How to Develop and Sustain Your Willpower Reserves

Chips and chocolate. Wine and cigarettes. Facebook and too much bad TV. Every day we are tempted by foods and activities we shouldn't indulge in, yet moods and appetites easily overpower us. Willpower is the ability to resist our desires. Giving in to temptations—instead of remaining firmly committed to a worthwhile goal—is why we put aside concerns about how we'll look in a bikini this summer, and have that dish of ice cream anyway.

Undisciplined behavior—checking emails or social media instead of staying on task, or repeatedly hitting the snooze button instead of getting up to exercise—interferes with productivity, health and fitness, and even financial security. Research shows that exerting self-control is associated with better physical and mental health, fewer substance-abuse problems and criminal convictions, plus better spending and savings behavior. One University of Pennsylvania study even showed that being disciplined was a bigger factor than IQ in predicting academic success. Clearly, success and self-control go hand in hand.

But why are some people better at overcoming bad habits and destructive practices than others? Is it possible to will yourself to have more willpower?

Belief and Baby Steps

As it turns out, a lack of willpower is just one factor in whether you not you reach a goal. "In order to change behavior, an individual's level of commitment, known in scientific terms as decisional balance, is really important," says clinical psychologist Sarah Reagan, PhD. "You can't just kind of want to quit smoking, for example. You have to really want to quit."

Self-efficacy—the belief in your ability to accomplish goals—is also vital to success, according to the Florida-based addiction expert. One way to develop a sense of self-efficacy is to break a daunting undertaking down into smaller, more manageable tasks. For instance, while "Painting an entire house is an overwhelming project, tackling one room is not," Reagan points out.

The same principle can be applied to weight loss. "Losing 100 pounds may seem impossible, but losing two pounds a week is doable," says Reagan. "Even if you only lose 1.75 pounds, you're still progressing toward your goal. Little victories keep you motivated. Successful baby steps can help keep you committed."

Staying Strong

It turns out the brain has a limited capacity for self-regulation: Willpower is a real form of mental energy, scientists say, and it appears to be powered by glucose (sugar) in the bloodstream. This is used up as you exert self-control. In other words, using willpower lowers blood sugar, which reduces your ability for further self-control. While most cognitive functions are unaffected by minor blood sugar fluctuations over the course of a day, researchers say planning and self-control seem to be more sensitive to small changes.

So recognize that your willpower is limited, and instead of fending off one urge after another, try to minimize the number of temptations you encounter in your daily life. For instance, if you're trying to lose weight, don't keep fattening foods in the house. If having a glass of wine is impossible without a cigarette, skip the wine.

Exercise the Mental Muscle

Luckily, strengthening and improving self-control is possible with practice, as Tricia Leahy, PhD, and researchers at the Miriam Hospital's Weight Control and Diabetes Research Center in Providence, Rhode Island discovered. In their study, participants who pushed themselves to exercise when they really didn't want to were more successful in their smoking cessation efforts. Subjects' other regular acts of self-control—like using the non-dominant hand to brush their teeth for two weeks—had merit as well, suggesting that practicing smaller acts of self-control can help build up willpower reserves for bigger challenges.

Secrets of the Successful

There are a number of ways you can help improve your willpower:

  • Surround yourself with people who have achieved similar goals, and avoid comparing yourself to others. "Comparing yourself to a celebrity isn't realistic. Of course Demi Moore looks great. She's a movie star and it's her job. She also has the resources and ability to hire a full-time weight loss coach and cook. Most people don't," Reagan points out.
  • Make a formal announcement to family and friends about your goals, and share your progress with your cheerleaders online. Use Facebook, Twitter, or good old email to keep yourself accountable to your support group.
  • Take part in aerobic exercise, which is known to increase activity in the brain's prefrontal cortex (where planning and control originate). Eastern practices that require sustained attention and discipline—like yoga and meditation—have also been found to strengthen the willpower muscle.
  • Reward good behavior. Using willpower to deny yourself pleasure can quickly become a thankless, depressing job. Make a difficult task less daunting by gaining something from it. Figure out how much money you'll save not buying cigarettes, for example, and use that amount to splurge on something you really want, like an expensive pair of shoes or a meal at a favorite restaurant.
  • Finally, don't overlook the motivating power of words. Here are some quotes to keep you inspired:

The price of discipline is always less than the pain of regret.
-Nido Qubein, businessman and college president

Mastering others is strength. Mastering yourself is true power.
-Lao Tzu, father of Taoism

Rule your mind or it will rule you.
-Horace, Roman poet

Sarah Reagan, PhD, reviewed this article.




Interview with Sarah Reagan, PhD. Clinical Psychologist, Miriam Hospital, Providence, RI.

The American Psychological Association. "What You Need to Know About Willpower: The Psychological Science of Self-Control." Web. Page accessed 22 June 2013.

Duckworth AL, Seligman MEP. "Self-Discipline Outdoes IQ in Predicting Academic Performance of Adolescents." Psychological Science 2005; 16(2):939-944.