How harnessing willpower to meet your goals can change your life
Willpower can be a powerful tool to help you reach your goals and change your life. However, it’s not always easy to exercise this type of self-control even in the best of times—now yet when stress, lack of sleep, or various other factors are at play. It’s natural to struggle with willpower from time to time, but there are strategies you can use to try and enhance your abilities or get back on track after a setback.
What is willpower and where does it come from?
The American Psychological Association defines willpower as self-control through self-regulation and overcoming unwanted feelings, thoughts, and impulses. It’s the ability to delay gratification by resisting short-term temptations in order to meet a longer-term goal.
There is some debate about where willpower comes from and whether we have an endless or finite supply. Some older research suggests that willpower is limitless and comes from a combination of how much self-control a person naturally has, the difficulty of the task or goal they’re trying to achieve, mood changes, personal beliefs, and feedback.
A contrasting theory is ego depletion, which is the idea that we only have so much willpower to use at a time. It suggests that every decision we make requires mental energy. Once we use it all up, we’ll have a more challenging time exhibiting self-control until we rest and allow our brains to recover. Per this theory, willpower is finite, but our capacity for it can be strengthened and expanded over time, like a muscle.
There is also some debate about where exactly willpower comes from. Research shows there are a few possibilities. Some research has found that as much as 60% of willpower is inherited. Aside from this, the well-known Marshmallow Test suggested that willpower is innate and can hugely affect the outcome of one’s life, but updated research decades later suggests instead that socioeconomic status and related factors may have a lot more to do with self-regulation.
Practical tips for increasing your willpower
It may take some time and experimentation to figure out the willpower tricks and strategies that are effective for you. People have different needs, goals, and ways of thinking, which may affect what self-control looks like in their lives.
For example, although attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is thought to be due to structural and chemical differences in the brain rather than a simple question of willpower, it can manifest as increased impulsivity—which can make self-control even harder in some situations. As a result, someone with ADHD might benefit from different strategies for increasing self-control than someone who is not neurodivergent in this way. Experimenting with different techniques and meeting with a therapist are two ways to find what works for you.
General techniques to boost willpower
- Reduce temptations when possible. You won’t always be able to, but removing or reducing opportunities for distractions or temptations can be helpful when possible. For example, someone who is trying to avoid impulse-buying at the store could take only enough cash to buy the item they need. Or, someone who is trying to drink more water or avoid sugar could avoid keeping soda in the fridge.
- Delay the decision. If you’re faced with a temptation, you could try telling yourself, “Not now; maybe later.” Sometimes, this simple pause can allow the power of the temptation to pass.
- Set realistic goals. Setting S.M.A.R.T goals (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound) and then tackling them piece by piece can help set you up for success. If your goal is to “build healthy habits” and you expect willpower alone to help you resist temptations to stay up late, skip your workout classes, and not stick to your meal plan, for example, you’re likely to feel down on your abilities. Instead, following this goal framework and taking it one step at a time (attending one workout class per week at first, for instance) can help you find incremental progress.
- Don’t be too hard on yourself. If you experience a setback in regulating your self-control, try not to be too harsh with yourself. Attitude is important, and as indicated above, believing in your ability to strengthen your willpower may actually strengthen it. This can look like showing compassion for yourself when you slip up.
Lifestyle practices to boost willpower
It’s worth noting that certain lifestyle practices may also help a person increase their reserves of willpower. Examples include the following.
- Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness can be defined as the cultivation of “a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment” with a sense of compassion rather than judgment. Practicing it over time may help increase your willpower and potentially provide mental and physical health benefits.
- Get enough sleep. Research suggests that a lack of sleep can reduce a person’s ability to exert self-control. That’s why getting the recommended hours of sleep for your age is another lifestyle factor that may help you delay gratification for the benefit of your long-term goals.
- Manage stress in a healthy way. Stress activates the body’s fight-or-flight response, which may make it harder to think clearly or with your future goals in mind. For example, research suggests that people are more likely to procrastinate on engaging in a healthy habit (going to bed at a reasonable time) after a stressful day at work. Finding healthy ways to manage stress, then, may positively impact overall willpower.
How speaking with a therapist could help
If you’re working toward building up your abilities for self-control and willpower, it may help to work with a therapist. They can support you in discovering any underlying challenges that may be holding you back and they can suggest tactics and strategies that may help you on your journey.
The best and most effective therapy format for you is usually the one you feel most comfortable with. That’s one reason many people have started turning to online therapy instead of traditional, in-office sessions—because this way, you can meet with a licensed therapist virtually from the comfort of home. According to recent research, it seems that online and in-person therapy may offer similar benefits to clients in most cases, so you can typically feel confident in choosing whichever format works best for you.
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