The Psychology Of Willpower: Harnessing Self-Control For Success

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant, LMHC
Updated May 22, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Your ability to exercise self-control and harness willpower can significantly impact outcomes in your life. From achieving your career goals to maintaining healthy relationships, the psychology of willpower often plays a role in determining your success. Whether you're striving for personal growth, financial stability, or overall well-being, understanding and strengthening your self-control can be beneficial. Helpful strategies to employ can include developing habits and routines, challenging yourself, and utilizing rewards. A licensed therapist can also help you cultivate enhanced willpower and self-control through online or in-person therapy sessions.

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Understanding willpower and self-control

The concept of self-control is often seen as central to the psychology of willpower. Self-control generally refers to the ability to regulate our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors related to our long-term goals and values. Meanwhile, willpower typically encompasses the mental energy we exert to resist short-term temptations and make choices that align with our best interests. 

The concept of ego depletion

Psychological research has shed light on willpower and its status as a potentially limited resource. Like a muscle that can become fatigued if overworked, our mental energy may become depleted if we overuse our self-control.

Researchers have conducted numerous studies exploring how self-control works and examining the consequences of ego depletion, the phenomenon in which our ability to exert willpower can be compromised due to mental exhaustion.

The effects of self-control on success

Studies have consistently shown that participants with better self-control tend to achieve greater success in various domains of life. Academic and career success, financial stability, physical and mental health, and strong relationships are just a few examples of the positive life outcomes often associated with robust willpower.

Contributors to willpower and self-control

While willpower and self-control may be integral to achieving positive life outcomes, they are not usually solely determined by personal character traits. Various factors may influence our ability to exert self-control. Genetic and biological factors are generally believed to contribute to individual differences in willpower, but environmental and situational factors can also play significant roles.

Stress and fatigue, for instance, can deplete our mental energy reserves and hinder our ability to resist short-term temptations. Social and cultural influences, such as peer pressure or societal norms, can either support or undermine our self-control efforts. The availability of resources and temptations in our environment may also challenge our willpower.

However, nature and nurture often interact in shaping willpower. While some individuals may be naturally inclined to have more self-control, many people have the potential to strengthen and enhance their willpower through strategic interventions and healthy habits.

The impact of habits

Habits can be drivers of behavior, and willpower typically plays a role in their formation. The habit loop developed by Charles Duhigg can illustrate how cues and rewards may influence behavior. 

For example, if you want to form a habit of going to the gym every morning, you can identify cues and rewards that will motivate you and make it easier to stick to your newfound healthy habit. Once you've established a routine, your willpower may be better equipped to override impulses and make the desired behavior automatic.

The ability to resist immediate gratification and focus on long-term rewards tends to be a key component of developing self-control. Habits can often free up our mental energy for other tasks or goals. However, many of us have moments when our willpower falters, making it challenging to stay on track with our goals. Several strategies may strengthen our willpower and enhance our self-control.

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Strengthening willpower and building self-control

While it may take some effort to break old habits, the rewards of developing self-control can be far-reaching. Building up your willpower may not only give you a better chance of achieving success in life, but it may also provide you with greater freedom and autonomy.

With a stronger sense of self-control, you may be better equipped to make decisions that reflect your values and priorities. Here are some strategies that may strengthen your willpower and improve your self-control.

Prioritize intentional decision-making

Rather than making decisions impulsively, taking time to consider the consequences of your choices may help you choose wisely. Thinking about potential scenarios and their outcomes can help you objectively weigh different options and make informed decisions.

Challenge yourself

While it often pays off to set realistic goals, pushing yourself out of your comfort zone can also be a key part of developing self-control. Pushing yourself in small ways, such as taking a cold shower or going for a run, may build your mental endurance and give you the confidence needed to tackle difficult tasks.

Stick with your commitments

Making decisions that align with your goals and sticking with them can build self-control. Setting reminders and creating social contracts can ensure that you honor the commitments you make to yourself.

Set clear and realistic goals

Establishing specific, attainable goals often provides a roadmap for exerting willpower in a consistent manner. Achieving small successes can help you build momentum and increase your motivation to work toward bigger goals.

Establish routines and habits

Creating structured routines and healthy habits may reduce the cognitive load associated with decision-making, potentially making it easier to exert self-control.

Utilize positive reinforcement and rewards

Rewarding yourself for demonstrating self-control can reinforce the behavior and motivate you to continue exerting willpower.

Developing self-control is often an ongoing process, but with the capacity to strengthen your willpower, the potential to achieve positive outcomes can be within reach. Through intentional effort and dedication, you can foster the habit of making decisions that honor your values and reflect your priorities. With greater self-control, you may be better equipped to stay focused on long-term rewards and achieve success.

Overcoming obstacles to willpower

Despite our best efforts, obstacles to willpower are likely to arise. Recognizing and understanding these challenges can help in maintaining self-control.

Here are some common obstacles and potential strategies for overcoming them:

  • Procrastination and lack of motivation: Breaking your tasks into smaller chunks and focusing on immediately taking action can restore your motivation and build momentum.
  • Distractions: If possible, remove yourself from the source of distraction or try to reduce its influence before you start a task. Setting time limits for specific tasks can also be helpful in reducing procrastination and getting back on track.
  • Fatigue: Sleep deprivation can be a common cause of reduced willpower and lack of focus. To avoid this, prioritize regular rest and healthy nutrition. Physical exercise may also restore energy and improve your ability to stay focused.
  • Unrealistic expectations: Setting goals that are too ambitious can make you feel overwhelmed and demotivated. Realistic goals and milestones may help you feel more confident, motivated, and accomplished.

Developing self-control is usually a long-term process, and it often requires perseverance and dedication. Our willpower usually ebbs and flows in relation to our environment, biology, emotions, and stress levels. Resisting short-term temptations may be easier during periods of high motivation, but it can also be possible to build an inner strength that will help you stay on track when you encounter challenges.

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How therapy can help build willpower

Online therapy can be a useful tool for developing your willpower. As a form of professional support, online therapy may help you build the skills and habits needed to make positive changes in your life. Additionally, talking to a therapist from the familiarity of your own home may help you ease into mental health treatment if you tend to feel uncomfortable in unfamiliar situations.

Psychological science generally supports cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) as an effective intervention for enhancing mental health in many areas, such as self-control and willpower. Furthermore, studies have indicated that CBT delivered online can be just as effective as in-office therapy. As a common modality of online therapy, CBT may be an effective way for you to learn how to delay gratification and make choices that honor your values.

Takeaway

Whether you want to resist staying up past your bedtime to watch one more episode, quit smoking, or stay focused on a task, willpower and active self-control tend to be helpful tools for achieving positive outcomes. When you learn to make decisions that reflect your priorities, you may be able to take back control of your life and create the future you want. You may find it helpful to prioritize intentional decision-making, set clear and realistic goals, and establish routines and habits. Online or in-person therapy can be a beneficial resource if you believe you’d benefit from professional help as you strive to harness self-control and willpower.
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