To have willpower does not mean saying you want to do something, it means to actually be doing it—André Maurois
It’s easy to follow through with things we enjoy, things we are good at, or things that bring us quick rewards. However, when it comes to difficult choices and actions, we must make additional efforts and call on that last reserve of energy, which either takes us further to a place of victory or plunges us even deeper into trouble: willpower.
“Willpower is what separates us from the animals. It’s the capacity to restrain our impulses, resist temptation—do what’s right and good for us in the long run, not what we want to do right now,” says social psychologist Roy Baumeister.
This is what has led many to see willpower as a fight against themselves, to achieve certain goals, through determination and self-discipline.
More recently, willpower has been conceptualized as a complex behavioural control process that, over time, becomes automatic. Regardless of the theoretical category it is placed in, one thing is certain: willpower helps us turn our intention into action and to reach our development goals.
Is willpower an inexhaustible resource?
Studies show that people make an average of 35,000 decisions a day. At the end of the day, this statistic points to the reality of consciously or unconsciously having spent a few good hours exercising our willpower.
In how many of those decisions did our willpower fail, and how many were a result of successfully exercising willpower? It depends on each individual. Seeing that habit often overpowers change, the answers are predictable for most of us.
How many of the daily decisions betray willpower’s failure?
It often occurs that the phrase, “I would like to do it, but I lack willpower” becomes our favourite motto, an ideal excuse to stay in our comfort zone, which seduces us with its predictability and safety. Some studies correlate the inability to achieve what we set out to do with the tendency to understand willpower as a limited resource, excessive use of which leads to “bankruptcy.”
With this as our frame of reference, we can understand why, after practicing our willpower to be diplomatic in our relationships with others, balanced in our food choices, and sober-minded when it comes to money, we lack the motivation to resist other temptations, or to achieve goals which are hard to reach.
The main arguments of this concept, known as “ego depletion,” are based on Roy Baumeister’s experiments. In one of his studies, the subjects were invited into a room filled with the smell of freshly baked cookies. Some of them were free to eat the cookies, while others had to settle for a healthier snack: radishes. Both groups were then given the task of solving an unsolvable puzzle.
The results showed that the people who had to eat radishes, and used their willpower to ignore the alluring smell of the cookies, gave up on solving the puzzle in 8 minutes, while those who were allowed to indulge their impulse attempted to solve the puzzle for about 11 minutes longer than the first group.
However, the theory that says that willpower is finite and acts as a muscle which will give in when overworked is not unanimously accepted. Some research has contradicted Baumeister’s results, proving that we don’t only have a limited number of occasions to successfully exercise our willpower.
How is willpower calculated?
“Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will,” said Mahatma Gandhi.
According to psychologist Carol Dweck and the studies conducted at Stanford University, people only have limited willpower if they believe that their willpower is limited.
On the same note, Dr Mark Muraven, from the University of Albany, demonstrated that willpower does not depend on a known structure or on the glucose levels in the body, but on a person’s vision and attitudes. His studies emphasize how subjects who exercise self-control on account of extrinsic motivation (for instance, to please others) are exposed, in the long run, to an accentuated destabilization of their willpower compared to those who exercise self-control because of personal motivations, objectives, and desires.
In one of the experiments coordinated by Muraven, volunteers subjected to a two-week diet scored better in tests meant to measure their self-control than those who had not been required to use their willpower in any way. Another study established that smokers instructed to give up sweets for 14 days abandoned their vice more easily than subjects in the control group who did not have to abide by special restrictions based on self-control.
How can we reconcile these findings with the concept of ego depletion? It’s a question of nuance, because comparing willpower to a muscle weakened by continuous use can also be viewed the other way around: intense exercise fatigues the muscles in the short-term but fortifies them in the long run. In the same way, by the daily practicing of self-control, we will develop the iron willpower that will allow us to rein in our emotionally-triggered behaviours.
What does willpower bring when we sacrifice momentary desires?
Most definitions focus on the ability to delay gratification by rejecting momentary temptations in order to accomplish future objectives. Some forty years ago, a psychologist at Colombia University wanted to study the connection between volitional processes and the capacity to delay reward, as well as the benefits of the latter. The name of the researcher is Walter Mischel, and his experiment became one of the most popular studies in the field: the marshmallow test.
The experiment involved several pre-schoolers who were each seated before a tray of marshmallows and faced with the choice of either eating one marshmallow, or waiting for 15 minutes and then getting to eat two marshmallows. Self-disciplined children sacrificed the immediate pleasure of their taste-buds so that they could enjoy a double portion. Unlike them, the greedy refused to wait, and their temptation ended up completely overthrowing their willpower.
The second part of the study, conducted during their adolescence, revealed that the subjects who did not hurry to eat the marshmallow had been getting better results in school, and were described by their parents as students capable of focus, planning, and self-control.
The observations, however, did not stop there. Nearly 25 years after the initial research, 59 of the subjects were co-opted for a new study conducted by the University of Washington, which aimed to evaluate to what extent the inclinations from the subjects’ early lives were still present in their lives, and what form they took. They concluded that the pre-schoolers anxious to eat the promised marshmallow became adults predisposed to losing their self-control. This was a sign that a lack of self-control in childhood is also reflected later in life.
How does willpower work?
Based on the results from the marshmallow experiment, Mischel and his peers tried to explain how willpower works, using the analogy of a cooling and heating system that influences our reactions to stimuli and, implicitly, decision-making.
The cooling system is cognitive and incorporates knowledge about feelings, goals, and actions. It is our positive character that advises us not to settle for one marshmallow if we can get two as a reward for patience.
The heating system acts impulsively and irrationally. It is our negative character, responsible for our automatic reactions which ensure short-term satisfaction but long-term losses. It is the explanation given for the choice to order French fries instead of salad and to postpone the change of harmful habits to tomorrow, in a perpetual cycle of fresh starts.
According to Mischel, some people act impulsively and others reflexively, without doing so by chance. Behind the success or failure of one’s personal willpower is a delicate mechanism of self-regulation that oscillates between emotion and reason. We are, then, given the task of tilting the balance in the right direction.
Developing willpower, step by step
As a popular saying goes, we cannot achieve great things as long as we stay in our comfort zone. Regardless of how much of a cliché this is, the saying is perfectly right and, at the same time, has diverse applicability. We cannot build an iron will without work and sweat, without overcoming, through daily efforts, our self-imposed limits and impulsive, emotional reactions that sabotage our journey to a better version of ourselves.
In order for our efforts to not be in vain, we must respect a few ground rules whose effectiveness has been proven over time.
1. Avoid temptation
The principle “out of sight, out of mind” applies to strengthening our willpower. A 10-year-old study showed that employees who kept their candies in a drawer ate less sweets than those who kept their candies where they could see them. In the same way, it’s easier to cultivate beneficial habits, like reading, if we purchase books and magazines, to reduce screen time if we keep our devices in another room, or to give up unhealthy foods if we leave them untouched in the stores.
2. Implement good intentions
Because avoiding temptation is not part of an easily adoptable strategy, it’s good to have an alternative we can cling to when we are faced with pressing choices. Let’s assume, for instance, that we are aiming to give up alcohol, but we are about to participate in a gathering where we know for certain that alcohol will be served. A ‘preset’ such as: “If I am offered alcohol I will ask for a lemonade instead” can keep us firmly planted in our decision, diminishing the risk of breaking the promise we made.
3. Achieve goals in three steps
In order for a personal objective like adopting a vegetarian diet or including physical exercise into one’s daily routine to become reality, it must be accompanied by three key aspects: establishing the right motivation (improving one’s health), monitoring the behaviour (constant revising of the good choices and less good choices we make) and exercising our willpower (imposing the desire to change our lifestyle over the habit of living as we are used to).
4. Motivation is doubled by perseverance
Perseverance is the key that lays the foundation of each success. Although it might seem sterile due to overuse, it defines an indispensable element for the strengthening of willpower. It is the factor that keeps us going even when our motivation has decreased considerably, and our obstacles have visibly multiplied.
Thomas Edison’s line is proverbial. When asked how he felt after needing 1000 attempts before finally coming up with the prototype of the famous lightbulb, he answered: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 1000 ways that don’t work!”
In his motivational speeches, American author Zig Ziglar draws a humorous but pertinent parallel which underlines the crucial role of perseverance:
“People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing—that’s why we recommend it daily.”
5. Focus successively on certain objectives (and divide objectives into easy-to-follow stages)
Studies show that willpower and perseverance exercises that people set out on in the form of New Year’s resolutions fail in over 70% of cases. One of the reasons is establishing a very large number of objectives that one might want to achieve simultaneously: to spend more time with the family, to reach the ideal weight, to take on physical exercise, and so on. If willpower is a richer resource than some psychologists consider, it only works wonders when we remain anchored in reality, understanding that we cannot change overnight, but progressively, over time.
Talking about her own method of juggling daily tasks, a journalist friend of Dr Denise Cummins revealed the trick that helps her maintain her willpower: “It’s like eating an elephant—one bite at a time, and you’re not allowed to look up to see how much is left.”
6. Authenticity and understanding repeated failures
As Muraven’s studies show, activating our willpower to embrace change for the sake of others’ opinions and not out of personal conviction is an artificial way of working with ourselves, resulting in fragile and short-term effects.
To truly develop our self-control, we must be authentic in our desires, motivations, and actions. Otherwise, we will only score temporary successes or repeated failures. This proves that we cannot blame a lack of willpower for not making progress, but going in a direction that is incompatible with our real needs.
No wonder it’s often said that if we want something with all our heart (our heart, not our brother’s, parents’, or children’s heart) we will get what we long for.
Even if it’s called willpower, it’s not enough to want it—we must also be able to do it. Among the listed strategies, rest plays a key role in developing willpower. Poor quality sleep or an insufficient amount of sleep affects our ability to resist temptation and to follow through with building positive habits.
A 2011 survey indicates that 27% of Americans identify a lack of willpower as the number one obstacle standing in the way of change. Because we feel the difficulty of the process first-hand, we admire those who break down their own personal records, becoming living examples of reaching success by exercising willpower. We applaud people who rise above their own weaknesses to achieve an important objective, like overcoming one’s limits in the fight to lose weight, in one’s love life, or at the work place. Still, success is not only reserved for a handful of lucky, carefully selected individuals, but it can come true for anyone who understands that building an iron will consists of a series of daily practices, voluntarily shaped, behind which lie hundreds and thousands of decisions that eventually delineate one’s future.
Genia Ruscu has a master’s degree in counselling in the field of social work.