The truth about willpower

The truth about willpower

You know the best predictor to a successful and satisfying life? It’s not money. It’s not social status. It’s not power and influence. It’s willpower. Willpower affects almost every aspect of our lives. The more willpower you have, the better you will do (and happier you will be) in work and life.

So, what is willpower? Where does it come from and how can you get more of it? If you want to improve your willpower, it helps to understand how it works and how to make it stronger. First, we’ll explore how willpower works and then look at a simple exercise that you can do every day to boost your willpower, and ultimately your life.

Woman exercising back at the gym

Willpower is like a muscle

The simplest way to understand willpower is to think of it as your muscle for self-control. Exercise is the perfect analogy to understanding the abilities and limits of your willpower. Imagine, during your first day back to the gym in a year, if you try to lift the heaviest weight on the rack—you will only be able to do a few reps (if any). Lifting it only a few times will max out your muscle strength, leaving you unable to lift much of anything else that day. But once you allow for rest and recovery time, you can attempt it again. Over time, you will get stronger and be able to handle more weight and reps.

Your willpower is like that. It’s a muscle, and just like physical strength, you only have so much of it available to you every day. This explains why New Year’s resolutions often fail. We go from holiday food, drink and time off work to “I’m going to wake up early, go to the gym every morning and give up coffee.” We try to exert our limited supply of willpower in too many areas of our lives at once, and because of this we set ourselves up for failure. Basically, we’re trying to tap into willpower supplies we just don’t have. When you use your willpower, for example, to resist the plate of cookies at the office, you’re tapping into your limited supply of willpower energy (the same way lifting a heavy weight uses your muscles’ energy).

It is easy to overlook, but every desire you avoid, temptation you resist or tough decision you make depletes your willpower. The bad news is there are more temptations than ever. Recent studies suggest that we spend four to five of our waking hours just trying to resist desire. The good news is, since willpower is like a muscle, we can strengthen it over time with daily exercise.

Strengthen your willpower every day

When psychologist Roy Baumeister was doing research for his book Willpower, he was trying to understand why some people seem to have more willpower than others. During his experiments, he made an interesting discovery. Participants who were instructed for two weeks to make small changes, such as improving their posture, keeping track of their eating habits or brushing their teeth with their opposite hand, significantly improved their scores on laboratory tests of willpower and showed greater self-control in their lives.

You don’t have to sit across the table from a plate of brownies and will yourself to not eat them in order to strengthen your willpower. The simple act of practicing more self-control by incorporating new habits into your life, no matter how small or trivial, and sticking to them strengthens your willpower for the bigger things you want to achieve in life.

Woman in bed turning off alarm clock

Make a commitment, set a trigger and stick to it

What new habit or behavior could you easily commit to starting today? Remember to keep it simple, realistic and manageable. Perhaps you could take a walk at lunchtime, write down 10 things you are grateful for when you wake up or floss just one tooth before bed every day.

Here’s a tip: If you want any new habit to stick, it’s important to associate the desired habit with a “trigger” that already exists within your daily routine. A trigger is the specific action or event during the day that sets your new habit into motion. The trigger for a lunchtime walk could be after you finish your lunch. The trigger for writing down 10 things you are grateful for when you wake up could be when you turn off your alarm clock. The trigger for flossing your teeth before bed could be the moment after you put your toothbrush away. A trigger is a consistent reminder. It provides an “if this, then that” scenario for your brain so that over time, your mind sets the new habit routine on autopilot, requiring little willpower or conscious thought to accomplish the task. Pick something small and stick to it. It is worth the effort. The best predictor to a successful and satisfying life is having all the willpower you need available to you when you need it.

Remember, it’s natural to feel overwhelmed at times when trying to make important changes in your life. Give yourself a break sometimes but also remind yourself that self-control is a vital strength and a key to success in life. Ultimately, self-control lets you relax because it removes stress and enables you to conserve willpower for the important challenges. So keep at it.


How do you exercise your willpower? Please leave your thoughts in the comments.