What you don’t know about willpower:
Why popular ideas about determination and drive are all wrong.
By Krista Scott-Dixon, PhD
Most people think of willpower as a resource that runs dry… and then you’re just out of luck. But here’s the truth—and a much more hopeful approach.
There’s a reason why 6 out of 10 big, sweeping promises to change end up failing within three months. Or, a few reasons…
- Some folks try to introduce too much change all at once.
- Others never create a solid action plan to work from in the first place.
- Yet others fail to address life patterns that reinforce old habits.
But there’s one key factor that plays a central role in making or breaking our ability to change. And as a culture, we just don’t understand it.
I think it’s time we talk about willpower.
Improving your life—whether that means quitting smoking, losing weight, or getting a handle on your disaster of an inbox—requires change. And to make change happen, we usually go straight to our old friend willpower.
The internal conversation usually goes something like this:
Wake up, willpower, I’ve got a bunch of jobs for you! First I need you to get me out of bed at 5:30am. Then you’ve got to get me out the door for a run. Also, don’t let me eat any sugar today. And while you’re at it, help me keep my mouth shut the next time my boss says something stupid.
We draw on willpower a lot. But what is it, exactly? Why does it seem to fail us? And, most importantly, how can we make it work better (or, if you’re a personal trainer, make it work better for your clients)?
How we think of willpower
You may know it by a few different names:
- can-do spirit
The common thread: They all make your palms sweat and your mouth go dry when forcing yourself to do something you really don’t want to do.
Definitions of willpower include similarly discomforting concepts:
- the ability to delay gratification, resisting short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals
- the capacity to override an unwanted thought, feeling, or impulse
- the ability to employ a “cool” cognitive system of behavior rather than a “hot” emotional system
- conscious, effortful regulation of the self by the self
- a limited resource capable of being depleted
That last definition, in particular, is interesting. Because, you see, it might not actually be true.
We used to think that willpower was a limited resource, something that we use up until it’s gone.
That’s the belief we fall back on when, after eating chicken and broccoli all week long, we find ourselves knee-deep in nachos and margaritas at 7PM on Friday night.
My (depleted) willpower made me do it!
Thankfully, new discoveries in willpower research have revealed that this viewpoint falls short.
Before we get into the new research, here’s a crash course on what we thought we knew… until recently.
Is willpower really a finite resource?
University of Kentucky psychology professor Suzanne Segerstrom began researching the biological basis of willpower in the early 2000s. Studying physiologic correlations, Segerstrom found that heart rate variability (HRV) increases when people call on their willpower.
From there, a study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology showed that using willpower literally fatigues participants. In another, stamina was shown to be depleted.
Florida State University professor Matthew Gailliot then proposed that the mind and body pull the same resources for fuel, suggesting that willpower uses glucose. Though arguable, Gailliot’s research at least suggested that individuals with high glucose resources would have more self-control.
Follow-up studies showed that having too many choices—say, at a buffet—decreases our ability to restrain ourselves. The take-home: Limit your options if you want to conserve your willpower.
From these studies and other data, we get the picture that willpower is a limited resource. That we must prioritize our willpower-requiring activities, since we’ll likely run out.
Countless books and strategies have been written on the subject.
The first wave of books was a bit fatalistic: If willpower is a biologically limited entity, it’s not our fault if we run out. Not very hopeful—and practically useless when it comes to making big life changes.
The second wave was a bit better. These compared willpower to a muscle, suggesting that it can be strengthened. So authors shared all sorts of strategies for doing so.
Here’s the only problem with all this: The willpower-as-limited-resource narrative is only half right. Which means it’s also half wrong.
Change your beliefs on willpower, change everything
In more recent studies, one thing really stands out: Willpower is surprisingly simple to boost.
So easy that merely suggesting to people that willpower works cumulatively, rather than being a finite resource, can be enough to improve the numbers.
In one study from Stanford, researchers gave subjects the prompt, “Sometimes, working on a strenuous mental task can make you feel energized for further challenging activities.”
Simply sending the message that willpower can build on itself rather than run out was enough to get people to be significantly more successful at the tasks at hand.
Staggering, isn’t it?
I’m not saying this is going to work like a charm every time. But it does reveal the power of our own perception when it comes to finding motivation.
Where willpower can take us from here
Okay, it is absolutely true that willpower is a finite resource. You will absolutely run out of it if you use too much.
But only if you believe that’s how willpower works.
What happens if you believe the opposite—that doing something requiring willpower can drive you to accomplish even more? Well, amazing things happen.
For example, when the Stanford researchers asked 153 college students about their attitudes regarding motivation and willpower, the ones who felt that willpower was a limited resource felt “depleted” after a difficult task.
Yet the students who felt that willpower was cumulative did better on every subsequent task given.
As the saying goes, nothing seems to succeed like success.
From here, anything is possible. Excelling at something in one area of life might lead to a whole chain of successes in seemingly unrelated areas.
For instance, a good test score could lead to improved academic growth, which could lead to procrastinating less, which could even lead to things like healthy eating or sticking to a budget more effectively.
Well played, brain. Well played.
What does this mean for you?
Just like every other life situation, our own self-talk and beliefs determine how we handle difficult situations.
This means that how you think about willpower can actually translate to how you act, and that can mean better results.
For example, if you’re having trouble finding the motivation to get to the gym, or you’re tired of white-knuckling yourself away from the refrigerator, try simply re-framing the situation.
Tell yourself that every time you work on a challenging task you become more capable of rocking the next one.
That mindset alone can make you feel more empowered.
You can use that mindset to think about motivation differently, to feel energized and empowered, rather than fatigued and exhausted as you make big changes in your lives. With your guidance, you can act more consistently, and see better results.
What to do next
1. Think about your understanding of willpower. How do you define it? How do you think it works? Consider how your definition of willpower affects your actions.
2. Try giving yourself a prompt to encourage a different view of willpower and motivation. Use the one from the study I mentioned (“Sometimes, working on a strenuous mental task makes me feel energized for further challenging activities”), or put your own spin on it (“Following through on my new habits makes me feel like a rockstar who’s capable of anything”).
3. Consider how a different view of willpower might help you, with challenges like:
- nutrition consistency
- sticking to a workout routine
- preparing meals ahead of time
4. The next time you feel like you’ve exhausted your willpower, ask yourself: How can I reframe what willpower means for me? What successes have I already achieved? How can I draw energy from those successes?
Remember, willpower is simply another tool you can use to empower yourself to make positive changes.
And, like most things in life, it’s best used with a hefty dose of self-compassion, positive self-talk, and social support.