This blog post is written by Diana Weil, Matcha.com's Integrative Nutritionist and Food Relationship Specialist.
If we only had an unlimited amount of "willpower," we'd all eat healthier, exercise, drink less, be more productive, and quit unhealthy habits, right?
There is a commonly held belief that the lack of willpower is to blame for our inability to create meaningful change in our lives.
In fact, the American Psychological Association's annual Stress in America Survey reported that lack of willpower is the number 1 cited reason for not following through with goals and lifestyle changes. That's an outstanding metric that shows how much power we give to the mythical beast of willpower.
Wondering how you can increase your willpower? Treat it like a muscle you can train through regular exercise.
If you've ever tried to rely solely on willpower to change a habit or to motivate yourself, you know how hard that can be. Willpower can feel like a moving target that you can never quite hit. However, research shows us that willpower can be thought of more like a muscle. And the good news is that muscles can be trained!
Not only can you harbor willpower to your advantage (with time and practice), but you may also train your brain to create more willpower and/or increase the strength of your willpower.
Keep reading to find out simple tactics and daily exercises you can do to strengthen your willpower and set yourself up for success.
What is willpower? Willpower meaning
Willpower is such a vital component of the human experience that researchers are dedicated just to studying willpower. But what exactly does having a lot of willpower mean? Willpower is defined as having the control to either do something or restrain yourself from doing something.
Many different words are used to describe willpower. These are self-control, discipline, control, self-restraint, restriction, etc. However, scientists and psychologists define willpower as having the restraint to delay instant gratification in order to meet long-term goals and having the capacity to override impulses or unhelpful thoughts/feelings.
In essence, having willpower means you can keep yourself regulated and view your goals and habits in a logical way (and are then able to act on them).
The right and wrong ways to use willpower
There's a reason that most people who rely on willpower alone end up failing. And that's because they are thinking of, and using, willpower in the wrong way. Willpower isn't something that develops overnight or by wishing for it.
For example, if you have a goal to lose 50 lbs., you might explain to someone that you'll do this through willpower alone. But that method to change habits isn't very effective. It would help if you had habits and a plan to back you up.
Start thinking of your willpower like a muscle you need to train and get in shape
One of the reasons that this isn't very effective for most of us is that willpower can be thought of as muscle- meaning there's a limit to it. If someone asked you to hold a 5-pound tray, at first, that would feel relatively easy. But 8 hours later, that tray is going to feel incredibly heavy.
Willpower is similar, so we want to use it effectively! Focusing on training our willpower "muscles" makes self-control easier to rely on when we need it most.
Pretty much all of us rely on willpower at some point throughout the day (if not the majority of the day). That might look like getting up when your alarm goes off rather than sleeping in, going to work instead of calling in sick, or controlling your emotions around a challenging co-worker.
Because we use so much willpower throughout the day, it can be tough to use extra willpower to create meaningful habit change —especially if you are already fatigued from a tough day at work or a draining social interaction. Understanding that willpower is a finite resource can help us use it more meaningfully and allow us to set ourselves up for success by strengthening this muscle. So, what can you actually do to increase your willpower?
How to boost your willpower | 4 Simple tactics to set yourself up for success
It's understandable why you may want to be a disciplined person. Studies show that people with more self-control have higher grades, fewer substance abuse problems, perform better in jobs, and have better financial habits. When it comes to having more self-control, beliefs around willpower are essential. If you believe that you can rely on willpower and are powerful enough to resist your impulses, that may be the first step. Thoughts have power!
One tactic that may be helpful is to adhere to the old school saying of "out of sight, out of mind."
For example, placing those impulse-wrecking foods out of site may reserve your self-control for when you need it. Or, if you want to quit smoking, not keeping cigarettes in your house is an excellent place to start.
Another tactic is to create a game plan. For example, if you're at a birthday party and watching your weight, you might plan that if someone asks, "do you want a cupcake?" you will ask for a piece of fruit instead. You're setting yourself up beforehand, so it requires less self-control to say no in the moment.
"Training" your self-control muscles is also crucial. For example, exerting self-control (in small ways) may help you in the future. Say no to that extra drink, wake up a few minutes earlier each day and swap the side of fries for a salad- all of a sudden, those habits become easier to maintain, and overall urges may be easier to resist.
Because willpower can be thought of as a finite resource, creating a healthy environment is also crucial. Your brain is an organ and requires regular fuel (glucose). Certain habits like eating regularly, having healthy relationships, making decisions ahead of time, and getting enough sleep are all key strategies to having the brain power to produce willpower.
Strengthen your willpower with the following five exercises:
If your goal is to increase your willpower and self-control, try integrating some mental exercises throughout your week such as:
Do a 5-10 minute meditation. Set an intention around your goal or the habit you would like to change. Meditation alone may increase willpower as it strengthens the mind, creates more focus, and can help the parts of your brain regulate emotion and govern decisions. This is key for boosting willpower! Meditating specifically on your goal may also help to center your attention and create focus for willpower.
Do a challenging workout or yoga class
Putting yourself in an uncomfortable (yet safe) environment may help to strengthen your mind and increase self-control. As you're in class, try to find some comfort within the discomfort.
Planning out your day beforehand may be crucial in reserving willpower. If you can take a few minutes the night before to plan, you'll require less willpower in the moment and can therefore reserve your self-control for moments that truly matter. Bring you one step closer to your ultimate goals!
Set small goals and reward yourself
It's so important to find, and celebrate, small wins. We discussed how important mindset is when it comes to willpower and that believing in your own power of will may be a game changer. Giving yourself small goals and celebrating yourself when you achieve those goals can go a long way in boosting your confidence. It shows you CAN accomplish those bigger goals if you set your mind to it.
Practice hard things
Take on small challenges like brushing your teeth with your left hand, waking up 5 minutes earlier, or taking a cold shower. Remember that willpower is more like a muscle and can be trained. By engaging in small daily habits that you don't necessarily want, you strengthen that muscle.
- Baumeister, et al. (1998). Ego depletion: Is the active self a limited resource? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 1252–1265
- Duckworth , A. (2011). The significance of self-control. PNAS, 108(7), 2639-2640. https://doi.org/10.1073
- Metcalfe J., & Mischel, W. (1999). A hot/cool system analysis of delay of gratification: dynamics of willpower. Psychological Review, 106, 3–19.
- Tang YY, Posner MI, Rothbart MK. Meditation improves self-regulation over the life span. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2014 Jan;1307:104-111. doi: 10.1111/nyas.12227. Epub 2013 Aug 22. PMID: 24033306; PMCID: PMC4176767.
- Tangney, J., Baumeister, R., & Boone, A.L. (2004). High self-control predicts good adjustment, less pathology, better grades, and interpersonal success. Journal of Personality, 72, 271–324