What is willpower? Willpower is the self-regulatory strength required for all acts of self-control through which you can either
- initiate and adhere to novel, boring, difficult, exhausting, or stressful tasks, or
- refrain from surrendering to unwanted impulses or cravings.
In this article you will learn:
- Why you need willpower
- How you can understand willpower
- What science knows about willpower
- How you can have more willpower
1. Why you need more willpower
You need willpower if you want to
- get better grades (Duckworth & Seligman 2005, Tangney et al. 2004),
- have more friends and better relationships (Tangney et al. 2004),
- make more money (Moffitt et al. 2011),
- achieve more success (ask any successful person),
- be mentally and physically healthier (Tangney et al. 2004), and
- live longer (Kern & Friedman 2008).
More generally, you need willpower to
- get rid of bad habits,
- create and stick to good habits,
- overcome resistance, and
- push through pain, fear, anxiety, and discomfort.
In terms of virtues, you need willpower to demonstrate
2. How to understand willpower in terms of everyday psychology
Definition of Willpower
In my own research, I defined willpower as
the ability to consciously control one’s behavior in alignment with one’s longer-term goals in the face of conflicting thoughts, emotions, and desires driving impulsive behaviors toward opposing shorter-term goals. (Reichl 2015, p. 5)
Let’s break this down…
- There are two types of goals:
- longer-term goals (I want to lose fat, I want to get laid, I want to stop smoking,…)
- shorter-term goals (I want to eat this, I want to not get rejected, I want to smoke now,…)
- Longer-term goals constitute your True Will—what you truly want.
- Three forces try to steer you away from your True Will and toward shorter-term goals:
- emotions (I’m hungry, I’m anxious, I feel stressed,…)
- desires (I crave a burger, I need the strangers around to not see me get blown off, I must smoke,…)
- excuses (There’s a piece of healthy salad in this burger, She’s not that hot anyway, This will be my last cigarette,…)
- Willpower is the ability to put your behavior in alignment with your True Will in the face of these three forces.
All well and good, but let’s dig a bit deeper: What exactly is this “ability”? Is it a form of mental power? Is it a skill? Does it have emotional qualities? Can it be defined behavioristically? Is it a function? What it the substrate of willpower?
Do you think that willpower has something to do with having a strong mind? If so, consider this basic principle:
Your thoughts don’t control your behavior.
- It is not your thoughts that make you do things but your emotions. Thoughts are often closely intertwined with emotions but thinking alone won’t make you do shit.
- In other words: The relationship between thinking and acting is always mediated by affective processes.
Therefore, willpower must team up with emotions in order to be effective.
But wait, aren’t emotions one of the three forces toward shorter-term goals, instant gratification, and willpower failure?
These emotions would be anxiety, craving, anger, sadness, greed, stress, etc.—all emotions that make you more reactive.
What you want is to appease these emotions through mindfulness.
And what you want even more is to experience emotions that increase your freedom and make you more proactive!—emotions that fuel your ambition, your productivity, your performance, and… your True Will.
Your mind can’t overpower your emotions. Your will can’t overpower your emotions. Only other emotions can overpower your emotions.
And what are those emotions that fuel your True Will and overpower contra-productive emotions?
It’s only one emotion—
A friend of mine once had severe troubles with quitting smoking. She read several books, tried plenty of methods but in times of great stress her efforts were always futile. One day she followed my advice to write a letter (yes, an actual letter) to a few people she deeply respected about how she’ll now quit smoking for good. After having sent those letters, she never smoked a cigarette ever again. Whenever she was tempted to smoke, she thought about her letters and the respectful friends she sent them to, thereby triggering her desire for feeling respected and respecting herself. She successfully utilized her pride to overpower one of the most intense addictive drives to a substance known to man.
Now imagine the badasses of our world who truly embody the power of will and total mental toughness:
- hardcore athletes and
- soldiers in war.
What makes them compete and fight and struggle and never give up?—Honor and the pride they gain from it!
Even if you happen to not like the sound of these words, consider how much pride influences your every action! Social validation, recognition, reputation, fame, acceptance, achievement, success,…—it’s all driven by pride!
Yeayea, I know, you don’t want to worry about what others think of you. You “just don’t give a fuck!” “I do what I want, bitch!” — fine, good for you. But you know what? This attitude too is driven by pride!
Your desire to lose weight, your desire to work out, your desire to get good grades, your desire to do a good job, your desire to start a business,…—it’s all driven by pride!
Confidence, self-esteem, self-respect, ambition, determination, perseverance,…—it’s all connected to pride!
Whenever you “exert willpower,” you’re actually making use of your pride to overpower all the other emotions. That’s how willpower really works. Again, not your thoughts control your behavior, but your emotions control your behavior.
The key to willpower is therefore: Embrace and invigorate your feeling of pride!
To put things into a larger perspective, there are
Two approaches to freedom through strength:
- The willpower approach allows you to follow your True Will by using pride to overpower unwanted, contra-productive emotions.
- The mindfulness approach allows you to follow your True Will by appeasing unwanted, contra-productive emotions.
So which approach should you pursue?—Well, as long as you’re not a hermit living totally self-sufficient somewhere deep in the woods or high up on a mountain beyond all civilization, you want to pursue both approaches:
- Increase your desire for pride by cherishing it as a positive emotion and by nourishing it through visualization techniques: Imagine in your mind what it will feel and look like when you receive praise and love from people you hold dear or respect.
- Decrease negative emotions like sadness, stress, anxiety, anger, greed, craving, etc. through meditation or mindfulness practices: For example, every day before you go to bed, write down 3 things or people you are grateful for that day.
Watch this video:
3. How to understand willpower scientifically
Neurophysiologically, willpower is based on the parasympathetic pause-and-plan response of the nervous system (Segerstrom et al. 2012), which is the opposite of the sympathetic fight-or-flight state.
Willpower exertion is associated with neural activity in
- the prefrontal cortex (Suchy 2009, Picton et al. 2007), which is also associated with pride (Roth et al. 2014), and
- the anterior cingulate cortex (Inzlicht & Gutsell 2007).
Physiologically, willpower is reflected by heart rate variability, which too is associated with such cortical activation patterns (Vanneste & De Ridder 2013). Heart rate variability is the variation in the time interval between consecutive heartbeats (Acharya 2006). It is widely recognized as a crucial biomarker for overall health and risk of all-cause mortality (Thayer et al. 2009). The higher your heart rate variability, the healthier (and, for athletes, the more recovered) you are. Generally speaking, heart rate variability indicates how well your autonomic nervous system deals with stress.
In addition to a host of studies relating heart rate variability to executive functions and cognitive performance, three studies in particular found that, at least to some extent, heart rate variability (more accurately, vagal tone) could predict willpower performance (Reichl 2015, Segerstrom & Solberg Nes 2007, Reynard et al. 2011).
There are also some studies about how willpower might be dependent on brain glucose levels (e.g., Gailliot et al. 2007). Yet since there are so many issues with these studies (see, for example, here), I will refrain from making any statements about them here in this article. Just keep in mind that consuming tons of sugar will not boost your willpower through the roof—please, use your common sense. Furthermore, as Berkman et al. (2012) put it:
A deeper problem with the glucose hypothesis, even if it is correct, is that it does not provide specificity regarding which brain structures actually consume the glucose (if any), whether those structures are amenable to intervention, and if so, whether intervention gains would transfer across domains.
In cognitive science and especially cognitive neuroscience, willpower can be regarded as the “fuel” for executive functions. Executive functions are cognitive control processes “essential for achieving a particular goal in a flexible and appropriate manner” (Funahashi & Andreau 2013, p. 471). Examples include attentional control and behavioral response inhibition (e.g., Funahashi 2001).
From the perspective of evolutionary biology, willpower might have been selected for as an adaptation to the demands of increasing social complexity on cognition (Dunbar 2003). Fitting in, cooperating, and maintaining long-term relationships were needs that put evolutionary pressure on our early human brains to develop strategies for self-regulation (McGonigal 2013).
In personality psychology, willpower is commonly associated with
- higher conscientiousness and
- lower neuroticism = higher emotional stability (Tangney et al. 2004).
This means that how much willpower you have is partially determined by your personality.
According to the “strength model of self-control” (Hagger et al. 2010) in social psychology, willpower is a limited mental resource that can be exhausted by exerting self-regulatory strength (Baumeister et al. 1998) or making choices (Vohs et al. 2008), temporarily leading to impaired self-control task performance.
The corresponding concept of ego depletion suggests that willpower is a limited pool that can be depleted. However, recent research based on more refined studies suggests that ego depletion might not exist after all. You can read up on this controversy here, here, and here.
4. How to have more willpower
- Embrace and invigorate your feeling of pride!
- Use visualization techniques: Imagine in your mind what it will feel and look like when you receive praise and love from people you respect. (Conversely, you could imagine how you’ll feel like a total loser if you don’t follow your True Will. This works great for some people, and in some cases it will be more effective; personally, I prefer to stay positive though.)
- For example, when I started working out six years ago I used to visualize a mental picture of the girl I was madly in love with at that time in order to push myself harder and harder—and harder. This may sound silly and today my motives for working out are different, but it definitely worked like a charm six years ago.
- Right now, to give another example, I get the willpower to keep writing and not procrastinate from the pride I imagine to feel when this blog post helps YOU to increase YOUR willpower too.
- Take care of your prefrontal cortex, most importantly:
- Increase your baseline heart rate variability:
- Eat unprocessed foods and plenty of vegetables.
- Minimize stressors in your everyday life.
- Breathe as much fresh air as possible (maybe consider moving to a place with better air quality).
- Get treatment for mental issues like anxiety, anger, or depression.
- Get treatment for chronic pain and physical illnesses.
- Spend more time with friends and family.
- Adopt a long-term perspective.
- Increase your self-discipline by manipulating your environment intelligently.
- Lessen willpower demands by loving what you do.
- Don’t use willpower if you don’t have a plan to build a habit.
- Become more disciplined by understanding importance.
- Increase willpower by minimizing distraction.
- Increase willpower through breath regulation.
- Stop ruminating about the past or worrying about the future.
- Boost your desire to change by creating discomfort in your life.
- For long-term self-control challenges, monitor your progress.
- Don’t rely on drugs to develop discipline.
- Put little mirrors at places where you tend to succumb to temptation.
- When you don’t feel like doing something (when you lack motivation), read this.
- Find your life purpose! Having a strong, passionate direction in life is like steroids for your volition.
- I know, easier said than done. Don’t worry about it. You can simply start by adding one new piece of passion into your lifestyle: take up a new hobby, learn a new language, set yourself a crazy goal you want to achieve, or accept a random challenge that sounds exciting to you.
- For example, if you become passionate about working out or some sport you like, you will automatically have much more motivation to exert willpower in other areas of your life as well: like sticking to your diet and your meditation habit—for you will soon realize how valuable these two are for getting the most out of your passion.
- Lastly, try to always reflect on what you truly want out of life. This will strengthen your True Will, which will give you more motivation to win at your willpower challenges.
Was this article helpful to you? How do you understand the mechanisms of willpower? What is your True Will? Let me know in the comments below!
Learn more about willpower in my new book Willpower Condensed.
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