Willpower and the Psychology of Self-Control

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.

That's a lot riding on the mere force of will.

Willpower as the Key to Success?

Man With Strong Willpower
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As the American Psychological Association notes, Americans tend to place a lot of stock in the power of willpower. According to their annual Stress in America Survey in 2011, people identified a lack of willpower as the number one factor holding them back from achieving their goals. Change can be difficult and a large portion of people believe that one of the biggest obstacles preventing them from making a change is this seemingly elusive power of will.

However, some of the most popular theories of behavior change suggest that willpower alone is not always enough to make a real and lasting change. According to the ​Stages of Change model, it is important to first recognize that there is a need to change, identify possible barriers to change, come up with a plan of action, monitor progress, maintain and manage the change, and cope with any possible relapses. Willpower plays a role, certainly, but it is not the only factor that impacts success.

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 that you can do to improve your self-control.

Continue reading to learn more about what willpower is, why it's so important, and what you can do to develop this ability.

What Is Willpower?

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So what exactly is willpower? One of the most basic definitions is that it involves putting off what you want at the moment in order to achieve a long-term goal.

Willpower is often referred to as resolve or self-control and may involve a number of different cognitive and behavioral characteristics.

  • Willpower involves putting off what you want in the short-term to get what you want in the long-term.
  • It requires conscious effort and often a significant investment of emotional and cognitive resources.
  • It involves resisting urges, fighting temptations, and employing different strategies to maintain control.

Many experts also agree that willpower is a limited resource. In one famous experiment, participants were placed in a room with a bowl of freshly baked cookies and a bowl of radishes. Some of the subjects were told that they could eat the cookies while others were instructed to just eat the radishes. After a 30 minute interval, the subjects were then asked to solve a difficult puzzle. Those who had eaten the cookies kept working on the puzzle for nearly 20 minutes.

How long did those who had eaten the radishes last? A measly eight minutes. Since the subjects had depleted their willpower reserves by resisting the delicious-smelling cookies, they didn't have any self-control left to use when solving the puzzle.

Now we know what willpower is, but why exactly is it so important? Up next, discover why willpower might be the factor that makes or breaks your efforts to reach your goals.

Why Willpower Is Important?

People using willpower to exercise
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So psychologists believe that willpower can help you achieve your goals, but acknowledge that it is just one piece of the puzzle. Why exactly is it so important to have this sort of self-control?

In a classic study, Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel asked children to wait to eat a treat (often a cookie or marshmallow) in order to receive two treats instead of just one. While some of the children in Mischel's experiment gobbled up the treat immediately (choosing short-term satisfaction over a longer-term reward), some of the children were able to exert their willpower and wait for the second reward. In follow-up research, Mischel found that those kids who were able to delay gratification had better grades, better academic test scores, and higher educational attainment.

Later research by Angela Duckworth and Martin Seligman found that self-discipline played a greater role in academic success than IQ. In their research, they observed that students who had greater self-control had better school attendance, better grades, and better test scores.

Other researchers have discovered that people with higher self-discipline have better relationship skills, are less likely to abuse alcohol and other substances, suffer fewer mental health problems, and have better overall physical health.

So obviously willpower is critical for success? But can you really increase the amount of willpower you possess? Can you make it stronger? Up next, discover the simple things psychologists recommend to boost your willpower.

What Can You Do to Improve Your Willpower?

Woman with willpower working out
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Based on numerous studies on the psychology behind willpower, researchers have found that some of the following strategies can be the most effective:

Use It, Don't Abuse It

In one study by researchers Muraven, Collins, and Nienhaus, people who had depleted their willpower on one task then consumed more alcohol in a situation that demanded restraint. The participants were asked to not think about a white bear, a rather difficult and demanding thought-suppression task. Next, the subjects were allowed to sample ​a beer for a taste test but were asked to control their intake because they would be completing a driving test immediately afterward. Those who had completed the early thought-suppression activity drank much more alcohol than those who had not.

So what does this have to do with strengthening your own willpower? Think about willpower as a reservoir. If you drain the reservoir using it on less important things, there is a greater likelihood the pool will be dry when you really need it for something important. Use your willpower, but apply your available resources carefully and thoughtfully.

Utilize Distraction

In Mischel's classic marshmallow experiment, children who were able to resist eating the marshmallow right away utilized a number of different strategies to strengthen their willpower. Distraction was one of the most effective. Some kids closed their eyes while some 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, spend, or indulge in some other undesired behavior, try looking for some form of distraction. Get your mind off the thing that is tempting you at the moment so that you can stay on the path toward your long-term goals.

Work It Like a Muscle

Other experiments have shown that willpower can also become more resistant to depletion by strengthening it. Some even suggest that you should think of willpower as a muscle — something that can be built up and strengthened with time and effort.

In one study, participants were asked to exercise regularly over a two-month period. Afterward, those who had stuck to the exercise regimen had higher scores on measures of self-control. Not only that, but they also showed greater self-regulation in other areas such as eating healthier, spending money with greater care, and smoking less. Utilizing willpower to stick to the exercise schedule had subsequently increased their willpower in many other areas as well.

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