Can willpower be strengthened with use? Find out how to use your willpower and boost self-motivation to reach goals.
We’ve all been there, that moment when temptation was just too strong and it won out over our self-control. The cookies that call from their tin, the siren call of the glass of wine at the end of a tough week, or the desire to snuggle under the doona when the alarm sounds on a cold and miserable morning, all require willpower to ignore. But why is it that sometimes it’s far easier to resist the temptation that others? Why do some people seem to have oodles of the stuff, navigating through life and never seeming to fall afoul of a lack of self-control? Is willpower a muscle or a finite resource? Read on to find out.
How willpower works
Roy Baumeister, a prominent psychologist known for his research into willpower (amongst other things), began conducting experiments to see how self-control works decades ago. His work has led him to discover some surprising things; like why we sometimes have willpower and at other times it deserts us, so we end up blurting the wrong things or eating that slice of cake.
Unlike our unlimited capacity to love or our boundless curiosity, willpower appears to be finite. At least at first glance. As we progress through our day, more decisions and opportunities to resist certain urges in favour of more productive behaviours are experienced. This weakens our resolve — even when those things aren’t directly related to something we struggle with. To begin with, it may be fairly easy to resist temptation. Earlier in the day, we have more energy and fewer circumstances that require self-control have been presented.
The same mental energy we use to make decisions is used for our self-control. For example, you might choose to ride a bike to work in the morning. At this point, your day has just begun and your willpower and self-regulation are at a high level. As your workday progresses and you’re required to make many decisions so the mental energy you use for this and exerting willpower dwindles. By the end of the workday, when your colleague offers you a lift, you eagerly accept. This is despite all your best intentions and setting yourself up for success by riding in at the beginning of the day.
Each and every one of us experiences what Professor Baumeister and his team call ‘ego depleting’ moments throughout their day. According to their calculations, we rack up a hefty 3–4 hours each day resisting desires of one kind or another. On top of that, we use our self-control to regulate our performance, make better decisions, and keep our schedules on track.
Given this knowledge, it would appear that the only way to successfully resist temptation is to avoid it altogether later in the day. But that’s not always possible. Fortunately, it’s not the only way either.
Where does willpower come from?
Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist at Stanford University, has found that willpower is managed by our pre-frontal cortex in concert with our body. The pre-frontal cortex is the part of the brain that takes up the most energy. It’s also the part of the brain that our body is usually least likely to allocate energy to as its goal is conserving our energy. That’s why lots of our decisions if we’re not careful, become reactions that are prompted by our limbic system.
It’s not just our prefrontal cortex driving willpower though, our bodies are too. When we decide to use our self-control to override less than helpful behaviours, our body moves into what is called a ‘pause-and-plan’ response.
This is a gentler, calmer state — the opposite of a stress state — and it allows us to send extra energy to our prefrontal cortex. This effectively side-steps the hasty limbic system and its automatic responses long enough for you to resist the temptation. Your body helps you engage the parts of your brain needed for reaching your goals. But it’s only as good at this as you allow it and support it to be.
What about motivation?
Motivation is the flip-side of the willpower coin. While willpower is used to resist urges and provide self-control; like we do to get along in social situations, for instance, motivation is a driver to do something. If motivation is the engine for driving us towards our goals, willpower is the brake that stops us from slipping off the path as we move toward them.
To get where we want to go, both motivation and willpower are required. It’s all very well resisting the urge to surf the net when you should be working, but this is useless if just stare at a blank screen unmotivated to actually work.
Self-control is linked to a calm state in our body to achieve the pause-and-plan state and engage our prefrontal cortex. Motivation, on the other hand, is driven by chemical pathways — dopamine primarily. This kicks our limbic system into action with a pleasurable chemical prompt and you take action. There’s little thought involved, it’s a near-automatic process, almost the opposite of what we’re trying to achieve when we engage willpower.
There are a few ways to kick your motivation into action. Given that willpower dips, as the day wears on, it’s probably best to use these techniques as lunchtime or mid-afternoon pick me ups.
A to-do list is a great motivator, as you cross things off (including the 1st item ‘write a to-do list’), you’ll get a small dopamine spike that spurs you to the next item. Thanks, limbic system!
Micro deadlines for tasks are also helpful, for similar reasons. Simply break bigger tasks and milestones into smaller steps. If you need to complete a spreadsheet of data entry work, a micro deadline would be completing say, ten lines in ten minutes, or even five lines. It’s about tiny steps and patting yourself on the back each time one is made.
Gratitude noting is another good one. Being aware of all the goodness in your life — no matter how small — will increase your dopamine production. In turn, you feel more motivated. Just the act of looking for things to feel thankful for is beneficial. Try noting five things in your day that you are truly thankful for as you eat your lunch. You can do this in your head, but writing it down gives it a bigger impact. A spot of lunchtime gratitude listing could well help you take the foot off the willpower brake a little more in the afternoon.
Can’t we just switch from willpower to motivation?
Even if we do increase our motivation in the afternoon, we’ll still encounter situations where willpower is required. Avoiding the snide remark to a colleague that gets on your nerves, biting your tongue when you get home and your partner asks you why there isn’t anything in the house for dinner. It’ll be self-control you need to reach for in these situations, no matter how motivated you feel.
The pause-and-plan state you need for this can be engaged by, well, pausing. Take a big breath and let it out slowly. Your body will calm and the energy you have will be shared with your prefrontal cortex.
The point is, we need both sides of the coin and we can’t choose a schedule when we use willpower or motivation. They’re needed in turn, almost randomly — as well as in conjunction at times — to get the most from our days.
Fortunately, there are other things you can do to dig deep into willpower at the end of your day, and also to build it up over time. Your self-control is finite, but it can become stronger — like your muscles.
How to build your willpower
Energy is carried around our body in the form of glucose. Think about how some people get snappy when they’re hungry — they don’t mean it, they’re just too angry to have the self-control needed to smooth over social situations (and more). Willpower is fed by energy, and that energy is carried to the prefrontal cortex in the form of glucose. Ergo, you can increase self-control by incrementally increasing your glucose levels throughout the day. Baumeister suggests sipping lemonade. Sucking boiled sweets should work too.
However, that’s not a great solution if you’re keeping to a calorie-controlled diet. Your limbic system will be all over that one, justifying that piece of cake as necessary for keeping you on track with your diet. Your dentist won’t be best pleased either.
Other options he recommends are engaging in self-control activities to strengthen the willpower ‘muscle’. This includes using your left hand for small tasks you’d normally use your right for — brushing teeth, cutting your food up, maybe even writing a small note. Practice losing bad habits in small steps — keep a record of spending if you have trouble managing finances, or clean for five minutes if you want to become a tidier and more organised person. It may not seem like much, but over time your willpower in all areas will become stronger.
Meditation and exercise have also been shown to be a great way to boost self-control. Eight weeks of daily meditation practice changes the structure and function of your brain. Simply meditating regularly for ten minutes a day increases the grey matter in your brain. It also improves its plasticity, so you can make new neural pathways faster and easier. This aids your decision making. It also increases your ability to manage stress, control impulses and builds self-awareness. All of these skills are essential for good self-control and will help you engage the pause-and-plan response.
Regular exercise changes the brain in similar ways to meditation. Most notably in the prefrontal cortex. It also makes your brain and body more resilient to stress, which again, is essential for good levels of willpower.
Finally, sleep is essential for us to be able to not only have enough energy but manage it effectively too. Less than six hours a night is regarded as ‘not enough’ sleep. You should be aiming for somewhere between seven to nine hours of quality shut-eye. It’ll help you resist the snide remarks, cake, and whatever else you’re desperately trying to say no to morning, noon and night.
If you’re trying to reach a goal, willpower is just as important as motivation. Each of these is different sides of the same coin, but triggered differently and managed by different areas of your brain. Be thankful for what you have to boost your motivation. Practice small tasks of conscious self-control to improve willpower. Look after yourself well and manage your energy to access willpower when you most need it.