Willpower and its role in getting what you want

Willpower plays one, if not the biggest role in achieving whatever we put our minds to achieve: getting a career advancement, losing weight, exercising more, eating healthy, becoming more skilled at a certain job, quit smoking, learning something new, save money and so on. It is of course not the only responsible one – we still need to set the goals and monitor their implementation, but without willpower we might not be able to move ourselves towards the goal and act on it on a daily basis.

Willpower has shown that it plays a key role in a person’s life success. Being able to hold on acting based on present instincts and temptation but rather wait for a future reward or goal is not easy and it requires quite a lot of discipline. But this discipline, once mastered and applied in all life’s aspects, can lead to real life success.

The good news is that we know how to “develop” willpower so that we can hold on our discipline when facing too many “restrictions” all around us and/or having to exercise willpower for too long. There are many common names used to replace willpower, such as self-control, self-discipline, drive or determination, but, as most of the psychologists define willpower, it refers to:

  • Delaying gratification and resisting temptations for a future reward
  • Being able to resist a momentarily impulse
  • Employ a “cool” cognitive system of behavior (rational – long term benefits thinking), rather than a “hot” emotional system (gratification on the moment)
  • Regulation of the self by the self
  • A resource that is limited and can be depleted


The benefits of a strong willpower

Having a strong discipline and willpower may benefit you on the long term, in all aspects of your life. A study made by Terrie Moffitt, PhD, and his colleagues at Duke University followed a group of 1,000 individuals from birth to age 32 in New Zealand and looked for a correlation between willpower and adult success. What the study revealed is that the individuals with a high self-control during childhood became healthier adults, with less criminal issues and got better at saving and financial security. These differences were further visible on the individual’s general intelligence, status and home lives.

A strong willpower is definitely helping individuals achieve more, no matter which goals they are pursuing. Being strong while facing adversity and able to continue even when the motivation is long gone is the key to making happen anything you put your mind to do.


The marshmallow test

In case you haven’t yet heard of the marshmallow test, you can watch it in the video below

This test is one of many that was used to study the connection between a strong self-discipline as a child and the ability to better achieve life’s goals as an adult. The children who took the marshmallow test were studied to see how they did as grown-ups. The ones who waited until a future reward managed to do much better as adults, as compared to the ones who didn’t and ate the marshmallow right away.

During this test the “hot-and-cool” system was developed to explain willpower and its connection to success. The cool system means the rational side we all have, the cognitive side that for example tells us to wait on eating one marshmallow now as we could get more later, if we wait. The hot system is the impulsive one that makes us unable to wait until a later gratification. There is always a battle between the two, and willpower is exercised when the cool system overpowers the hot one.

For example, we want to lose weight and therefore we need to cut down on some unhealthy food. When faced with the impulse to eat a big burger, do we manage to use our cool system and think about how well we’ll look in the swimming suit if we don’t eat the burger, or will we use our hot system thinking we only live once and we should enjoy each of its moments, even if seconds later we’ll regret this decision?


Willpower depletion

Many studies around willpower focused their attention on its depletion, also called “ego depletion”. They basically say that, if exercised many times successively, one’s willpower will tend to weaken. If a person exercises willpower to refrain from eating a delicious meal, then he is forced to hold his opinion and smile during an unfair situation, he will most probably burst out during a visit to his in laws in the evening if he is also put into a difficult situation.

So, how can we avoid willpower depletion? How can we avoid the trap of temptation stopping us to achieve our long term goals? There are a few opinions saying that by exercising willpower, our brain uses glucose (sugar), but recent studies have proven this is quite not true. They have compared individuals who consumed sugary drinks during willpower depletion with ones that didn’t, and the level of glucose in their blood and brain stayed the same.


How can we develop a strong willpower?

A lot of people went into in depth research on how to strengthen one’s self-control or willpower. If willpower can be depleted, or is a limited resource, how can we still be more disciplined into achieving what we put our mind to achieve? Below are a few strategies that psychologists concluded to be efficient in developing a strong willpower:

  • Avoiding temptation, or how they say “out of sight, out of mind” – meaning that you should keep temptations out of reach and sight, that way your discipline is easier to achieve. Don’t keep chocolate in your house if you want to lose some weight; knowing it’s there will only make you think of it and inevitable having some from time to time. In the same marshmallow test, children who kept away from looking at the marshmallow managed to pass the test more than children who kept staring at it.
  • Implementation intention – or having a plan clearly set in our heads. To continue with the same weight loss example, if you know you are about to go to a fancy dinner, plan ahead that if you are to choose anything from the buffet, you will go for salad (or anything you feel like having but it’s within your eating restrictions).
  • Motivation – if we have a really strong motivation, we can face willpower depletion and continue being disciplined to achieve our goal. If we really want the new bright and shiny car, we will easily restrain from spending the money we need to save so we can buy it.
  • Exercising willpower – similar to a muscle, discipline becomes stronger the more we exercise it. Once we learn to be disciplined in a small matter, we become more and more accustomed to practice willpower and will slowly become more self-disciplined and stronger in our willpower. In a study made by Mark Muraven, he concluded that smokers who practiced willpower by avoiding sweets for two weeks were more successful at quitting smoking than the other subjects that performed tasks that didn’t require willpower, such as writing in a diary.
  • Focusing at one goal at a time – as we saw previously, exercising willpower too often and in too many areas of our life can be tiring and leads to depletion. Focusing in one area and exercising our self-control will not only make the goal more achievable, we will exercise our willpower strength for future needs and, above all, we will increase our motivation that we can actually do whatever we want to do.
  • Even if the willpower might be dependent on the glucose level on our blood, eating healthy and regularly is actually the way to keep a constant glucose level, as opposed to eating processed sugar food – you can read here more about the glucose level and keeping it constant throughout the day.

I find the subject of willpower and self-control or discipline extremely fascinating. I feel I am personally in a constant fight to keep myself disciplined to achieve the things I want to achieve, and it’s always been a struggle. But understanding he mechanisms of willpower and how I can improve this for myself, I feel motivated now – hope this article is a motivation for you too to really get yourself to achieve the goals you want to achieve. Good luck!

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