We all have visions of who we’d like to be. There are things we wish we did more of, and less of. Most people have numerous skills they’d like to improve upon, and habits they’d like to break. There are times when we feel like we have unbreakable resolve. Then, there are times when we cave in, often doing something that’s enticing in the moment, but undermines our long-term goals. Self-discipline works like any other muscle. Which means if you regularly workout your willpower, you can dramatically increase the odds you’ll achieve your goals.
Kelly McGonigal is a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University. She’s written many books that introduce practical strategies drawn from scientific research to increase resilience, improve health, and promote wellbeing.
The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It challenges common self-discipline misconceptions, shedding light on the reasons people often struggle to achieve their goals and reach desired results.
Most of us have never taken the time to formally define and unpack willpower. Because we are acutely aware that it’s something we possess more of at some points in time than others, it’s most clearly visible to me when it’s absent.
“I didn’t have the will to resist the tray of cupcakes in the breakroom at work.”
“I lacked the willpower to make it to the gym.”
“I was waking up early every morning to jog before work, until yesterday. I woke up to the sound of rain washing my willpower away.”
So, What is Willpower?
McGonigal explains that challenges to willpower are actually conflicts between what we want now [for our present self] and what we want later [for our future self]. These types of conflicts can’t be avoided, but we can expect them. And in doing so, prepare for them. Finally, we can be compassionate toward ourselves when our present self prevails.
Not All Goals Are Equal
We have more willpower available to us when we are more motivated and determined. Our level of commitment increases when what we’re striving for is tied to our ideal identity. We are more likely to achieve our goals when they bring us closer to who we’d like to be, to become. It’s important to ask whether our goals are actually ours. At times, we get caught up in what we feel we “should” want, or what others want for us. You can start to workout your willpower by getting in touch with yourself, determining your goals, listening to your inner voice.
We also want to be realistic. This isn’t to say we can’t have lofty goals, definitely reach for the stars, but we must also acknowledge what it will take to get there.
There are Three Types of Goals
Outcome goals focus on desired results. Achieving your goals in this area means reaching certain benchmarks, crossing a threshold. Enhance your odds of success by setting a timeline, sharing your goal with others, and breaking it down into small steps.
“I’d like to be more fit.”
Performance goals set standards by defining the limits we’ll work within. Reaching this type of goal is about honoring very specific commitments and following necessary processes.
“I’ll go to the gym for at least an hour, minimally three days a week. When I’m at the gym, I’ll do burpees. I’ll start with 10 per day, then add 5 more each week, until I’ve reached 50 per day.”
Procedural goals focus on the behaviors and strategies required to reach an outcome. To achieve your goals in this area, make sure you’re being specific and that the outcomes are measurable.
“I’ll join a gym, set up sessions with an athletic trainer, and record my progress in my journal.”
Strategies and processes are catalysts for meeting performance standards, which pave the way to desired results.
Caving In is a Form of Muscle Failure
Willpower works like a muscle, in that it can be strengthened through practice, but also because it is exhausted and depleted through overuse. The good news is that you can workout your willpower to increase its strength and endurance! To achieve a goal, in addition to understanding how self-discipline ebbs and flows, it helps to break down what’s needed to succeed into bite-sized pieces. When I decided to work on my handstands, I started with drills to improve my flexibility and core strength.
Why? Because when we workout our willpower to reach one objective, our enhanced self-control can be applied in other ways, to other areas of our lives.
How Do You Workout Your Willpower?
“Sleep is the best meditation.”Dalai Lama
No matter what you hope to accomplish, you have a better chance after a great night’s sleep! At McGonigal’s presentation, she shared some of her favorite willpower experiments; studies where small interventions led to significant lifestyle and behavioral changes in participants.
In the first experiment she discussed, half of the people in a substance abuse recovery program were asked to take a mindfulness meditation training to improve their sleep. The breath focused meditation, on average, increased the recovering addicts’ sleep by roughly one hour a night. Those who slept more were far less likely to relapse. Additionally, those who meditated for longer were even less likely to relapse.
Meditation Improves Focus and Self-Control
Physical Exercise Helps Strengthen Drive [Directly, and Indirectly]
Physical exercise helps to reduce stress, which can drastically weaken our will. Findings from a study at the Macquarie University in Sydney, which investigated the relationship between exercise and self-control, are discussed in the article The Incredible Effect of Exercise On Your Willpower. After two months of fitness, participants were compared in both temptation resistance and perseverance. Those who were exercising regularly not only performed better in those two dimensions, they had less junk food, nicotine, alcohol, and caffeine. They saw improvements in diet and emotional regulation. They were even more punctual.
Healthy Eating Gives Willpower a Boost
Nutritious food strengthens our willpower. Following a more plant based diet changes the way our brain uses energy by reducing spikes in sugar levels that interfere with our mind’s functioning. Workout your willpower with a colorful salad, or vegetable smoothie.
Focus on Failure
When you relapse or fail to meet a performance measure, how do you feel? If you feel guilty, are critical of yourself, or regret what has happened, you are more likely to cave in, or miss the target the next time around. Contrary to popular belief, shaming ourselves is not a good motivational tool.
It’s better to see failure as part of the process of progress, console yourself with comforting words and support, and use what has happened as a valuable learning tool.
We’re often told to imagine ourselves crossing the finish line, receiving a medal, and achieving the dream. It’s important to visualize success, but if that’s all we do, we’re left overly optimistic and unprepared to recognize trouble heading our way. Seeing obstacles before we reach them is crucial in avoiding or overcoming them.
McGonigal addressed an unfortunate finding that tracking success can lead to slacking off. She explained that when our future self is being celebratory and feels satisfied, our present self has an opportunity to slip into the driver’s seat.
Exercise Self-Control Before, and After, You Achieve a Goal
I’ve experienced willpower fatigue firsthand. After completing my first 5k [there was some combination of walking and running involved], I went to a local coffee shop, where I was debating what to order. I was leaning toward eating something healthy to maintain the benefits of the morning.
The person behind me, who was a much more seasoned runner, pointed out that just after a 5k is the perfect time to splurge. He encouraged me to have whatever I wanted. He subscribed to an “earn the cheat” philosophy. Since I was on the fence already, it didn’t take much to sway me toward my immediate desires. Just a tiny nudge…
Tracking Both Success and Failure as You Exercise Your Self-Control
The solution: as you imagine and track success, also spend time imaging and tracking failure. Imagine every single thing that could go wrong, interfere, get in your way, or prevent success. Then think about how you will move past those roadblocks. Track your failures to see what they share in common.
We’re more likely to go to the gym when we’ve made plans to go with someone else [willpower is contagious]. Most people are less likely to go to the gym in the afternoon than the morning. For many, the later in the day they plan to go, the less likely they are to make it at all. This is because our willpower is spent. As it was use, throughout the day, it waned, diminished.
If you want to get serious about making changes, find someone to workout your willpower with. Or at least someone who knows your goals, and can remind you of your priorities when you are tempted to falter. We all need people who will hold us accountable, just like a good gym buddy would.
Workout Your Willpower by Employing Mental Strategies
McGonigal suggests those who are able to exert self-control, when faced with challenges to willpower, use one or more of three mental strategies: I won’t, I want, I will.
I Won’t [Exercise Self-Control]
“I won’t” is the ability to completely disregard the desire of the body and walk away from cravings, or anything else that’s enticing us. It’s likely what you think of when you hear the term willpower.
I Want [Focus to Achieve Your Goals]
“I want” is about knowing and focusing on the end goal. Lifestyle changes begin with becoming aware of our inner desires. Once we know where we hope to go, we can compare that to where we are. The end result must be appealing enough to override inertia, resistance to change, etc.
When we are contemplating a change, we carefully weigh the costs of the activities involved [waking up early, time investment, financial investment] against the benefits of achieving our ultimate goal [feeling better, getting sick less, learning a new skill]. Once it has been determined something is worth the effort, we have incentive to delay gratification.
I Will [Motivation, Determination, Resolve]
“I will” allows us to do something we would prefer not to, even things that make us uncomfortable, to reach our long-term goals. Success depends on remembering those goals during moments of temptation.
As mentioned earlier, stress and sleep deprivation are willpower killers. Sometimes we can reorganize our lives to increase sleep and reduce stress, but there are times when we cannot. Or, because of our current priorities, we may chose not to.
Predict Weakened Willpower
Are those times when we have less control predictable? Perhaps… Someone might be able to fairly accurately predict that they wouldn’t sleep well in a strange place, or perhaps the night before an important speech. Some people become feel more stress on the first of the month, when their bills are due. Others have a “willpower crisis” around the holidays, when there is a surplus of candy around. If you anticipate reduced willpower on certain occasions, plan and prepare for it before the moment arrives. You can expect to completely exhaust your willpower from time to time, no matter how much you work it out.
“When something is predictable, it is designable.”Nate Silver
If we know when our present self is most likely to take the wheel, we can be sure to plot a course that will have fewer detours. We can modify our schedule to ensure we’re coming in to challenging times with a solid night sleep. We can eat a hearty meal in preparation for our energy needs, enlist external support, and go in knowing that we are human beings who steer off course now and then. Perhaps most importantly, we must find a balance between spending all of our time focused on a self that does not yet exist and appreciating our self as we are, here and now.
Achieve Your Goals by Exercising Self-Control
- know that practice makes progress
- understand when you are more and less motivated [prepare for will fatigue]
- take every opportunity to practice self-discipline
- visualize your future self
- break down the necessary steps
- play to your strengths
- celebrate success [without rewarding through relapse]
- have realistic expectations
- be specific
- employ mental strategies
- shift your perspective by eliminating willpower misconceptions
- see failure as part of the process
You absolutely can become the person you’ve set out to be!
Start a Willpower Workout Today!
Remember, when we take baby steps toward achieving one goal, we build the skills needed to attain success in many other areas. The process of working toward our desired outcomes is where all the magic happens. That is where we learn self-discipline and self-control. Regardless of whether you are striving to eat healthier, meditate regularly, spend more quality time with your family, tighten the budget, or bench 40 lbs. more, the strategy remains the same. Exercising your willpower will become easier the more you use it.
Why wait, there is no better time than now to start down the path toward your dreams!
Originally published on January 5, 2020. Updated on December 29, 2020