The Ultimate Guide to Building Willpower [Part 1]

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Willpower is a concept that’s often misunderstood.

It’s easy to give credit to willpower when you successfully build a new habit, but it’s also equally easy to chalk up a failure due to a lack of willpower.

So what is willpower? How does it affect your ability to stick to a new routine?  Is it a biological trait or can you develop it?  Does a lack of willpower actually cause failure in a habit change?

Regardless of your thoughts on willpower; it is a real thing. It can be strengthened. It can be broken. And it does have a direct impact on your ability to build a new habit.

Today, we’ll start the first of a three-part series of blog articles on willpower.  By the time we’re done with these posts, you’ll have a thorough understanding of how willpower works and how it can be used to get the best results with your current habit changes.

The Paradox of Willpower

Let me start with a simple truth:

[Tweet “Having more willpower isn’t the answer to developing habits “]

Shocking, I know.

Here I am about to subject you to a multi-part “ultimate guide” on willpower and the first thing I say is that it’s not important.  What gives?

So let me clarify things…

Willpower is important.  It can help you make the right decisions, but it’s only part of the story and it’s not even the most important part.

Think of willpower like a reservoir of water. Everyone has this reservoir.  For some, it’s a large, bountiful pool.  For others, it’s a small pond that is a finite resource.

Every action you take draws water from this reservoir.  The tougher the task, the more willpower it takes. So, if you’re trying to get the “mental strength” to go for a five-minute walk, this will drain a smaller level of resources than a 12-mile run.

Everybody relies on a single source of willpower.  That means every action you take during the day will draw from this resource.  Think of the different things you deal with:

  • Work Decisions
  • Bills
  • Family problems
  • Diet/healthy eating
  • Stress
  • Driving to work

Every one of these actions can be a drain on your willpower.  You expend energy with your family, dealing with work issues and watching what you eat.  So, when you try to add something to your routine (like a new habit) you will need to draw willpower from the same reservoir that’s used for everything else in your life.

[Tweet “Every action you take draws from your willpower reservoir”]

That means there is a big downside to willpower…

When you try to change too many things at once, you’ll end up failing because you still need those willpower reserves to handle the other day-to-day activities. (That’s why I recommend focusing on small habit wins, instead of massive goals.)

My point is this: Willpower is important, but it’s not everything. To illustrate this point, let me talk about an example of someone who shows great willpower in one area and regularly experiences failure in another.

What Oprah Winfrey Can Teach You About Willpower

People use a lot of adjectives to describe willpower.  Phrases like “self-discipline”, “self-control” and “mental toughness” make it seem like the secret to building good habits is to harness your inner drill sergeant and become ultra disciplined.  I think this type of language can be dangerous.  It leads to a negative thought pattern where the tinniest “failure” means you’re a complete failure in life.

Fortunately, we are also surrounded by great examples of people who experience both successes and failures.

For instance, let’s talk about Oprah Winfrey.  She is loved by millions of people and has risen from obscurity to building a media empire.  She is a top notch entrepreneur. While she has shown an amazing level of willpower to become successful, she has also struggled with a history of yo-yo weight loss and weight gain.  She’ll lose weight (and maintain it) for a few years, but then she’ll put it back on.  This cycle has repeated a number of times over the last two decades.

I think we can all agree that Oprah has shown amazing willpower in building her career, but we can also agree that her willpower hasn’t been enough to help her build a perfectly balanced life.

The lesson here is that failure doesn’t mean you’re “bad” or unsuccessful.  When you reach the end of your willpower, you simply don’t have the resources to stick to a new habit.  Period. End of story.

Examining the Science of Willpower

Think back to those phrases I used before: “self-discipline”, “self-control” and “mental toughness”.

Although many people use them to describe willpower, they actually have nothing to do with how it actually works.

It’s been my experience that willpower is like any other muscle. It can be exercised and strengthened over time.  Conversely, it has its limits.  Regardless of the strength of your willpower, if you tax it enough, you will reach a breaking point.

[Tweet “Willpower is like a muscle. It can be exercised and strengthened …but it has it's limits”]

Now, there are a number of books and studies that support this claim.  Two books that I recommend on this subject are Willpower [1] by Baumister /Tierney and Willpower: Instinct [2] by Kelly McGonigal.  Inside these titles, there are three experiments that show how willpower is a limited resource. (For more, check out this post about the best willpower books.)

Willpower Guide 1

Experiment 1: The Marshmallow Experiment [3]

The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment is probably the most famous willpower experiment. This test dealt with the correlation between delayed gratification and future success. Children had a marshmallow (sometimes other foods) put in front of them. They were told if they could avoid eating it for 15 minutes they would get to eat two instead of one.

The children in this experiment were tracked after this experiment for many years. The ones who showed a higher level of willpower (able to wait 15+ minutes before eating the marshmallow) ended up doing better in many areas: higher scores on standardized tests, lower incidence of substance abuse and better job performance.

Many researchers were shocked to find that future success could be predicted from such a simple experiment.  In future permutations of this experiment, researchers tried to see if willpower could be a learnable skill.  Could you teach the children with a lack of willpower to wait 15+ minutes before snacking on a marshmallow?  This question led to a few follow-up experiments.  What they learned there was startling: Willpower can be strengthened (which is something we’ll cover in part three of this series).

Experiment 2: The Radish Experiment [4]

Once researchers knew that willpower could be strengthened, they wanted to test its boundaries.  Specifically, they wanted to test different theories about a concept called ego depletion.  As I discussed in this article, ego depletion is the point where a person can no longer take the strain of willpower decisions, which leads to a failure in following through with a habit change.

Put more succinctly, author Roy Baumister describes ego depletion as:

[Tweet “EGO DEPLETION: A person’s diminished capacity to regulate their thoughts, feelings, and actions”]

In “The Radish Experiment,” researchers put people into three random groups and asked them to work on a complicated puzzle.

Group 1 was the control—they weren’t given food before the experiment.

Group 2 was brought into a banquet room full of appetizing comfort foods. They were allowed to eat whatever they desired.

Group 3 was brought into the same banquet room, but they were told to only eat the radishes.  In other words, they had to exert willpower to avoid the temptation of comfort food.

All three groups were told to work on a complicated puzzle. The control group and the “eat anything group” both worked on the puzzle for an average of 20 minutes before giving up. The “radish group” only lasted 8 minutes before giving up. A statistically huge difference that meant the people who used their “willpower reservoir” to avoid eating comfort food was less capable to work on the complicated puzzle.

Experiment 3: Dirty Socks Experiment [5]

Years ago Stanford Psychologist Daniel Bem conducted an experiment with his students. His goal was to classify certain characteristics of his students into detectable patterns.

Bem reasoned that conscientious students who did their work on time and studied hard for exams should show other signs of conscientious behavior throughout their life. The correlation he chose was, “wears clean socks”—if somebody worked hard and showed conscientious behavior in class, they’d be more likely to wear clean socks.

The interesting thing?

The students who studied hard and did all their assignments on time were actually less likely to wear clean socks.  Due to the effects of ego depletion, the researchers surmised that as it got close to exam time, students would begin to show a breakdown in all sorts of willpower related tasks—including doing their laundry.

What’s even more interesting is participants showed increases in bad habits incidences such as smoking, drinking and eating junk food.

It seems that the stress of an upcoming task had a huge negative impact on the willpower reserves, without even getting the result of better performance in the area that is most needed.

One Solution for Strengthening Willpower

There have been countless studies on willpower.  All of them show that we all have a limited amount of this resource.  Fortunately, these experiments have led to a few possible solutions to strengthening your mental reserves.

When the subjects use as an implementation intention (better known as “If-Then Planning”) they greatly reduce the stress of the upcoming tasks, which increases their chances of success.  In other words, if you regularly create “action plans” for how you’ll respond to triggers and certain situations, you’ll be far more likely to stick to a new habit change.

Finally, I’d like you to think back to the Oprah Winfrey example.  She is just one of the millions of people who are successful in their life, despite not being perfect in their willpower.  Failing at something doesn’t make you bad or weak.  In fact, you’ll often find that your willpower often breaks down in one area because your busy achieving something great in another area.

That’s it for the first part of our discussion on willpower.  In the next article, we’ll talk about how habit triggers and their relation to willpower.  Not only will we talk about their dangers, we’ll also go into more detail about creating strategies for what to do when you’re tempted to do the bad habit you’re trying to eliminate.  Stay tuned…

14 thoughts on “The Ultimate Guide to Building Willpower [Part 1]”

  1. This is a fantastic piece. It’s set off all kinds of connections/revelations for me, and has condensed really profound ideas into something very clear and simple. Looking forward to the next parts. A million thanks…

  2. Great guide, Scott!

    Loved the examples. I have heard of #1 & #2, but #3 is new to me (never knew that, but it makes sense).

    I do have a question though: Wouldn’t our attitude to a particular task affect the amount of willpower we need to use to perform that task?

    Take for instance: If I find exercising as an enjoyable task, wouldn’t it be easier for me to maintain it?

    So, shouldn’t we try and change our attitudes towards certain tasks? (especially if they are concerning important things, such as our health).

    Anyways, thank you for sharing all this, Scott 🙂 Appreciate it!

    Happy New Year 😀

    • You’re absolutely right. It’s a lot easier to work on something if it’s connected to a goal or if it’s an enjoyable experience. You can do a lot with a simple shift in attitude. Like not eating sweets connects to a goal of looking good for “bathing suit season.” That said, there are some tasks that require willpower (or the development of habits) because it’ll never be enjoyable. Overall though, I think people place too much emphasis on willpower and learn how to do “unpleasant” tasks by building habits (which I’ll get to in the next few part of this series.)

    • Agreed (we could try and make it interesting…you know, like how game devs have made math fun for kids). Of course, it may not be possible with all habits.

      Looking forward to those posts 🙂

  3. I think JJJ is onto something. According to BJ Fogg’s Behavior Model ( motivation and ability can be traded. So big motivation = good attitude = lesser ego depletion.
    I have a reflection after reading this post: managing your willpower seems to be similar to managing your time. Everyone has both of them, we just use them differently.
    I have a lot of willpower and I tend to waste it. Squandering seems to be connected to the abundance.

  4. Awesome post! I was glued from beginning to end reading carefully! I’ve never heard of Experiments #2 and #3 and indeed they are enlightening studies about will-power. They give me thoughts on how I train my little girl about discipline as well as how to apply these to my posts for my readers on my blog which is focused on gaining more self-confidence.

    Overall, I’d like to commend you for this blog being really tight-focused on the habit development topic which I find specially interesting and useful resource for my community. More power to you Steve!

  5. Great article. I’m learning through your work to be more optimistic. This year will be the year that I develop better habits for sticking to my goals. I’m looking forward to your recommendations on strengthening willpower. Is an “action plan” the same as a “project list” (23 APH)?

    • Jason. Love that you are already getting more optimistic. I think a lot of what we can do for positive change comes from inside. Everything always starts with your mind and attitude.

      There are certainly crossovers between the two lists. Some things are good for just about everything you will try to do. But it is a distinct and different list, with just some items that may seem familiar.

  6. Nice one SJ.

    I really like your Oprah example.

    As for the depletion of willpower etc etc, I think it’s far from conclusive. I do abide by this principle a lot, but I don’t buy into it completely. The reason for this is because of my theory of “breaking out of homeostasis”. In homeostasis (which is the state most of people spend most of their time) this principle IS true. But when you’re out of it, it’s a whole different story – the willpower is almost endless, until you get too tired and need to sleep.

  7. This is a great post, SJ!

    I really enjoy the depth you’ve delivered here. I’ve heard of the marshmallow experiment, but not the other two, and i find them extremely fascinating.

    I particularly like the comparison of a person’s willpower to different sized pools. I tend to think of our potential in terms of a well. I think that our potential wells our limitless, but at first it is hard for us to recognize this so by accomplishing smaller tasks and graduating to larger ones we can begin to pull more and more from our well of potential. The only limits we experience are those we place on ourselves.

    The first of this series is extremely useful, and I can only imagine it will be extremely valuable to anyone looking to succeed at the New Year’s resolution this year. I’ll be sure to share this with my readers!

  8. Hi SJ,

    Your post summarises what I’ve learned recently about willpower.

    Anyway, I’ve found an interesting piece about willpower. It mentions how bringing into awareness that willpower is limited might be detrimental to others.

    One interesting point in the article:
    “How does this happen? People who think that willpower is limited are on the lookout for signs of fatigue. When they detect fatigue, they slack off. People who get the message that willpower is not so limited may feel tired, but for them this is no sign to give up — it’s a sign to dig deeper and find more resources.”

    What do you think?

    • Wan,

      I have to admit, it is a valid counter-argument to Baumister’s idea of Willpower being a finite resource. I can certainly see some people using the whole “willpower is limited” thing as an excuse to slack off in some cases.

      It does make an intriguing argument, however, I stick to my guns on this. The subjects of the original experiments were blind. They did not know what they were being studied for and still showed these willpower fatigue signs.

      So I still strongly believe in the ultimate review of willpower being a finite resource that should be conserved.

      However, the article does bring up a strong point with people using this as an excuse to NOT dig deeper.

      It is a fine line. It is important to push yourself and grow in regards to willpower. Since it is like a muscle, it can be built and strengthened, however it also needs rest and has it’s limits. At least that is how I see it.

      Thanks for the link and an interesting counter opinion.

  9. “The subjects of the original experiments were blind. They did not know what they were being studied for and still showed these willpower fatigue signs.”

    Great observation, SJ.

    “However, the article does bring up a strong point with people using this as an excuse to NOT dig deeper.”

    That’s the problem with awareness I guess.

    I believe that the whole point of the ‘willpower is finite’ theory is that people need to know their limits. We tend to hate ourself sometimes just because we think that we have weak willpower especially after comparing ourselves with really strong-willed people. By knowing that our willpower is finite and everyone’s limits are different, we can allow ourself to grow at our own pace without feeling disadvantaged.

    The willpower as a muscle is a great complement to the theory. It means that when we feel we are at our limit, we need to stretch ourself as much as possible if we want to strengthen the ‘muscle’. And this has already been addressed in your comments.

    Personally, I am a believer that willpower is limited and it’s a good thing to know especially in a world that thinks that people are weak if they don’t push when they’re at their limits. But when it’s time to do something that needs a little bit of a push (e.g. the classic example of running for the last stretch of a marathon) , forgetting about the finiteness of willpower might be a good thing.

    • Wan,

      For sure. I totally agree that people could use willpower fatigue as a cop out to quit. Your marathon example is a good one too (having run quite a few myself), there are certainly times to push yourself to the limit, hopefully stretching those limits.

      Thanks for the great thoughtful comments!

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