Willpower: Definition And How To Increase It
Updated February 20, 2020
Medically Reviewed By: Lauren Guilbeault
Willpower can make all the difference between succeeding in life and giving up too soon. It can help you conquer bad habits even when you want so much to indulge in them. So what is it, exactly? Here's a willpower definition, synonyms, and advice on how to increase it.
Willpower is a type of strength that gives you the ability to control your thoughts and behavior. Your will is your ability to choose your own actions, so you can define willpower as a strong ability for self-determination. However, it's more than just an ability. Willpower is only willpower if your behaviors follow from your conscious decisions. When you have willpower, you restrain yourself or act boldly on your decisions, even if you're tempted to do otherwise.
Synonyms For Willpower
Willpower is a very useful word. It isn't surprising that there are many synonyms for willpower. Consider each willpower synonym below and notice how each has a slightly different meaning.
Self-control is typically associated with the willpower you use to avoid or stop doing something. You control your urge to do something you don't want to do. For example, if you've decided you're going on a diet, you can use self-control to avoid eating too much. If you decide to quit smoking, you can use your self-control to say "no" when you're offered a cigarette.
Drive is an intense type of motivation that leads you to follow through with getting what you want even when it isn't easy. You may have a strong drive to succeed, and that drive can keep you going even when it appears you'll fail. You may have conflicting drives. The difference between drive and willpower is that you have little control over your drives. By contrast, you have to make a firm decision before you can use your willpower effectively.
Resolve is a word that focuses on the decision. When you resolve to do something, you make a strong mental commitment to making it happen. Resolution is only the first part of willpower, though. Once you make that decision, you still need to use your mental strength to follow through with your resolution.
Self-discipline is a very close synonym for willpower. However, while willpower focuses on strength of mind, self-discipline is more about the practice of willpower in your daily life. Self-discipline is more about the behavior than the decision about how to behave. If you jog every day without fail, you're self-disciplined. It's both the decision to jog daily and the action of jogging every day that takes willpower.
Self-restraint is similar to self-control. The term self-restraint presents an image of holding yourself back from doing something you have an urge to do. It takes strong willpower to hold yourself back when you're faced with something that's very appealing to you.
Strength Of Mind
Strength of mind is a very apt willpower synonym. In fact, that's why it makes so much sense to put it in the willpower definition. Yet, having a strong mind alone won't ensure that you follow through with the actions you choose. You have to resolve to use your strength of mind to accomplish your goals.
Determination is a word that's typically used in relation to decisions. Courts make determinations of guilt or innocence. Punishment follows from the determination. Determination to do something represents the deciding part of willpower. You determine that you're going to do what you've decided, no matter what challenges you face.
Single-mindedness means focusing all your mental capacity on accomplishing a single goal. You have to have strong willpower to achieve that kind of focus. That involves deciding to do the thing you want to do as well as remaining steadfast in that resolution.
Is Willpower Limited?
It's relatively easy to start out with strong willpower. When you first decide to do something, you have a certain momentum in that direction. However, as the days go by, your resolution begins to dim. You may still believe that it's the best thing for you to do, yet you may begin to lose that bold feeling that you can accomplish it if you just try hard enough. In fact, after a while, you may wonder if it's even possible. Before long, you've given up, and you feel like a failure.
Researchers wondered what would happen when willpower fails. They found evidence that willpower may indeed be limited. This concept is known as ego depletion. When you're suffering from ego depletion, your willpower resources are running low. This has a distinct physical effect, causing heart rate variability and changes in your nervous system. Time seems to move more slowly, and your blood-glucose drops. You literally have less strength and energy than you did when you first made your resolution.
How To Increase Willpower
So how do you go about getting the most from your willpower? There are several techniques you can use to protect your willpower reserves and build your strength of mind.
If your goal is to refrain from doing something you've decided not to do, one of the best things you can do is just to not expose yourself to the temptation. If you want to avoid using alcohol, going to a bar is probably a big mistake. You'll have to exercise your willpower constantly, and it may quickly become depleted. However, if you spend the same evening playing tennis with a friend who doesn't drink, you won't be surrounded by the alcohol you're trying to avoid.
You can plan what you want to do when specific challenges or opportunities come up. These if-then plans are called implementation intentions. You simply decide ahead of time what you'll do when something specific happens.
Here's an example of how implementation intentions work. Suppose you've decided you're going to run a marathon. You've trained, but you don't feel confident that you can reach your goal. You imagine that you might end up quitting. So, you make a plan and set an intention: If you get to a point where you feel you can't go on, you'll walk until you can run again.
When you follow this intention, you don't quit the whole race just because you feel fatigued. Instead, you keep going. Slowing to a walk gives you renewed strength, and you're more likely to finish the race.
Use Motivation To Tap Into Willpower Reserves
Motivation is a sense of strong mental energy directed towards a goal. When you can build your motivation, your willpower also becomes stronger. To increase your motivation, think about why you've made the decision to change your behavior. Imagine the good things that will happen when you reach your goal.
Exercise Your Willpower Muscle
While many studies have seemed to 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.
Eat Frequent, Small Meals
When your blood glucose is too high or low, your willpower diminishes. You can keep your willpower stronger by keeping your blood glucose stable. One way to do this is to eat several small meals a day rather than a few large ones.
Use humor to give yourself a boost of willpower when you're feeling powerless. Perhaps surprisingly, when you joke about how hard it is to do what you've decided to do, the relief you feel from acknowledging it can bring a surge of willpower.
Think About Your Social Goals
One way to increase your commitment to your goal is to think about the effects it will have in your social environment. Imagine that you've resolved to overcome your porn addiction. You may have an urge to watch porn, but you know it will cause an argument with your spouse. If you think about your social goal of being a good relationship partner, you may find it easier to control that urge.
Resolve Mental Health Issues
Mental health issues can also drain your motivation and willpower. You can't just tell yourself to stop being depressed or anxious. You need to deal with your mental health issues in a proven way so that you can get back to your usual strength of mind.
A therapist can help you identify the unhelpful thought patterns behind your mental health issues. Then, they can teach you to change those patterns. You can choose new ways of thinking that improve your mental health and increase your ability to access the full strength of your willpower. You may speak with a licensed counselor at BetterHelp.com for assistance with mental health issues. Online therapy is convenient and affordable, and it happens on your schedule, in any setting you choose.
When it seems that willpower is very far away, it's very easy to feel overwhelmed. You may feel like you're a slave to your urges or a failure at sticking with your commitments. The good news is that you can learn to get the full benefit of all the willpower you have to meet your goals and experience a more fulfilling life.