Willpower: Definition And How To Increase It
Willpower can sometimes mean the difference between succeeding in your endeavors and giving up too soon. For example, it might help you conquer unhelpful habits even when you want to indulge in them or keep working towards something that feels challenging. But what is it?
This guide defines willpower, offering some synonyms and tips – like starting online therapy – that might help you increase it. We’ll also touch on situations where increasing your willpower might not be the answer.
Willpower is defined as the ability to control your thoughts and how you behave. In other words, it's related to choosing your actions and guiding your thought patterns or 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 include choosing not to eat ice cream in the freezer when experiencing an intense craving or keeping calm while experiencing anger.
Synonyms For Willpower
There are many synonyms for willpower. Consider each willpower synonym below and notice how they have slightly different meanings.
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 then says, "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 is the ability to continue trying to do something even when it’s difficult. When you're determined to do something, you are mentally committed to accomplishing the task.
Self-discipline is another close synonym for willpower. It’s 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 your willpower strong.
Self-restraint is similar to self-control, defined as having control over your actions. For example, it might be what helps you stop yourself from engaging in an unhealthy habit you want to do.
Is Willpower Limited?
For some, beginning a task with solid willpower is relatively easy. When you first decide, you may have more momentum in that direction. However, as days pass, your resolution may waver. You may still believe it's the best thing to do, yet lose the feeling that you can accomplish it if you try hard enough.
Research has shown that willpower may be limited. This concept is known as "ego depletion." When you experience ego depletion, your willpower may run low. This could even have a physical effect, causing heart rate variability and changes in your nervous system. As a result, time might seem to move more slowly for some, and your blood glucose levels may drop. In addition, the study found that the body sometimes literally has less strength and energy than it did when you first made your resolution.
How To Increase Willpower
So, how do you increase your willpower? Here are some techniques that might bolster your willpower reserves.
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 if you stay home alone, you might put your phone down and see a friend instead. Sometimes avoiding temptation will help you ride out the urge.
You can plan what to do when specific challenges or opportunities arise. These plans are called “implementation intentions." You decide beforehand what you'll do if and when something specific happens.
Here's an example of how implementation intentions work. Suppose you've decided to run a marathon. You've trained but don't feel confident about reaching your goal. So, you plan and set an intention: if you get to a point where you think you can't go on, you'll walk until you can run again.
Following this intention, you don't quit the whole race just because you feel fatigued. Instead, you keep going. Slowing to a walk gives you time to renew your physical and mental strength, and you're more likely to finish the race.
Use 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 it can also be more specific to your goal.
Aim Your Willpower Toward What You Truly Want
Although this isn't always the case, there are times when we try to implement willpower to work towards something due to societal expectations and other people's opinions about what we should do. For some, thinking about your goals and desires can be helpful. Looking at what you truly want might help you sustain your willpower.
Remember Why You Set Your Goal
Motivation is a sense of mental energy directed towards a goal. When you stay motivated, it helps 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.
Exercise Your Willpower
While some studies indicate that willpower is limited, others have shown 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 can become.
When Willpower Isn't The Answer
There are times when something calls for more than willpower. Some things call for self-compassion, mental health support, or a different approach instead of willpower to persist in moving forward.
For example, someone with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) might have trouble initiating a task. Instead of increasing willpower, it might call for mental health treatment. ADHD is a diagnosable neurodevelopmental disorder 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 requires willpower (not mental health treatment) to overcome the difficulties they might be experiencing. And this can apply to other life concerns or diagnoses beyond ADHD – for example, excess stress may cause individuals to lose sight of their goals.
For this reason, focusing on willpower as a solution might not always be helpful. A therapist or counselor may be able to help you understand why with different things and find new, creative solutions. And it's okay if you need to make some adjustments to help yourself begin treatment. For example, online therapy makes it easier to connect with a professional. It's also as effective as in-person therapy, so feel free to try it if you don't want to drive to an office for appointments.
Willpower is the ability to stay committed to a goal until you accomplish it, but it can sometimes be more complicated. For one, willpower might be a limited resource that diminishes over time. And focusing only on willpower is only sometimes helpful – for example, there could be another reason you're experiencing difficulties achieving your goal (e.g., stress or an undiagnosed mental illness).
Mental health support may be advantageous if you want to discuss a concern related to willpower or something else. In therapy, you can set goals, identify potential obstacles, and make personalized plans to help you achieve your goals. Whether you opt for face-to-face sessions or sign up for services through an online platform, what matters is that you get the care you deserve.
At BetterHelp, we can connect you with a licensed and experienced mental health professional based on your needs and preferences. From there, you can use in-app messaging to contact your professional whenever you'd like and have appointments on your schedule via voice, video, or messaging. And you can change providers as often as you want until you find the right match.
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