Willpower is the ability to resist short-term temptations to meet long-term goals.
Willpower is also known as drive, determination, resolve, self-discipline, and self-control.
You can learn many unexplored basics of willpower from Kelly McGonigal’s research-based book Willpower Instinct (Maximum Willpower).
Table of Contents
Overview: 3 Best Insights From Willpower Science
- Willpower is not about denying ourselves what we want. Rather, it is about making choices that align with our long-term goals and values.
- Willpower needs self-awareness of our triggers, our weaknesses, and our strengths. Often, knowing the consequences of our choices can help us make the most effective choices.
- Scientists think of willpower as a muscle, as shown by Baumeister & Vohs in The Strength Model of Self-Control (2007). When we use self-control, our performance decreases on later tasks that require our self-control.
10 Science-Backed Tips To Increase Willpower & Self-Control
Willpower is a limited resource, and we can run out of it if we use it too much. Yet, willpower is not a fixed trait; rather, it is a skill that we can learn and strengthen.
Here are 10 science-backed strategies to maximize your willpower:
1. Have Pre-Set Routines For Your Surrender Triggers
Mark the triggers that make you lose control and give in to temptation. Then set up routines in advance.
These pre-set routines help you avoid mental conflict when you come across a bait to indulge in reckless behaviors.
Say, you’re a health-conscious person who has many stresses at work.
To regulate your stress-induced snacking, keep healthy snacks at your desk. This proactive step can prevent impulsive, regrettable junk food purchases.
2. Let Your Values Point Toward Your Goals
Write down 5–6 values that truly matter to you, which resonate with your sense of purpose in life. These are the values that none should deter you from.
Then let these principles steer your daily choices. When your choices and actions reflect your core values, they become a robust motivator in and of themselves.
They keep pointing steadfastly in the direction of your goals. So it gets easy to maintain your willpower in the pursuit of goals.
Another related way is to divide your big goals into smaller, more achievable tasks. This prevents you from getting discouraged when you see you have to meet big goals.
Smaller goals and smaller triumphs have big motivational powers. Embrace and celebrate each of these victories—no matter how little they may seem.
They collectively build the momentum and compound into substantial, meaningful progress.
3. Embrace Self-Forgiveness & Self-Compassion
Self-improvement is always a gradual process that has many highs and lows. Don’t expect the journey to be smooth and perfect.
Remind yourself that setbacks are a natural aspect of progress, and treat yourself with kindness, patience, and self-compassion when things don’t go as planned.
Recognize that imperfection is part of the human experience – that’s what self-compassion teaches us. It can enhance your optimism and resilience.
When you replace self-criticism with empathy and encouragement, your progress will be faster and less stressful.
4. Self-Discipline & Learning From Mistakes
Consistency in self-discipline, even after many successes, is key to long-term willpower.
Instead of wallowing in regret, see mistakes as valuable feedback for improving your next strategy.
Mistakes show you what went wrong and how to act wisely in similar situations. These wiser choices will then strengthen your commitment to well-being.
When your willpower is high, it’s easier to disregard the unsavory trends around you and make healthy choices.
When you walk into a late-night party, you’re often low on willpower. This is when you tend to give up on your health goals to indulge in smoking or drinking, and then feel guilty later.
So, if you have to be in social situations that may tempt you into unhealthy behaviors, save your willpower during the day.
5. Avoid Moral Licensing
Be vigilant of the tendency to justify indulgence (moral licensing) after good behavior, and reaffirm commitment to your goals instead.
Have specific strategies ready to address potential temptations, as this can prevent rash decisions. Anticipating challenges and having a plan to tackle them increases the likelihood of staying on track.
6. Build A Supportive Social Circle
Surround yourself with individuals who inspire and encourage your best self.
The influence of peers can be undeniable; when you surround yourself with disciplined individuals, their habits can reinforce and discipline your own willpower.
Communal support creates a nurturing space for everyone’s endeavors, not just the collective willpower, to grow by networking.
Moreover, a supportive social circle acts as a sounding board for your ideas and challenges, offering wisdom and perspective that can enhance your journey toward self-improvement.
7. Practice Mindfulness Meditation
Use meditation to strengthen your mental muscles for focus, providing a buffer against impulsive actions.
Regular meditation cultivates a mindfulness that can permeate all aspects of life, enhancing your decision-making processes.
8. Don’t Negotiate On Sleep & Exercise
Prioritize sleep as the fundamental pillar of your mental, emotional, and physical health.
If you are chronically sleep-deprived, it can undermine even your high intellectual prowess and your strong resolve.
Sleep is a non-negotiable for replenishing your mental resources so that you can face challenges with renewed grit and willpower. So aim for a restful and consistent sleep schedule.
Exercise is a keystone habit that can send positive ripples through other areas of life, like sharpening your mental fortitude and reinforcing your willpower.
So, exercise at least 30 minutes a day for at least 5 days a week.
9. Learn How To Relax Your Body & Mind
Integrate relaxation practices into your daily routine to reduce stress and prevent decision fatigue. These moments of calm can serve as a reset, giving you clarity and renewing your willpower for future temptations.
10. Stay Aware of Social Proof
Recognize the influence of others’ actions on your behavior and consciously choose a healthier path. By being aware of this phenomenon, you can seek out positive role models and environments that reinforce your willpower.
Summary of “The Willpower Instinct” or “Maximum Willpower”
The book Willpower Instinct (Maximum Willpower) gathers scientific insights into self-control from psychology, economics, neuroscience, and medicine. Author Kelly McGonigal shows how we can:
- replace our bad habits with healthy ones,
- hack our procrastination habit, and
- handle negative emotions.
“Self-control is a better predictor of academic success than intelligence, a stronger determinant of effective leadership than charisma, and more important for marital bliss than empathy (yes, the secret to lasting marriage may be learning how to keep your mouth shut).”— Kelly McGonigal
Willpower consists of three forces: I will, I won’t, and I want.
The strength of our willpower consists of three forces: I will, I won’t and I want.
- “I won’t” power is the ability to say no even when you want to say yes. This is simply the ability to resist temptation. Each temptation is an “I won’t” willpower challenge, asking if we have the strength to say No.
- “I will” power is the ability to do what you dislike now for a better future. “I will” power helps take up and complete those tasks that are necessary to achieve your goals, but are cumbersome or unpleasant.
- “I want” power is the capacity to remember what you truly want. Regardless of current temptations, what you actually want is what is best for you in the long run. To fight the present, you must have clear long-term goals to guide your daily actions. This boosts your “I want” power by reminding you of what’s at stake.
Willpower is about harnessing all three of these powers – I will, I won’t, I want – to reach your goals and avoid trouble.
People who have better control of their attention, emotions, actions, are better off at almost any way you look at it.— Kelly McGonigal
Willpower is a biological instinct to protect us from long-term harm.
Our body’s fight-or-flight system is an instinct that sets off when we come across a life-threatening situation. It gives our body the ability to spend all of its resources to get us out of harm’s way.
Then there is the pause-and-plan reaction, and it is substantially different from the fight-or-flight response:
- The fight-or-flight response raises your awareness of an exterior threat and increases your pace (like avoiding the snake).
- The pause-and-plan response moves your focus to the internal conflict between your rational and impulsive sides and slows you down to help you control your impulses.
Willpower is founded on a biological instinct. When we face a threat to our lives, we gather immense willpower to fight or escape it. When we see a cookie but want to avoid eating it, the pause and plan response springs into action.
To say No when you need to say no, and Yes when you need to say yes, you need a third power: the ability to remember what you really want.— Kelly McGonigal
Mindfulness meditation can increase self-awareness, which helps to avoid distractions and boost self-control.
When our minds are busy, we run low on willpower. When your mind is distracted or preoccupied, it is easier for the immediate temptation to overwhelm your long-term ambitions.
There is a practical and accessible solution to deal with distractions: Mindfulness Meditation.
Neuroscientists have found people who regularly meditate have more gray matter in their brain regions responsible for self-awareness. So, there is an organ-level change that reflects positively on our attention and higher levels of performance.
Scientists have discovered only three hours of regular meditation can increase self-control and create a longer attention span. And after 11 hours of practice, the gray matter changes in the brain are already visible.
To exert self-control, you need to find your motivation when it matters. This is “I want” power.— Kelly McGonigal
So, there are two takeaways here:
- Whenever you are in such distracting situations, avoid making important decisions.
- Develop self-awareness through mindfulness meditation, and avoid willpower failures.
What happens when we yield to a bad habit?
When we turn slaves to a terrible habit, we react by either:
- feeling guilt and regret, or
- exhibiting the “what the heck” effect.
In either case, we are more likely to succumb to that temptation again. When that happens, it is much worse than the first time. This makes the whole self-control process shaky, and we get primed to lose control again.
Fortunately, there is a way to break the cycle: Forgive yourself (learn here how to do it).
“We think about our future selves like different people. We … expect our future selves to do what our present selves cannot manage. (But) The future you is just as you as you are right now.”
Moral licensing is when we justify being bad because we already did something good.
You may justify your overeating (perhaps a giant pizza) at dinner because “I just ran eight miles, so I deserve this.”
What The Hell (WTH) Effect
We’ve all heard of the diet trap known as the “what the hell effect.”
“I already ruined my diet today with that ice cream, so WTH, I might as well eat the whole pizza,” it goes.
Recognizing that one miss does not have to derail the entire project, can help you to learn how to break the loop and deal with setbacks or slip-ups.
The way to do so is to build more self-compassion and self-forgiveness instead of self-criticism and guilt.
Willpower is Contagious
Good and bad behaviors spread across social networks.
Obesity spreads through social networks, and if a person’s friend becomes obese, their chances of becoming obese increase by 171%.
Willpower and self-control behaviors are transmitted across social networks, just like obesity-causing behaviors are.
If you hang out with people who are setting goals and overcoming willpower challenges, you are more likely to join in and succeed.
Goals are contagious, and spending time with the right people can boost your willpower.
A few insightful words from Kelly McGonigal in an interview on the TED blog:
One of the big lessons from the science of willpower is if you really fight the inner experiences, it’s not going to end well. If you decide you’re going to fight cravings, fight thoughts, fight emotions, you put all your energy and attention into trying to change the inner experiences.
People tend to get more stuck, and more overwhelmed. When you try to control the things that aren’t really under your control, you get to feeling more out of control. Whereas where you really have the freedom is in your choices.
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