Willpower is an important tool that helps motivate and fuel everyone around you. It is used to achieve long-term goals, reach a level of self-control, quit bad habits, and so much more.
Serious problems can arise when there is a lack of willpower. Not only will your mental health be harmed, but your physical body and workplace or academic performance will also take a toll.
It is crucial to start developing willpower as early as possible. In children, it helps with impulse control on and general negative habit/bad behavioral control.
While willpower seems mystifying and may not come naturally to you, anyone can develop this skill.
In this article, we will provide an overview of the benefits of willpower and how to use it in your everyday life.
What is Willpower? Meaning
Willpower has a broad range of definitions. Many associate the term with other positive motivators, such as self-determination, self-control, discipline, drive, regulation, and so on.
Willpower is most commonly associated with long-term thinking. It is the ability to recognize and resist short-term pleasures in favor of progressing toward actionable goals.
Instead of focusing on instantly getting satisfied, willpower helps you think in the long-term, weighing the pros and cons of such a decision.
The American Psychological Association defines the term in more detail.
They state that willpower is made of four components:
- Favoring long-term goal achievement over short-term pleasure and instant gratification.
- The ability to resist harmful thoughts, impulses, and desires.
- The ability to consciously control oneself.
- The power can be depleted. You cannot rely on willpower alone forever as it is a limited resource
In general, willpower involves using your self-control to focus on the long term over the short-term.
Those who exhibit self-regulating behavior and use impulse control are more likely to achieve long-term success than those who listen to their impulses.
Why Willpower Is Important & Their Benefits
Recall that thousands of years ago, humans had to scavenge for food, and water, and make temporary shelters. Tribal living was the societal standard.
At that time, willpower was required to make food last and to remain in good terms with other tribe members.
Today, willpower is equally important. When it comes to consumer behavior or actual spending behavior, you need to exhibit self-control to stay on budget, for example.
If your goal is to lose weight, you must self-regulate and ensure you are not buying many grams of candy.
Walter Mischel, leader of a classic willpower study, performed a willpower challenge to test self-control in children.
In his marshmallow study, he presented children with 2 options: eat one marshmallow immediately, or wait for the researcher to come back to get a second treat.
Decades later, he followed up with these kids (now adults). He found those with self-control strength had lower body mass and scored higher on college entrance exams.
This suggests that childhood self-control may have lifelong benefits.
10 Willpower Benefits
Willpower has many other benefits as well. A few of these include:
- Avoid and control unhealthy habits, such as smoking or binge eating.
- Focus on your long-term desires.
- Increase your likelihood of career and personal success.
- Boost your mental stamina and mental strength.
- Manage stress more effectively.
- Perform better academically and at work (boost in productivity).
- Increase your confidence and limit ego depletion.
- Decrease the odds of having mental health problems.
- Improve your relationships with others and further your interpersonal skills.
- Avoid abusing drugs, alcohol intake, and other substances.
The Neuroanatomy of Willpower – Science Approach
The neurological component to willpower is often overlooked and misunderstood. Understanding basic neuroanatomy can help you get a clearer picture of willpower, though.
The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain most responsible for abstract thought and willpower. It helps you understand the benefits and drawbacks to decisions and regulate your choices.
When we think of the “self” and our self-identity, the brain region known as the prefrontal cortex is part of the brain responsible for this.
For instance, it helps us determine what to pay attention to, how we feel, and what our thoughts are.
Millions of years ago, the prefrontal cortex in the primitive brain of humans was a sixth of what it is now. Overall, our brains have increased three times since the primitive time period.
Studies show that brain activity does not fully mature until the age of 25. In the 1970s, many believed brain development was finished at age 10.
This lack of maturation may be otherwise intelligent teenagers partake in risky behaviors such as alcohol abuse and make unwise financial decisions.
Some neuroscientists believe the prefrontal cortex’s main purpose is to help us overcome a lack of willpower and focus on doing tough tasks.
Each part of a decision can be tied back to different parts of the PFC. When you have a goal, have a task you know you should do, and want to do an unhealthy task, those all rely on the PFC.
The upper left of the cortex is responsible for fueling your motivation and helping you through tough tasks.
The right side of the brain region helps you deny short temp pleasure. The middle section reminds you of your goals and helps you keep track of them.
5 Ways to Strengthen and Increase Willpower
Before you can strengthen your willpower, you should try to focus on understanding your temptations and strengths.
Think about what causes you to have a self-control failure or value short-term pleasure over the long-term. After you understand this, working to achieve healthy behaviors will be easier.
The following will be a short list of tasks you can perform to boost your willpower and decrease the effects of willpower depletion.
1. Improve Your Self-Awareness
Self-awareness offers a number of key benefits when it comes to improving willpower. Consider the number of choices you make daily just pertaining to food.
While most estimate it to be around 15, it is actually around 227. This is so since portion size, setting, and distractions influence us more than you may think.
Managing such behaviors is difficult if you do not address them first. Thus, the beginning step toward achieving your goals and boosting willpower is to become self-aware.
When one is distracted and unaware, he or she is more likely to think in the short term. Try to write down the choices you make each day to become more self-aware.
Then, reflect on them and decide which are helpful to your goals and which are harmful.
The traditional notion of having to find a quiet spot, with the sun rising, to spend hours meditating alone is no longer necessary.
In fact, you could complete a meditation session in only a few minutes. Whenever you feel frustrated, try relaxing and taking 5 deep breaths.
While brain experts believed your brain’s functionality could only decline with age, this is no longer set in stone. When you treat your brain correctly, it can flourish as you age.
If consistent, even a 5-minute meditation session could contribute to healthy neurological development. The more you practice something, the more your brain will get used to it.
If you consistently concentrate and stay calm, that will become your natural state.
The benefits of meditation also include boosting the ability to self-regulate, controlling impulses, focusing, increasing attention span, and even more.
Physical exercise can be tough to fit into a busy schedule. If you truly want to strengthen your willpower, consider committing to a regular exercise routine, though.
Ken Cheng and Megan Oaten, two notable psychology researchers, had a mission to help a group develop self-control task.
They succeeded, and the group ate less, studied more, saved more money, procrastinated less, and so on. The magic prescription was in fact no medicinal prescription at all – it was exercise.
The study also proved that small changes make a big difference with willpower. The control subjects started by only visiting the gym once a week but later changed that to three times weekly.
Start by setting a realistic physical exercise goal and making time each week to fulfill that goal. Remember that consistency is more important than duration or intensity.
Regardless of the activity you choose, any exercise boosts your ability to self-regulate.
4. Eat Well
Roy Baumeister first proposed the idea that willpower is a limited resource. Each day, we are using up those limited willpower reserves.
The more stress we put on ourselves and the more we use willpower, the more likely and quicker the burnout.
One of Baumeister’s more well known studies involved giving 1/2 his participants cookies and the other 1/2 radishes. Then, they were asked to solve a complex puzzle.
Cookie eaters who had to use willpower and avoid the cookies lasted far less long than those who did not have to use their willpower.
These results and others suggest a correlation between using willpower and decreased blood sugar levels.
When blood sugar/glucose is low, one’s ability to think, learn, and remember is impaired.
Using willpower takes a substantial amount of glucose, thus making learning and remembering harder afterward.
Refined sugar also makes these glucose levels unstable and harms your ability to use willpower.
The primitive brain had a previously helpful response to stress: the “fight or flight” response. This was used to quickly make decisions to avoid being harmed by wild animals millions of years ago.
In the modern era, this response is not as helpful. It can lead to rash, no thoughtful decisions. It is therefore best to avoid stress and try to relax.
When you are relaxed, you are less likely to experience ego depletion, manage stress better, avoid impulsive choices, and exert more self-control.
Whenever you feel stressed, try some deep breathing exercises. You could also meditate, go for a walk, listen to music, spend time with those you love, take a bath, or read a book.
Just like there are ways to increase your willpower, there are also ways to decrease it. Most people do not consciously do these activities.
They have simply gotten used to them as part of their state of mind. Additionally, negative life circumstances can lead people into self-sabotaging thinking methods.
After a breakup or loss of a loved one, this is far more likely to occur. Below are the two most common ways individuals speed up ego depletion and decrease their willpower.
An experiment performed by psychologists Claire Adams and Mark Leary perfectly exemplifies the negative power of criticism.
They invited a group of women on Weight Watchers to eat all the donuts and candy they desire. Then, they would make only 1/2 the women feel better about the decision.
The women first ate a donut and a full glass of water to feel uncomfortably full. Then, a researcher came in and delivered a message to half the women: it is okay to give in to temptation from time to time.
The other women did not hear this. Those who did not hear the message ate more than 2x the candy if the self-forgiven women.
This illustrates how self-criticism and blame do not lead to positive change, but rather, the opposite.
Whenever you seek rewards or pleasure, your brain releases a neurotransmitter called dopamine.
When you become over-flooded with dopamine, rationally thinking about a decision and weighing its pros and cons becomes nearly impossible.
Instead, you are forced to act immediately on your first impulse. Many marketers and store owners specifically find ways to target the release of dopamine.
They may want to take advantage of your impulsivity. Many unhealthy grocery store items are out in visible places to tempt you to buy, for instance.
Before making a decision, take time to consider if it is worth doing. In other words, when you see the temptation, avoid it. However, do not punish yourself for giving.
Willpower – Inspiring Examples
Many remarkable individuals have learned how to use the power of will to their benefit. Some of the most successful entrepreneurs, actors, singers, and professionals attribute their success (in part) to willpower.
Below are a few examples of individuals who used willpower to achieve noble goals and immense success:
- Dashrath Manjhi. Dashrath saw the immense suffering his wife was going through after slipping while climbing a large mountain. He decided to take action and bought a chisel and hammer to carve a safe path for his wife and others to follow up the mountain. You may be thinking: how long did it take? 22 years. 22 years of tremendous labor for the benefit of the community and someone he deeply loved. In the local community, he is know referred to as “Mountain Man.”
- Gopal Vasudev Lele. Gopal Lele is the oldest person to ever track the Rupin Pass, a mountain range in the Himalayan Mountains. The peak of the pass is 15,350 feet. While trekking, Lele faced challenges such as rain, snowfall, landslides, and temperatures below freezing. He could have let his age slow him down, but he kept up with even young hikers through grit and willpower. To accomplish such feats, he commits to daily exercise: walking at least 8 kilometers daily.
- Karoly Takacs. When Takacs was young, he had a passion for Olympic shooting. He had always wanted to win a gold medal, but at the age of 28, an awful grenade accident caused him to lose his right hand. Now, he was unable to shoot. However, he did not let that stop him. He spent hours learning how to shoot with his left hand and eventually became successful with it. 10 years after the accident, Takacs finally won a gold medal. Without his ability to stay focused in the long term, he would have likely never achieved this.
- Anand Arnold. Similarly to Takacs, he had a passion from a very young age. At 13, he became committed to bodybuilding and took in the physical and willpower challenge firsthand. Unfortunately, at 15, he was diagnosed with a spinal condition that left him paralyzed. Instead of allowing ego depletion to occur, Anand got back to his training immediately and kept himself motivated by imaging his dream physique. He ended up winning Mr. India three times, Mr. Punjab 12 times, and a multitude of other records and titles.
- If one man every hated being overweight, it was Angus Barbieri. Barbieri originally signed up to try short term fasts with the help of the Maryfield Hospital in Dundee. However, he quickly realized that the best, most efficient way to reach his goal and break the bad habit of binging was to do far longer fasts. Fasts which lasted up to 382 days. He began this fasting journey weighing 456 pounds and ended up losing 276, reaching his goal weight of 180 pounds. It takes an immense amount of stamina to break bad habits, especially food binging. However, to fast completely is another additional impressive feat.
3 Types of Willpower
Willpower is not a simple mechanism in the brain. In fact, many types of willpower come together when you form decisions. Each of these willpower subtypes has a unique part of the brain responsible for them.
Below is an overview of each willpower type.
I Will Power
The “I Will” power is used when we are achieving our goals or overcoming willpower challenges.
When we feel like procrastinating but instead focus on the tasks we must perform, that is using the “I Will” power. This power is most closely related to the upper left of the prefrontal cortex.
Additionally, whenever you decide to go for a run, start a healthy eating regimen, clean the house, finish a project, take control of your hygiene, or follow the doctor’s orders, you are using this power.
You are denying yourself of immediate pleasure to focus on the larger goal.
I Won’t Power
This power has to deal less with the long term and more with the short-term defiance of pleasure. “I Won’t” power helps you resist temptations and say “I won’t” to engage in unbeneficial activities.
Whenever you want to binge-eat pizza and watch Netflix all night, but say no, this is the power you are using. The right side of the PFC cortex is responsible for this power.
Additional examples of using the “I Won’t” power include resisting late-night cravings, the desire to procrastinate, or holding back the desire to scold someone for making a mistake.
I Want Power
Out of all three powers, this is the most important. This part of the pre-frontal cortex remembers our goals, desires, passions, and so on.
It reminds us of why we are resisting temptation and the reward we will receive after persevering. The I Want power is the answer to the question: why am I favoring delay of gratification?
If you want to motivate yourself to go to the gym tomorrow or resist a scrumptious box of chocolates, you must fuel your “I Want” power. It is the most personal motivation you can get.
When we recall our goals and remember what motivates us, the brain cells in the PFC begin to get active.
The more we use this power, the more natural our motivation will be and the easier cravings will get to overcome.
Bonus Tip: How to Avoid Temptation
Recall Mischel’s classic marshmallow experiments. Walter Mischel later revealed that the children who resisted eating the tempting chewy marshmallow had a secret: they were able to distract themselves.
Those who stared at the tasty treat were more likely to give in to temptation. Some chose to close their eyes or look away, both effective distraction mechanisms.
Regardless of how you distract yourself, it serves a similar benefit in resisting temptation.
One effective way to take your mind off of the temptation is to get it out of your sight. This is known as the “out of sight, out of mind” technique.
One of the best ways to prevent temptation is the remove an item from your environment. Better yet, do not let the item enter your environment in the first place.
If you cannot do that, at least move away from the item so you can forget about it.
Frequently Asked Questions About Willpower
What does having willpower mean?
Having willpower means having the ability to deny yourself of short term pleasures to achieve your long term goals.
It is saying to temptations because you understand that is stalls your progress or is not helpful to you. Having willpower also means that you do not act on all your initial impulses.
Instead, you weigh the pros and cons of each decision and solidify your choice after you understand what is best for your future.
How do you get willpower?
Getting willpower starts with becoming self-aware. Keep track of the decisions you make each day.
Then, evaluate which are and which are not beneficial toward achieving a clearly defined single goal. Focus on just one goal at first.
After that, remove any potential temptations from your home or workplace. Stop putting yourself in situations where you must resist your temptations.
Each day, continue to remind yourself of your goals as you make the right decisions and learn healthy habit. Avoid stress, as it causes impulsive decision-making.
Is willpower a skill?
Yes, willpower is a skill. It is a trait that can be learned and applied. Many people are not born with it, but develop it through life circumstances.
Repeated positive and perseverant behavior throughout life can help people develop this skill. Some people believe willpower is inherited, but this is likely not the case.
How do I find my willpower?
Start by choosing a specific goal you wish to pursue. Do not overwhelm yourself with many goals and make this single goal realistic.
Then, take note of which behaviors sabotage your ability to achieve the goal. Also understand which healthy behaviors help move you in the right direction.
After that, remove temptations and avoid environments with temptations in them. If you must spend time around a temptation, stay distracted.