The Secret Behind Willpower
We’re taught subconsciously from a young age that willpower, or self-control, is the fuel required to achieve success in life. It’s the internal engine that allows you to study adequately for a test or choose a healthy breakfast from the buffet table. It is the energy needed to train for a competition or a race when you’d rather take a nap. It’s the resolve of someone who has decided to quit smoking or give up chocolate for Lent.
And it's a funny thing, willpower.
It’s plentiful when you wake, but by 8 PM it can be an elusive creature lurking in the corners urging you to eat that pint of ice cream in your freezer.
It bounces off the walls week one of setting a new health goal, but by week 4 it loses steam.
For many people, it ebbs and flows like the tide, leaving frustration, disappointment, negative self-talk and even shame in its wake.
So, what is willpower, this seemingly pervasive yet unreliable force that dictates our lives?
What is Willpower?
We typically think of willpower as the ability to resist temptations that are detrimental to our health or derail our progress towards goals.
In their book “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength,” Tierney and Maumeister define willpower as “the ability to resist short-term gratification in pursuit of long-term goals or objectives.”
Oxford dictionary’s definition takes it one step further and describes willpower not just as the ability to “restrain impulses,” but also the “the control exerted to do something,” which is just as relevant when creating new behaviors in your life.
It turns out, however, that willpower isn’t all that straightforward, and perhaps, it might just be a myth.
While different research studies over the years showed various findings (nicely summarized here), a more recent study from 2011 showed that people “who were the best at self-control...reported fewer temptations throughout the study period. To put it more simply: The people who said they excelled at self-control were hardly using it at all.”
And those who were using more self-control reported feeling more exhausted and depleted from the effort of trying to resist temptations.
To break it down, let’s look at person A and person B.
Person A reports rarely encountering temptations or using self-control. They walk by an ice cream shop on the way home from work each day and pass by it without a second thought. It’s not even a temptation.
Person B, however, reports lots of temptations. They walk by the same ice cream shop every afternoon and have to exert willpower to avoid going inside. They exert mental energy to talk themselves out of it or they might deliberately walk on the other side of the street.
So what makes person A different from person B?
Self-Control and How to Get More of It
The secret to having good “self-control” is a little more complex than having willpower alone. The good news? It’s attainable! It just requires an understanding of the concept and some learned skills.
1) The Joy Factor
“People who are better at self-control actually enjoy the activities some of us resist -- like eating healthy, studying, or exercising.” For these people, preparing a healthy meal or going for a run is fun. In addition, when these people set goals they are typically “want-to” goals -- milestones they inherently and genuinely want to achieve -- verus “have-to” goals that might be motivated by external factors. For example, if you go to the gym, which you loathe, because your doctor told you you “have to” get in shape, you’re less likely to continue going. If you decide to run a marathon because you love running and being outdoors and know that this will help you stay healthy throughout the fall, you’ll likely keep going.
2) The Power of Habits
According to a paper published in 2015 by psychologists Brian Galla and Angela Duckworth, people who are good at self-control have generally learned better habits. What’s more, they maintain a lifestyle that allows them to avoid the need to make self-control decisions.
They create and implement habits and routines that make it easier to accomplish their goals, like exercising at the same time each day.
They structure their lives and environments in a way that supports their healthy habits. For example, if a person knows they have a sweet tooth, they might avoid keeping sweets in the house so that there is never a need to resist them at all.
These behaviors aren’t willpower - they’re a result of deliberate and skilled planning, which luckily, we can all acquire.
3) Born That Way
As a result of our innate dispositions, some people simply experience fewer temptations whereas others are genetically inclined to want immediate gratification or gravitate toward certain behaviors. For example, if you are born with a high metabolism, you might be hungrier and eat more than other people. If you have a parent who is an alcoholic, you may have addictive tendencies.
In the wellness industry, the concept of willpower can be extremely problematic. Failure to follow through on a goal is “too often confused for a moral failing.” For example, “we blame willpower failings for weight gain, even though it’s genetics and our calorie-laden environments conspiring against our waistlines.” Not to mention, in the age of algorithms, we’re uniquely and intensely targeted for the things we want and crave in the media.
This inevitably leads to a cycle of public and private shaming that is even more detrimental to our ability to achieve our goals -- and our mental health.
Consider someone who has been trying to lose weight for years and hasn’t hit their goal. They often blame themselves for not having the self-control to reach their goal and eventually give up.
In reality, willpower isn’t what will get you to your goal. It’s like plugging a destination into your GPS but none of the directions show up.
Hitting a goal requires strategic planning and action steps. It requires you to internalize a goal and restructure your environment and lifestyle in service of that goal. It requires learning and maintaining good habits that keep you accountable to those steps. And perhaps most importantly, it requires some joy. If you don’t get satisfaction from the things you do, it’s really hard to stick with them.