Willpower is a combination of courage, mental stamina and determination. The good news is willpower can be learned and strengthened. Here are my favorite science backed strategies to increase your willpower.
You need to be mentally strong to prepare to meet your goals. As humans, we have tremendous capability. We can solve complicated problems, dream and imagine new possibilities and learn complex skills. But most of us spend our time doing the same mental activities over and over again.
We underutilize our brain power.
We skim Facebook instead of delving into our next big work project. We watch Netflix instead of learning a new skill. We flip through magazines instead of writing the next Great Novel.
Why? Because achievement is a lot of work! Pushing our mental boundaries is challenging, uncomfortable and exhausting.
Willpower is what gets us through. People with high willpower:
- Get more done
- Achieve greater success
- Are above average in their abilities
- Stand out from the crowd
I want to delve into the science of willpower — how it works and what you need to do to get more of it. I will be using the incredible research from our Science of People book club book, The Willpower Instinct, by Dr. Kelly McGonigal, a Stanford University psychologist. Dr. McGonigal will show us how willpower is the key to improving our health, happiness and productivity.
#1. The Willpower Challenge:
Before we get started, I want you to think of your willpower challenge. McGonigal encourages readers to think of 3 different willpower goals. Fill in the blanks and use these as you read the tips below.
What do you want to do more of?
- I will ___________________
What do you want to do less of?
- I won’t _________________
What longterm goal are you working towards?
- I want __________________
Now that you have your challenges in place, let’s talk about how to tackle them.
To increase your willpower you have to know a little bit about yourself. This is all about increasing your emotional intelligence.
“To succeed at self-control you need to know how you fail” – Dr. McGonigal
Willpower is about doing. It’s also about knowing your trigger points, your mental traps and your habits. So let’s do some self-exploration.
Oh yeah, and get real.
It’s time for brutal honesty. Don’t worry, it’s just you reading this post. I won’t tell anyone if you have ever eaten cake out of the trash can or gone to the gym for a workout, but really just took a steam or haven’t counted carbs if you ate them standing up.
The Dunning-Kruger Effect:
Research shows that people who think they have the most willpower are actually the most likely to lose control when tempted.
This is not a new idea. We tend to overestimate most of our abilities. Have you ever seen a High School talent show? Everyone (even if they don’t admit it) think they are going to win. Please self-evaluate with the following questions:
- Where do you most often ‘give in?’
- When do you most often ‘give up?’
- What exhausts your willpower the most?
#3: Two Toned Brains
Willpower is a finite resource.
We don’t think of willpower as a muscle, but we can ‘run out’ of it at the end of a long day. Just like a bicep or quad, it gets fatigued after lots of use. This is because willpower comes from a certain area of our brain. Specifically, willpower is managed by our pre-frontal cortex.
McGonigal explains it like this:
We have two brains. An impulsive pleasure seeker and a wiser achiever. The pleasure seeker wants treats, fun and entertainment. The achiever wants to make good longterm decisions–this is dictated by willpower.
The more our pleasure seeker is tempted by candy bowls in the office, a friend asking to play hookie and pings from our Words with Friends game, our achiever brain has to rein us in. After a while, that muscle gets tired of saying no. This is why at the end of a day, you binge eat on ice cream after saying no all day. The willpower part of our brain gets tired when we use it too much. That is because it is constantly fighting the pleasure seeker. We need willpower to make good longterm decisions. Without it we would be eating candy all the time, watching TV and never working out. So, willpower is a biological instinct that evolved to help protect ourselves from ourselves.
Temptation and stress hijack the brain’s systems of self-control.
We don’t even realize how often we’re exercising our willpower muscle. One of my favorite studies asked people how many food related decisions they make on a daily basis. They guessed they made an average of 14 food choices. Want to know the real average? 227.
We make 227 food choices in the average day.
That’s 227 times your willpower muscle has to flex. No wonder it’s tired!
Another way to flex your willpower muscle is to learn how to say no.
#4: Gaming the System
You can actually game your two brained system. Here’s how:
- Remove as many small exercises in willpower as you can. Get rid of the candy bowls. Ban notifications from your social networks. Do not go to the kitchen before dinner.
- Make your important decisions during high-willpower moments. For example, my everyday willpower challenge is to workout. At the end of the day, I am wiped out and want to crash on the couch. So, I have a system where I text a friend in the morning (high willpower moment) to meet in the afternoon for a hike or tennis. I also book my workout classes ahead of time (and pay upfront) in the morning when it’s easy.
- You can replenish your willpower muscle. Specifically, McGonigal recommends meditation (which increases blood flow to the prefrontal cortex), breathing, extra sleep and being outdoors as a great way to recharge.
#5: Strengthen Your Muscle
Since willpower is a muscle, you can strengthen it. Just like doing reps at the gym, you can ‘tone’ your willpower. Banish that mental cellulite! McGonigal makes it clear that our brain actually puts on the brakes before we reach empty. It’s like when your gasoline light comes on– it comes on as a warning, but you know you still have several miles left. The brain is the same way. Take running for example. Let’s say you are on the treadmill and your legs begin to burn and your brain says, “I’m at my limit, I better stop!” In actuality, you could go further, but your brain is playing it safe. When you are training for a marathon, you tell your brain, “Nope, I am going one more mile!” And you do. And you get stronger. And you run faster next time.
You can do the same thing for willpower:
I want you to be a mental athlete.
- Next time you are tired or are about to give in, see if you can go one step further.
- Commit to one small habit that you will do every day: meditate, call a family member, throw one old thing out
- When you are ready to give up or give in, think about your want power. Tie your current activity to a longterm goal or value. That can often give you the motivation to push a little farther.
An important lever for increasing your willpower is learning how to be more productive.
#6: License to Sin
I am so guilty of license to sin. This is when you do something good and so you give yourself permission to be bad. Do these sound familiar?
- I worked out extra hard, now I can have an extra portion.
- I ate great yesterday, I can have this sweet now.
- I finished all my work, I can have one cigarette.
This license to sin happens when goals are being associated with “being good,” and so it becomes tempting to indulge in a reward. The only way to stop this behavior is to untie goals from ‘being good.’
“I have been good, therefore I should be rewarded.”
- Instead: “I have met my goal. That feels great!”
This means tying your goals or actions to longterm desires or values. Or seeing the intrinsic benefits of an activity like getting endorphins when you work out (not license to eat more) or cooking dinner with your family means more quality time (not license to watch more TV).
#7: “What the Hell” Effect
The What the Hell effect is treacherous for goals. It’s when good intentions fail and resolutions fall by the wayside. The What the Hell Effect happens when we start to slip on our goals and our willpower fails and so we begin to feel like a failure. As a failure we think, “Oh, what the hell!? I might as well give in…” This happens because the moment we slip on a goal we feel guilty and self-blame. This self-shame triggers your body to want a dopamine hit (the pleasure chemical) so it can feel better. This means you now want more dessert, cigarettes, Facebook and french fries even more.
The answer: Self-compassion.
Surprisingly, McGonigal found that when people forgive themselves for missing the mark occasionally, the more quickly they get back on track. People who wallowed in guilt tended to spiral into a cycle of indulgence and shame–losing their grip on self-control.
- Next time you slip up, let it go. Chalk it up to a one-time event and move on.
#8: Your Future Self
I think this is one of the most fascinating studies I have ever read:
When we are asked to think about ourselves, certain parts of our brain light up. When we are asked to think about our future selves, different areas of our brain light up. Which areas? The same areas we use to think about other people.
In other words, we treat our future selves like another person.
“We think about our future selves like different people. We often idealize them, expecting our future selves to do what our present selves cannot manage.” – Dr. McGonigal
How does this affect willpower? In great and terrifying ways. We tend to borrow credit from tomorrow. Our inability to clearly see the future (we think we will be more like someone else later) leads us into temptation and procrastination. I love these questions to test how much you are relying on your future self:
- Are you waiting for a future you?
- How will you be different in the future? Will your goals be easier to achieve?
- Do you think magically about how you will be, what will happen and what comes next in the future?
When making decisions, do not over-commit your future self. Start now, don’t wait. Don’t defer choices and actions to sometime down the line. Hold yourself accountable to a timeline and stick to it.
One More Idea: McGonigal also encourages students to use visualization and imagine their future selves in vivid detail, enjoying the benefits of current good choices and commitments they are trying to make. In one study, non-exercisers imagined a healthier future version of themselves. Two months later, those people who visualized were more frequent exercisers compared to non-visualizers. The more real your future self feels, the easier it is to make current decisions you won’t regret.
When you think about future decisions for your future self, do you often find yourself putting them off? Get your procrastination under control with our guide.
#9: Willpower Infected
Rule-breaking and loss of willpower is contagious.
Think of the 5 people in your life you spend the most time with. On a 1 to 5 scale (1 being no willpower at all and 5 being amazing willpower) where do they fall? Add that number up, divide it by 5 and that’s probably where your own willpower is at. Other people’s willpower rubs off on us.
If you have some major goals in your life or you want to reboot your willpower, you have to think about who you are spending time with.
- Who are the mentally strongest people you know? How can you be inspired by them?
- Who triggers you to lose willpower? How can you minimize their effect?
- Can you ask for help? Who can keep you accountable?
#10: Never Say, “I Won’t”
Don’t think about a purple bicycle. Don’t! Really don’t think about it!
The more we are told not to think about something, do something or try something the more we want that something. McGonigal says we should stop saying “I won’t” and instead give ourselves permission and freedom of thought. Studies of brain activation confirm that as soon as you give participants permission to express a thought they were trying to suppress that thought becomes less likely to intrude in the conscious awareness.
Willpower is not about suppressing thoughts, it is about changing action. It is not about shaming your brain into action, it is about inspiring and accepting it.
Guilt and shame over your setbacks lead to giving in again, but self-forgiveness and self-compassion boost self-control.
You are wonderful the way you are. Now it’s time to optimize it. Think about how you can be your best self and how willpower can help get you closer.
- START: What’s one thing you could do right now to have greater success?
- STOP: What’s one thing you could stop doing right now to improve your quality of life?
Do you have one stop and one start? Good! To give yourself extra motivation, give yourself more reason to act on these:
- What’s one benefit you will get from your start / stop?
- Who else will benefit in your life from your start / stop?
- Whats the first step to your start / stop?
BONUS: The Science of Goals
Maybe willpower isn’t your problem. Are you setting goals correctly? Take our free goal-setting class now.
About Vanessa Van Edwards
Lead Investigator, Science of People
I’ve always wanted to know how people work, and that’s what Science of People is about. What drives our behavior? Why do people act the way they do? And most importantly, can you predict and change behavior to be more successful? I think the answer is yes. More about Vanessa.
Join Over 500,000 Students
Are you looking to kickstart your career? Level up your leadership? Join thousands of students learning to master their people skills and make an impact on the world. And for joining today I'm giving away a free one hour audio training to help you jump start your learning!