Contrary to popular opinion, willpower isn’t something you’re born with.
In my job as a health coach, I hear a lot of members talk about needing to maximize your willpower or self-discipline in order to accomplish their goals. In their minds willpower is something you can summon at will and turn on or off when you need to. That’s not really the case.
What is willpower?
Studies show that willpower is not something you summon once and hold on to forever. It is not an indefinite part of you, nor is it an innate personality trait. In fact, studies show that motivation may be a limited resource—in other words, doing too much can lead you to deplete your reserves. The concept of willpower depletion (otherwise known as ego depletion) refers to a phenomenon in which people find it harder to maintain control when they’re trying to restrict too many aspects of their lives.
For example, people who yo-yo diet restrict their food intake heavily and all at once. They stick to their diet as long as they can, but the dam eventually breaks. When they finally give in to temptation, they often gain the weight they lost back and then some—not to mention they’ve likely damaged their metabolism in the process and caused a variety of other negative effects.
Is it possible to gain more willpower?
The short answer is yes, you can gain willpower. But it’s not easy. Gaining willpower requires, well, a lot of willpower and motivation. Studies show that people who succeed in exerting willpower in the long term use certain skills to avoid tempting themselves.
Here are some strategies that may help you maintain your willpower over longer periods of time:
- Start slow. Don’t expect to change your habits all at once. Give yourself time to slowly adjust to your new lifestyle one change at a time. This also allows you to use trial and error to find new, enjoyable habits to replace your old ones.
- Identify your triggers and come up with behaviors that may replace them. Every behavior satisfies a need. Identifying what is triggering the behavior allows you to identify replacement behaviors that will meet the same need. Keep a log of the contexts in which you are tempted to engage in the behavior you are trying to change. This will help you understand the need the behavior satisfies and identify a possible replacement behavior to break the habit.
- Find enjoyable changes. Nobody wants to live a life where they give up all the foods they love. If this is your approach to dieting, it’s likely unsustainable. Instead of forcing yourself to ditch foods you love for healthy foods you don’t, work hard to find healthier foods you like just as much. The more enjoyment you give yourself, the easier it will be to stay on track.
- Remove temptation. Trying to stop eating cookies every night after dinner? Don’t buy them. Or buy them one at a time so you don’t overdo it. Trying to smoke less? Don’t buy cigarettes for yourself or keep them in your car instead of your kitchen. This will make them that much less accessible, which can be the first step! Can’t help but grab a candy from the bowl on the counter? Put them in a cabinet and put out apples instead. These methods are designed to remove the need to use willpower to stop a behavior, which will reserve your energy for times you need more.
- Be yourself. Exercising willpower means more than resisting junk food and quitting smoking—it can also mean pretending to be someone you are not. Hiding who you are can take as much mental stamina as resisting chips for a week straight. Surround yourself with people who are supportive and accepting. It’s likely your healthy habits will come more naturally.
- Plan ahead. If you’re going somewhere that’s likely to trigger you, make a plan. Heading to your favorite restaurant? Check the menu ahead of time and plan out a meal that fits your healthy eating goals. Going to a party? Bring a set number of cigarettes and decide not to ask others for more when you finish them.
- Set small goals and celebrate your victories. The problem that most people run into isn’t actually lack of willpower. More often, feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of the goal is what gets in the way of success. Expecting to lose 50 pounds without one misstep or to quit smoking without having a cigarette here and there is unrealistic. Try to set smaller goals to avoid getting overwhelmed and celebrate when you reach them.
- Keep your “why” in mind.Be in tune with the reason you want to make a change—thinking you “should” doesn’t count. Identify the reasons a successful change would benefit you. Understanding why you want to make a healthy change and having a purpose is likely to increase your chances of long-term success.
- Treat yourself. What’s life without a little reward? Learning to have treats in moderation is an important part of the willpower equation. If you cut out certain foods temporarily, it’s likely you will overdo it when you add them back in. Instead of trying to restrict the types of foods you eat, focus on learning to indulge in moderation.
- Practice self-compassion and forgiveness. Practicing self-compassion and forgiving yourself as you make changes helps to lighten the emotional load. Getting down on yourself every time you make a mistake is a fast track to emotional fatigue and slips into behaviors you’re trying to change. Studies have shown that practicing self-compassion and forgiving yourself when you make a mistake leads to better outcomes in the long term. This change in thinking approach engages the part of your brain that works to solve problems, rather than the emotional and negative thinking loops activated by shame.
While the journey to maximize your willpower can seem daunting, understanding the process is a good place to start. Know that you alone have the resources to change your life. If you keep the above in mind, you’ll be set to make a good start. For extra guidance in reaching your goals, you can reach out to a UPMC Health Plan health coach. We are available to help you make a plan to meet your wellness goals.
Duhigg C. The Power of Habit. Random House Trade Paperbacks; 2014:275–286. Accessed November 18, 2019. https://charlesduhigg.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/A-guide-to-changing-habits.pdf
Weir K. What You Need to Know About Willpower: The Psychological Science of Self-Control. American Psychological Association: 2012;5–7. Accessed November 18, 2019. https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/willpower.pdf
Cummins D. How to Boost Your Willpower. Psychology Today. June 21, 2013. Accessed November 18, 2019. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/good-thinking/201306/how-boost-your-willpower
Cohen J. 5 Proven Methods for Gaining Self Discipline. Forbes. June 18, 2014. Accessed November 18, 2019. https://www.forbes.com/sites/jennifercohen/2014/06/18/5-proven-methods-for-gaining-self-discipline/#55f3df673c9f