8 Ways To Increase Your Willpower

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated May 1, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Willpower is an important tool for leading a healthy lifestyle and achieving your goals over time. It allows us to control our behaviors, actions, and interactions with ourselves and others. Like a muscle, it needs to be exercised regularly to be strong and effective. Let’s take a look at eight different ways you can strengthen your willpower.

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What is willpower?

The dictionary definition of willpower is “the ability to control one’s own actions, emotions, or urges” or a “strong determination that allows one to do something difficult”. It may also be referred to as self-control. There have been a wide variety of studies on the topic over the years. Today, it’s commonly described as a two-system framework made up of cold and hot tendencies. The hot tendencies are your ego and emotions dictating what you want in the moment. The cold tendencies are what you do to counteract those emotions and cool off the desire for whatever it is you’re trying to avoid. Thinking of it in this manner can be helpful when trying to avoid temptation, both in the short term and the long term.

8 tips for strengthening your willpower

As with anything else in life, practice is key for developing a strong sense of willpower. With strong willpower, you may be able to embrace healthy habits and achieve what you want for your life over both the short and long term. Here are eight different ways to resist temptation and increase willpower.

1. Increase your glucose levels

While willpower is very much mental, there are physical components to it as well. One study suggests that energy levels related to glucose may directly affect willpower. It found that subjects had little to no willpower when glucose levels were low. Those who were given a glucose drink, however, were better able to increase their motivation and resist temptations. Next time you find yourself in a situation where your willpower feels weak, you might try eating a piece of fruit to give yourself a sugar boost. Upon returning to the situation after your snack break, you may find it easier to stick to the rules or long-term goals you’ve set for yourself.

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2. Try purposeful self-distraction

Another tool you can use to avoid getting off track with your goals or intentions in the heat of the moment is purposeful self-distraction. All you have to do is think about or do something completely unrelated to what you’re trying to avoid doing. You can shift your focus by changing tasks, doing a quick meditation or visualization exercise, or immersing yourself in distractions like watching a video or cleaning up your space. Forcing your brain out of its laser focus on the activity or object you are trying to avoid may improve your ability to resist short-term temptations.

3. Practice cognitive reframing

Cognitive reframing is a key technique used in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is a style of talk therapy that’s based on the idea that thoughts matter in influencing your feelings and behaviors—so it follows that adjusting your thoughts can help you adjust your feelings and behaviors. To practice cognitive reframing, you’ll need to learn how to start noticing automatic thoughts that arise in your mind when you’re faced with a temptation. Beginning a mindfulness practice may help with this. Then, you can work on reframing these thoughts in a more positive, helpful way, potentially resulting in more willpower.

For example, let’s say you’re training for your first marathon. You can start by noticing whenever you have a negative or unhelpful thought about your progress, such as, “I have such a long way to go until I’m ready for this race. I’ll probably never be able to complete this training program, so maybe I’ll watch TV instead of going to running practice today.” Next, consciously reframe the thought you noticed in a more positive way, such as, “While I may have a long way to go until I’m ready for this race, I’m excited to see my progress over time, starting with run practice today.” 

4. Display images of your goals

One study found that displaying images of your goals where you can see them regularly may help you increase your willpower. If your goal isn’t something tangible, you may be able to use pictures of rewards or come up with images that you can associate with your goal. For instance, let’s say you’re trying to avoid shopping online to save up for a vacation. You could print out pictures of your dream destination and place them near your computer so that you can see them and imagine yourself there when you’re tempted to browse your favorite online stores. You may find that visualizing your reward for meeting your goal helps you overcome temptation and avoid buying anything.

5. Cultivate a meditation practice

Getting into the habit of meditating regularly—even for just 10 or 15 minutes per day—can have a host of benefits. Research over the years has linked it to many positive mental and physical health outcomes. In addition, a 2014 study showed that it might also be a useful tool in increasing your willpower over time as it “improves activation and connectivity in brain areas”. 

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6. Manage your stress levels

Doing what you can to keep your stress levels in check can be crucial for cultivating a stronger sense of willpower. As an article on the Stanford Medicine website states, “any time we’re under chronic stress it’s harder to find our willpower.” This is because stress forces the body into the fight-or-flight response. So much brain power is funneled into this response that there’s not as much left over for rational decision-making when we act. Maintaining a healthy diet, getting enough sleep, exercising, and managing your mental health may help you manage your stress levels.

7. Choose goals that resonate with you

What’s your motivation for avoiding or encouraging a certain behavior in yourself? Your ability to succeed will likely be higher if it’s something that’s authentically motivating to you personally. A 2014 study found that participants “whose autonomy was supported while exerting self-control” performed better on a willpower test than those “who had more pressure placed upon them while exerting self-control”. In other words, changing your lifestyle or habits for a reason that resonates with you may be easier than making one because it’s what someone else wants.

For example, let’s say you’re trying to cut back on junk food and soda. If you’re doing it because your spouse is starting a new diet and doesn’t allow these items in the house anymore, your willpower for sticking to the new diet will likely be lower. On the other hand, if you’re trying to cut back on these items because you want to improve your health so you can be a good example for your kids, summit a mountain peak next summer, reach your goal weight, or some other motivation that’s meaningful to you, you may notice a difference in your motivation, and you may be more likely to stick with it. 

8. Don’t overdo it

There’s a reason that weightlifters take rest days in between workouts. Our muscles can only perform so much within one period of time, and then they need rest to recover before being expected to perform again. As a growing body of evidence suggests, Willpower likely works the same way, and willpower depletion may be possible.

Let’s say you’re trying to cut back on sugar and successfully avoided the donuts and birthday cake in the breakroom at work all week. When you get home and see your child’s leftover Halloween candy on the counter, you may have greater difficulty resisting that temptation since your levels of self-control have been depleted throughout the day. As a review of studies by the American Psychological Association (APA) relates, “people whose willpower was depleted by self-control tasks showed decreased activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, a brain region involved with cognition. When your willpower has been tested, your brain may actually function differently”.

Get help building healthy habits and reaching your goals

There are all kinds of different reasons people may want to increase their level of willpower or self-control, and speaking with a mental health professional can be a great resource in this process. You may want to learn to challenge negative or unhelpful thoughts more regularly, avoid falling into unhealthy relationship patterns, get your spending under control, quit smoking, or cut back on drinking, for instance. A therapist can help you identify these behaviors, set realistic goals, and offer you a safe, nonjudgmental space to process any emotions or challenges that may come up along the way.

The most effective therapeutic format is usually the one that makes the individual feel the most comfortable. Some people prefer meeting with a mental health professional face to face, in person. Others prefer connecting with a therapist virtually from the comfort of their own home. If you’re interested in the online format, a virtual therapy platform like BetterHelp can match you with a licensed counselor with whom you can meet via phone, video call, and/or online chat. Research suggests that online therapy offers similar benefits to in-person sessions, so if you choose to pursue support from a professional, either method has the potential to make a positive impact on your life.

Takeaway

You can think of your sense of willpower or self-control as a muscle. Overusing it will result in fatigue and weakness until you have time to rest and replenish, but regular exercise and continued effort will make it stronger and help develop good habits. The tips on this list can help you learn ways to increase willpower over time.

Deepen your willpower to meet your goals
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