Everything You Need to Know About Willpower

Published on: 05 Dec 2020
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Willpower is something we all need yet never seem to have enough of. Temptations abound as we strive to complete all we set out to accomplish in our lives. A Netflix marathon can sound much more appealing than doing laundry, but we have to do laundry eventually. We use willpower to achieve goals large and small.

Levels of willpower look different for everyone. You may feel like you don’t currently have enough self-control and want to become more disciplined. The good news is, willpower can be learned and improved. 

What Is Willpower?

Willpower is defined as the ability to exert self-control and ignore negative impulses. The American Psychological Association says an integral part of this is using cognitive functioning to overpower unwanted thoughts, feelings, and impulses. Willpower includes being able to consciously regulate yourself when needed.

Delayed gratification is another key aspect of willpower. It is the ability to resist short-term temptations to achieve long-term goals. When there is a larger long-term reward at stake, it can serve as the motivation needed to avoid temptations.

Willpower is not unlimited, though, and it can be depleted when it’s overused. A demanding lifestyle can quickly deplete even those with the most willpower.

The Psychological Research Behind Willpower

Psychologist Walter Mischel conducted groundbreaking research on willpower in 1972 with his famous marshmallow test. This study, conducted at Stanford University, tested the willpower of preschoolers based on their ability to delay gratification in eating a marshmallow. The children were left alone with one marshmallow, with the promise of two marshmallows if they did not eat the one on their plate until the proctor came back. 

Some children ate their marshmallow quickly when left alone, unable to exert the self-control necessary to hold out for the greater reward of two marshmallows. Others, however, were able to delay gratification and waited to eat the marshmallow in front of them, knowing they’d get to eat two marshmallows when finally allowed to indulge.

Mischel was able to show that people have different levels of willpower starting from a young age. He went even further with his findings 12 years later. Looking at the same children he first studied with the marshmallow test, Mischel found that their preschool level of willpower predicted their behavioral and achievement success 12 years later. Those who showed the ability to delay gratification had higher SAT scores and fewer behavioral problems than their marshmallow-hungry counterparts. Mischel’s research showed how willpower correlates with positive long-term life outcomes in profound ways.

In 1996, social psychologist Roy Baumeister pushed the research on willpower further with his chocolate-and-radish experiment that showed self-control can be depleted. Baumeister compared the ability of research participants to do an unsolvable puzzle. The catch? Some participants got to happily eat a chocolate chip cookie before solving the puzzle, while others were tempted by the smell and sight of cookies but forced to eat radishes. Those who were tempted but not allowed to eat the cookie had less energy left to attempt the puzzle. 

Baumeister’s study is important because it demonstrated that willpower is limited. No one has an unlimited sum of self-control. When willpower is used to exhibit self-control in the face of one challenge, there is less left to confront the next one. 

Baumeister coined the term “ego depletion” to describe the phenomenon he found. Ego depletion shows how willpower takes mental stamina, and its use leads to exhaustion over time. Just like a muscle, willpower gets worn out with use, leading to ego depletion.

Current challenges to the research

More recently, the research has been challenged by studies looking to replicate the findings, a common practice in the field of psychological research. A 2018 study published in Psychological Science replicated the marshmallow test and found the correlation between willpower and long-term life success to be only half that of the original study. They found other factors to be significant contributors to willpower, specifically socioeconomic background and intelligence. 

Another study published in Social Psychology and Personality Science also challenges some of the more established willpower research in the field. In it, researchers surveyed students and found that the most successful students weren’t those with the best self-control, but rather those with the least amount of temptations. Limiting temptations may be a bigger contributor to self-control than previously thought.

There are still questions about the level of correlation between external factors and willpower, so more research is needed. However, Talkspace therapist Dr. Meaghan Rice says what’s important now is “there’s a direct correlation between internal drive, reinforcement, and happiness as the output.” Using our internal drive to guide your direction in life is the best approach to willpower we currently can conclude. 

Is Willpower Important or Overrated?

Having self-control is inherently important to living a healthy, balanced life. Is it the key determinant of your life outcomes, though? Maybe, maybe not. Willpower is important, but not necessarily the answer to everything.

Dr. Rice says it is important to have some level of willpower; being externally driven isn’t enough to keep us going long-term. We need to have some level of internal motivation to find success and balance. “Being able to access internal drive will always be that much more promising than looking to the world around us to supply us with a push forward,” Dr. Rice says.

Having intrinsic self-drive is important, but some psychologists now posit that willpower is overrated, a myth even, because more recent research is challenging past studies. If willpower is really about having fewer temptations, then the need for self-control is minimized. 

Additionally, financial situations may be a larger contributing factor than previously thought when it comes to achievements that could be attributed to willpower. Higher levels of success often can’t be looked at in isolation from financial factors. If one student is struggling to survive at the poverty level while another has all their basic needs met, the latter student will likely be able to focus more and achieve the high SAT scores Mischel observed. Willpower isn’t the only factor at play.

While environment is a factor, so is genetic predisposition. Differing genetics impact baseline levels of willpower and the type of temptations that may come up. Some naturally prefer eating healthy and working hard; it may not require as much willpower for them. Also, others may naturally feel more satisfied by self-control, making it easier to engage in disciplined behaviors than it is for others. 

The jury is still out on whether willpower is genetics, environment, or overrated, but the concept of willpower is influential nevertheless. Whatever perspective you hold, it’s oversimplifying to blame the individual for their level of self-discipline. What matters is looking at all the factors at play in your life and using that to understand what works best for motivating you to achieve your goals.

Can Willpower Be Improved?

While there are genetic factors that impact willpower, Mischel’s research shows willpower can be improved with practice. He posits that the ability to defer gratification is key. His findings support that anyone can work on this skill and increase their self-control tenacity.

Genetic willpower would be hard to improve (thanks, Mom and Dad), but environmental willpower can be increased, Dr. Rice explains. Putting yourself in an environment that supports motivation and limits temptation will make self-improvement easier. Practicing delayed gratification will improve your willpower over time.

Can You Have Too Much Willpower?

While the idea of having unlimited willpower may sound alluring, there comes a point where striving for endless willpower can turn unhealthy. Given willpower is a limited resource, putting all your energy into ensuring you have as much willpower as possible will only make it harder to work towards the goals that are most important to you.

“Weighting either side of a pendulum to heavily creates an imbalance,” Dr. Rice says. “Too much of something. Not enough of something. Willpower is no different in that sense. Too much willpower might look like an inability to be present and mindful, or a generalized inability to feel grounded. Whereas not enough willpower could look like laziness, selfishness, and taking a rather inactive stance on life.” 

Neither end of the spectrum is healthy when it comes to willpower, which is why finding a healthy balance is best. Make sure you’re not striving to be the most self-disciplined person in every aspect of life, but also don’t  just give in to every temptation. Prioritize what is most important and focus your efforts on that. 

How Does Mental Health Impact Willpower?

Mental health can impact willpower in immense ways. Struggling with a mental illness often makes doing basic tasks a challenge, so working towards long-term goals may be out of the question. It doesn’t have to stay that way though. With proper treatment, you can work towards stable self-motivation. 

“Just like anything else, mental illness can chip away at [your] vitality,” says Dr. Rice. “People often share that their willpower, prior to mental illness taking over, pushed them to be better and do better every single day…Getting on medications and seeking out professional counseling, or both, is often the golden nugget to getting your willpower back.”

Mental health impacts all areas of life, especially the ability to self-regulate and motivate. If you do struggle with a mental illness, understand that it’s natural for willpower to be a challenge for you. But also know you can seek out treatment and practice strategies to help.

Strategies To Improve Willpower

Now onto what we all really want to know — how can willpower be increased in daily life? Look no further, here is a round-up of the best strategies to strengthen your self-control muscle. 

Track your goals

Write out goals with clear incremental steps to help you stay on track towards reaching your objectives. A great option is setting “SMART” goals: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound goals. Make sure your goals are manageable and realistic so they are something you are actually motivated to work towards.

Reward yourself

Use long-term rewards to help you ignore immediate temptation. This could mean planning to get a massage after a big milestone is reached or scheduling a date night to celebrate the end of a productive week. It can help you get over a small hump if you know you have a larger reward coming.

Engage in healthy behaviors

Do your best to eat regular meals, get enough sleep, and engage in mindful movement. Easier said than done, of course, but having a healthy body and mind gives you the best foundation for employing deeper self-control.

Find others with willpower

Surround yourself with others who have a higher degree of willpower than you. This will naturally push you to improve. Peer competition can actually be healthy in moderation.

Motivation reminders

Keep reminders of why you are working towards your goals handy. Self-control for the sake of self-control might only lead to long-term burnout. Remind yourself why you’re working towards your goals with inspirational notes around the house, reminders on your phone, having a friend text you, and journaling about what’s motivating you.

Stay balanced

Find balance as best you can; motivation for productivity works best when balanced with recharging and relaxing activities. No one can focus all the time, that only depletes willpower. It might sound counterintuitive but taking breaks matters.

Avoid short-term temptations

Plan for dealing with any roadblocks that may come up. If you typically have a 3 pm slump, maybe schedule a walk outside at that time. If you’re known to hit snooze a few too many times in the morning, schedule a daily meeting with a friend or colleague first thing to keep you accountable when it’s time to start the day. Be proactive in minimizing your short-term temptations.

Focus on what’s important

Prioritize what’s important to you and where you want to allocate most of your willpower. Because it’s a limited resource, focus your willpower on top-level items that are most important to you. This will help you feel more fulfilled at the end of the day and make it easier to continue good habits.

Try these strategies and see what works for you. Forming healthy habits that match your goals will help you self-motivate and stay on track towards your goals. Remember, increased willpower won’t come in a day, so work on slowly implementing some of these practices. With time, you will find your self-discipline increases, and that your goals are within reach.

If you’re still struggling to find internal motivation and self-regulate, a licensed therapist can help. Talkspace is a great option to get started, bringing convenient, affordable online therapy to wherever you are.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

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