What Is Willpower?

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If only you could control yourself. If you had more willpower, you could finally lose those last 10 pounds. If you had more self-control, you could finally stop procrastinating, save for retirement, stick to an exercise routine, and avoid various vices such as alcohol and cigarettes.

Does this sound familiar? That's a lot riding on the mere force of will. Fortunately, there are things you can do to strengthen it.

What Is Willpower?

Willpower goes by many names: drive, determination, self-discipline, self-control, resolve.

At its simplest, willpower is the ability to control or restrain yourself, and the ability to resist instant gratification in order to achieve long-term goals. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), other definitions include:

  • The capacity to override an unwanted thought, feeling, or impulse
  • The ability to employ a “cool” cognitive system of behavior rather than a “hot” emotional system
  • The conscious, effortful regulation of the self, by the self

Some researchers believe that willpower is partly determined by genetics.

Is Willpower a Limited Resource?

Some experts believe that everyone has a limited supply of willpower, and it decreases with overuse—much like the gas in your car. As long as you have gas, you can drive. When it runs out, your car stops, and that's it. This is called “ego depletion.” 

Social psychologist Roy Baumeister was one of the first to demonstrate the ego depletion effect in his now-famous “cookies and radishes” experiment. In the study, he invited students to eat fresh-baked chocolate-chip cookies, and asked others to resist the cookies and munch on radishes instead. They were then given an impossible puzzle to solve. And what did they find?

The students who ate the cookies worked on the puzzles for 19 minutes. But the students who resisted the tempting cookies lasted an average of just eight minutes. Baumeister interpreted this to mean that those who had to use willpower to resist temptation simply didn’t have enough energy to fully engage in yet another willpower challenge.

Importance

Willpower impacts every area of your life. It helps you accomplish a variety of goals, from exercising to saving money. In fact, willpower may be even more important in predicting success than IQ.

Psychologist Walter Mischel's “marshmallow test” gives an in-depth look at the relationship between willpower and success. The test went like this: A preschool-age child is brought into a room and on the table is a bowl of marshmallows. They are then told they can either eat one marshmallow right away or wait 15 minutes and get two marshmallows.

Several years later, researchers tracked down the test subjects as adolescents. They found that those who held out for more marshmallows:

  • Had higher self-esteem
  • Got higher SAT scores
  • Managed stress more effectively
  • Performed better in school

And these benefits seem to extend well beyond childhood and adolescence. Research shows that adults with high self-control are less likely to abuse alcohol and other substances, have better relationships, and fewer mental health problems.

How to Strengthen Willpower

While many of us struggle with willpower and self-control, most people also seem to believe that this is a skill that can be learned and strengthened. Fortunately, researchers have also come to similar conclusions and suggest that there are a number of things you can do to improve your self-control.

Work It Like a Muscle

Think of willpower as a muscle. Just like any other muscle, willpower can be built up and strengthened with time and effort. Exercising your willpower may also make it less vulnerable to being depleted.

Baumeister suggests creating simple but challenging tasks that require some effort. For example, using your left hand instead of your right hand to open doors. Or turning the light off every time you leave a room. Engaging in these relatively easy tasks for a couple of weeks will hone your self-control skills.  

Training your willpower can work wonders. But remember, don't overdo it.

Get Enough Sleep

Bad sleeping habits (getting too little or too much sleep) wear you out, both physically and mentally. This, in turn, affects your ability to resist temptation. A review of different studies found that sleep-deprived people are more likely to give in to impulses, have less focus, and make risky decisions. 

Everyone’s sleep needs are different. But according to the National Sleep Foundation, most adults need seven to nine hours of sleep each night to function at their best.

Meditate

Meditation is one of the most powerful ways to increase willpower. Research shows that regular mindfulness meditation can improve your focus and self-control, even when you're not meditating.

Meditation is something you can do anywhere, anytime. A 5-minute meditation session first thing in the morning or during your lunch break is enough to get you started.

The more you practice resisting your brain’s urge to wander, the easier it will be to resist other temptations in your life as well.

Avoid Temptations

In Mischel's classic marshmallow test, children who distracted themselves were able to resist temptation much longer than those who didn't take their eyes off the plate of treats. Some kids closed their eyes, while others turned away and looked elsewhere. The kids who couldn't take their eyes off the treat, however, were far more likely to give in.

When facing a temptation, whether it's the desire to eat, drink, or spend, try this "out of sight, out of mind" tactic. Or better yet, physically remove the temptation from your environment. If you can't do that, then temporarily remove yourself from the temptation.

Get Advice From The Verywell Mind Podcast

Hosted by Editor-in-Chief and therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast shares an exercise that can help you introduce a healthy habit into your life or get rid of a bad habit that's been holding you back.

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