Willpower Is a Muscle—Here’s How to Make It Stronger

Willpower Is a Muscle—Here’s How to Make It Stronger

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), children who demonstrate stronger willpower in the lab end up having better school attendance and stronger academic performance while also being more likely to have “greater physical and mental health, fewer substance-abuse problems and criminal convictions, and better savings behavior and financial security” as adults. Yet, in the APA’s Annual Stress Survey, lack of self-control is the leading reason Americans fail to follow through with healthy lifestyle changes. We’d all like more willpower. Unfortunately, many of us lost whatever lottery would have given us more self-control.


Wrong. It turns out that willpower is a skill that can be practiced and strengthened.

Your inability to keep your hand out of the cookie jar despite years of New Year’s resolutions might actually come down to a weak or underdeveloped willpower muscle rather than a predestined lack of self-control. But, before you start berating yourself about wimpy willpower muscles. . .

Take your eyes off the cookie jar. Look at me. This is exciting.

. . .new research shows that your willpower may not really be all that weak. In some ways, our modern world sets us up to fail. But in the face of all this, you can get better. So, how do you increase willpower?

What Is Willpower? How Does It Work?

Before we dive into the juicy stuff, it will be helpful to get on the same page about what we mean when we say “willpower.”

Essentially, you use willpower when you forego immediate gratification in order to achieve long-term goals.

According to Roy F. Baumeister, author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, understanding self-control comes down to understanding these things:

  • Willpower is like a mental muscle.
  • It fatigues like a muscle if it is worked too hard, leading to “ego depletion” or “willpower depletion.”
  • Exercising restraint isn’t all that can exhaust the mental energy needed for self-control; decision-making of all kinds also depletes willpower.

With that context, it becomes more clear why your willpower might not be the problem: your environment plays a role, too. Dr. Kathleen Vohs explains, “[t]here is research that shows people still have the same self-control as in decades past, but we are bombarded more and more with temptations,” and “[o]ur psychological system is not set up to deal with all the potential immediate gratification.”

Just let that sink in.

All the media we consume, all the advertisements, the fast pace of life, the seemingly unlimited options at the store—even having too many clothes in your closet can be a drain on your willpower! Between all the temptations we encounter and the thousands upon thousands of decisions we make each day, no wonder that willpower is nowhere to be found when we need it most.

So, what’s the good news?

According to loads of research, you absolutely can strengthen and increase willpower so that in the face of everything, you will reach your goals.

How to Increase Willpower

More good news: there are several research-backed strategies to help you manage your willpower resources and strengthen your self-control muscles—even if you think you have none. The simplest strategies for improving self-control include meeting your basic physical needs and removing unnecessary decision-making from your daily life. The more complex strategies will take time and effort but are most effective in helping you fortify your willpower over time.

1 Eat regularly.

The severe lack of determination you feel when you’re hungry isn’t just in your head. Research supports the idea that willpower requires a lot of brainpower, and the brain needs food. If you aren’t feeding your brain enough or often enough, your willpower will suffer. For this reason, if you’re trying to lose weight—or even write that term paper—eating small meals often improves your self-control.

2 Remove temptations.

In his ground-breaking Marshmallow Experiment (yes, that’s what it was called), Dr. Walter Mischel and his team placed a plate of marshmallows on a table and gave children a choice between eating one marshmallow immediately or waiting for an unspecified time for two. What they found is that children who distracted themselves—closed their eyes, looked around, etc.—were able to resist temptation much longer than those who didn’t take their eyes off the plate of pillowy marshmallows. This “out-of-sight-out-of-mind” tactic has been confirmed to work for adults—in offices, with candy. So, if you want to avoid willpower depletion, remove some temptations.

3 Reduce the number of decisions you have to make.

Remember willpower feeds on the same energy as all your decision-making. Try to limit the number of decisions you have to make. Here are some ideas for how to reduce the number of choices you make day-to-day.

  • Prepare your meals in advance once or twice a week.
  • Plan your weekday outfits on the weekend or try a capsule wardrobe. While planning an entire week of outfits is great if you live somewhere with reliable weather, a capsule wardrobe can have a similar effect and give you flexibility. Basically, you just pick items that match one another. My closet, for example, is all based on the same palette. It makes dressing—and shopping—much less stressful.
  • For projects, create a structured plan to follow or get a professional to help. If you’re doing something like trying to get in shape, doing the same structured exercises might help you stick to it. Also, hiring a professional to handle the details can pay off big time. With my personal trainer, all I do is show up. He worries about the rest—which exercises, how much, and he gets it all set for me. Plus, I made a friend.
  • Outsource! Somewhat related to hiring a professional, outsourcing decisions is a good way to get things off your plate or just have a little fun. For example, at our office we get lunch deliveries from various places nearby—we just have to order it. Some folks, however, have discovered someone else on the team with similar tastes and told our office manager to always order what so-and-so is having. For larger projects, like publishing a report or planning an event, learn to let go of control. Get everyone on the same page to start, but then let others own some decision-making.
  • Batch tasks. This won’t really help you limit the number of decisions you have to make, but it will help you remove the distractions that some decisions cause. Check your email at fixed times or, if you use Slack, learn to love the “Remind me about this” function.

4 Focus.

According to Baumeister, one of the worst things you can do for your willpower is try to make too many changes at a time (ehrm, New Year’s Resolutions?) You’re much better off picking one.

5 Do some emotional TLC.

Unsurprisingly, emotions can have a big impact on your willpower.

  • Show your emotion. Tom Heatherton and Katherine Vohs measured self-control of people who had just seen a sad movie. One group had been told not to show their emotions and another group had been told to let their emotions out. The group that showed their sadness performed better on the willpower tests, presumably because they didn’t need to use up their self-control supply trying to hide their emotions. So, let it out!
  • Stop people pleasing. Making others happy and conforming to their standards is a surefire way to zap your willpower. Find ways to motivate your behavior that don’t require external approval.
  • Check your frame of mind. Baumeister found that just thinking positively about one’s willpower improved self-control outcomes in tests. So, if you’re having trouble resisting temptation, think about a few examples where you exhibited restraint successfully before trying again.

6 Increase your motivation.

Inevitably, there will be times when your willpower is waning. In times like these, focus on motivation. Research by Mark Muraven shows that low-willpowered people perform better on self-control tasks when they’re told they will be paid. When you’re feeling temptation taking over, focus instead on how you can better motivate yourself. In the weight-loss game, for example, there apps like Gympact that bill you for not hitting the gym and pay you for living healthfully.

7 Use some “Implementation Intention.”

In Willpower, Baumeister and co-author John Teirney outline how to cope in the face of temptation and bolster your self-control using a technique called “implementation intention.” It works this way: before you experience a temptation, you should already plan out your response. Let’s say you are avoiding unhealthy food. If you’re at a party and someone offers you dessert, you can plan to decline and instead ask for some fresh fruit. The key here is to think about situations when your willpower will be tested and prepare a response in advance—basically make your decision in advance.

8 Practice self-control.

The most challenging but best way to strengthen your willpower muscles is to actually use them. Baumeister suggests creating simple but challenging tasks that require some effort to adhere to. For example, you can commit to turning the light off in every room you leave, putting away your clothes at the end of each day, or eliminating filler words from your speech. These relatively easy tasks, practiced diligently, will hone your self-control skills—and build your confidence in the face of temptation.

Without a doubt, fortifying willpower isn’t easy, but the benefits that come with reserves of self-determination can give you an edge. Researchers have even shown that strength of willpower is more strongly correlated with academic performance than IQ is. The investment you make in your self-control skills is one of the best you can make in your life.

So, now the question is, what are you going to do with your willpower?

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