Willpower: Definition And How To Increase It

Medically reviewed by Majesty Purvis
Updated February 19, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Willpower, or the ability to control your thoughts and behavior, can sometimes mean the difference between succeeding in your endeavors and giving up too soon. It may help you resist unhelpful habits, even when you want to indulge in them, or push you to keep working toward something that feels challenging. You may be able to increase your willpower by looking at it as an unlimited resource, avoiding temptation, using implementation intentions, and repeating positive affirmations. Ensuring that you’re using willpower to achieve goals you genuinely care about can also be helpful. For further guidance, consider working with a licensed therapist in person or online. 

Defining willpower

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Gain more willpower with online therapy

Willpower can be defined as the ability to control your thoughts and how you behave. This concept can be related to choosing your actions and guiding your thought patterns, as well as the capacity for self-determination. 

With willpower, you can restrain yourself or act boldly on your decisions, even when tempted to do otherwise. Some simple examples may include choosing not to eat ice cream when experiencing an intense craving or remaining calm while experiencing anger.

Synonyms for willpower

There can be many synonyms for willpower. Consider each willpower synonym below and notice how they have slightly different meanings.

Self-control

Self-control usually refers to the ability to control your actions or emotions, or the ability to avoid or stop doing something. The APA Dictionary of Psychology defines self-control as "the ability to be in command of one's behavior (overt, covert, emotional, or physical) and to restrain or inhibit one's impulses." It notes, "In circumstances in which short-term gain is pitted against long-term greater gain, self-control is the ability to opt for the long-term outcome."

Determination

Determination can be thought of as the ability to continue trying to do something, even when it’s difficult. When you're determined to do something, you can be said to be mentally committed to accomplishing the task. 

Self-discipline

Self-discipline can be another close synonym for willpower. It’s generally defined as the ability to make yourself do things you know you should do, even when you don't want to do them. For example, you might use self-discipline to keep up daily workouts, even on days when you don’t feel like exercising.

Self-restraint

Self-restraint can be similar to self-control, and it’s usually defined as having control over your actions. For example, self-restraint might keep you from responding to a rude comment with an unhelpful comeback.

Is willpower limited?

It used to be a commonly held belief that willpower was limited. This concept was usually referred to as “ego depletion.” However, more recent research has suggested that ego depletion usually only takes place if a person already believes that willpower is limited. Those who believe that willpower is unlimited generally do not experience ego depletion, suggesting that it may be our own thoughts and beliefs that impact the amount of willpower we seem to have.

How to increase willpower

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Here are some techniques that may help you bolster your willpower reserves.

Avoid temptation

If your goal is to refrain from doing something you've decided not to do, especially if it's unhealthy for you, it can be helpful to distance yourself from temptation. For example, if you want to text a toxic ex-partner and worry that you will do so if you stay home alone, you might put your phone down and spend time with a friend instead. Sometimes, avoiding temptation will help you ride out the urge.

Use implementation intentions

You can plan what to do when specific challenges or opportunities arise. These plans are often called “implementation intentions." To use this tool, simply decide beforehand what you'll do if and when a specific situation arises. 

For example, suppose you've decided to run a marathon. You've trained, but don't feel completely confident about reaching your goal. So, you plan and set an intention: If you come to a point where it seems as if you can’t continue, you'll walk until you can run again.

Following this intention, you may not quit the entire race just because you feel fatigued. Instead, you are likely to keep going. Slowing to a walk may give you time to renew your physical and mental strength, and you may be more likely to finish the race.

Try positive affirmations

Positive affirmations are a tool that many people use when they want to achieve something. A simple example of a positive affirmation might be, "I can do it," but you may also create customized intentions that align with your specific goals.

Aim your willpower toward what you truly want

Although this isn't always the case, there can be times when we try to implement willpower to work toward something that we don’t truly want due to societal expectations or other people's opinions. For some, thinking about your genuine goals and desires can be helpful. Looking at what you truly want may help you sustain your willpower.

Remember why you set your goal

Motivation can be thought of as mental energy directed toward a goal or a desire to work toward a goal. When you stay motivated, it may help you maintain your willpower. Reminding yourself why you set your goal or decided to change your behavior can help. For example, you might journal, think, or talk about the benefits of accomplishing your goal to increase your motivation. 

Exercise your willpower

It’s possible that you may be able to increase your willpower by exercising it. According to this theory, the more you use your willpower, the stronger it may become.

When willpower isn't the answer

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Gain more willpower with online therapy

There are times when you may need more than willpower. Some situations call for self-compassion, mental health support, and other approaches. 

For example, someone with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) might have trouble initiating a task. Rather than willpower alone, this diagnosis can call for mental health treatment. ADHD can be a diagnosable neurodevelopmental disorder that is typically addressed through treatments like medication and therapy. 

With the above in mind, it'd likely be frustrating and inaccurate to suggest that a person with ADHD simply requires willpower to overcome the difficulties they might be experiencing. This can apply to other life concerns or diagnoses beyond ADHD as well. For instance, high stress levels, anxiety, and depression can lead to challenges in completing tasks and achieving goals. 

Benefits of online therapy

Getting to a therapy appointment in person often takes quite a bit of willpower. Attending a therapy session online, on the other hand, generally requires less willpower in order to follow through, as you can meet with your therapist from the comfort of your home at a time that fits your schedule. You may also be able to increase your comfort level with therapy by choosing between video call, phone call, and online chat options.

As mentioned above, ADHD can involve difficulties initiating tasks, which can sometimes be mistaken for a lack of willpower. A 2022 systematic review reported that online therapy could be effective in improving the attention deficit and social function of those with ADHD. This joins a growing body of evidence suggesting that online and in-person therapy can be similarly effective in treating a wide variety of mental health disorders and concerns.

Takeaway

Willpower can be thought of as the ability to stay committed to a goal until you accomplish it, and this typically involves managing your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors effectively. Exercising your willpower regularly, repeating positive affirmations, using implementation intentions, and avoiding temptation whenever possible can be helpful. If you struggle with willpower and motivation, talking to a licensed mental health professional about these challenges may provide you with helpful insight and guidance.

Deepen your willpower to meet your goals

The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
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