and life’s normal challenges and responsibilities to throw you off. The National Weight Control Registry tracks people who have lost a significant amount of weight and kept it off. The organization’s weight loss “success stories” show that maintaining weight loss is dependent not on an endless supply of willpower, but on developing routines and habits, like counting calories, restricting certain types of food, or exercising for a set amount of time each day. Even if you could do it, trying to develop enough willpower to resist eating a bag of chips when you’re hungry and it’s in your cupboard may be a waste of time. It’s faster, and more effective, to get into the habit of never purchasing a bag of chips.

    This goes back to the idea of willpower being a muscle you can flex. That concept can be empowering when you feel like stress or lack of time are “forcing” you to order pizza. Imagine it’s been a long day and decision fatigue is making choosing the salad feel that much harder. Now imagine you’ve created a routine involving buying vegetables when you shop every Sunday, and pre-washing and chopping some of them so that step is already done. Imagine you’ve gotten into the habit of getting home, getting out your vegetables and salad bowl, and making a quick healthy dinner. Knowing that you’re equipped to do this, because you’ve done it before, and that you can have the salad ready to eat in a fraction of the time it would take the pizza to arrive, will help you to flex that “willpower” muscle no matter how depleted you feel.