Do you need more willpower?


When it comes to health, and many other aspects of life, most of us already know what we need to do to get where we want to go. The problem seems to lie in the actual doing part and doing it consistently. For this, we put a lot of emphasis on willpower. And we often blame our lack of willpower as the biggest barrier to change.

So, what is it about willpower that makes it hard to get and keep, and do we need more than willpower to get us to our goals?

The American Psychological Association defines willpower as:

  • The ability to delay gratification and resist short-term temptations to meet long term goals
  • The capacity to override unwanted thought, feeling, or impulse
  • The conscious, effortful regulation of the self, by the self
  • A limited resource capable of being depleted

Kelly McGonigal breaks willpower down into 3 parts:

  • ‘I won’t power’ – the ability to resist temptation and say ‘no’ – to the cake, the alcohol, the shopping, or whatever it might be.
  • ‘I will power’ – the ability to do what you need to do even if you don’t feel like it. Saying ‘yes’ because you know it gets you closer to where you want to go
  • ‘I want power’ – remembering what you really want and acting accordingly

The constant battle of our ‘I will’, ‘I won’t’ and ‘I want’ power is the ongoing juggling act that our brain carries out between following our impulses (determined by the primitive brain or limbic system – the hippocampus, hypothalamus and amygdala which is responsible for emotion behaviour, motivation and more) and impulse control (determined by our prefrontal cortex – the rational, decision-making part of the brain).

When we’re faced with a willpower challenge, the primitive brain kicks in with an impulsive, emotional response (like ‘I want the wine’), while the prefrontal cortex is there to remind us about what we really want, often in the longer term. (‘I want to be healthier, improve my energy and feel better’). One of these sides will ultimately win.

When our beliefs about ourselves are inconsistent with the thing we want to do, its more likely the impulsive, emotional response or primitive brain will win, and we will act in accordance with our self-belief. This is because acting inconsistently with what we believe – our ‘want’ power or following our prefrontal cortex and rational decision-making brain takes more energy.  For example, if I believe I can never resist chocolate, then the ‘I won’t power’ or ability to resist chocolate and say no is harder even though I ‘want’ to say no.

And it gets harder through the day as we make more decisions and deal with more stress and our brain gets more tired.

So we can’t just rely on the prefrontal cortex and our ‘want’ power to win every time, what can we do to improve this situation, make better decisions, and make lasting behavioural changes?

1 Awareness

Most of our decisions are made without awareness of what’s behind them or what the consequences might be. So, the first step is to be more aware of what we’re doing and why.  It’s been shown that distracted people are also more likely to give in to temptation too. These days it’s easy to be distracted, we’re faced with lots of information coming at us all the time, we are constantly distracted and over-stimulated so practice slowing down and bringing awareness to what you’re doing as you’re doing it and the thoughts, feelings, and reasons behind it to tap into your ‘I want’ power.

2 Question the belief

When we bring awareness to our thoughts, feelings, and beliefs we can start to question them with a view to shifting the belief. To do this, try Byron Katie’s The Work – hold the thought, feeling or belief in your mind and ask:

  • Is this true?
  • Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
  • How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?
  • Who would you be without that thought?

As we disarm the belief, we can reduce the friction between the primitive brain and the prefrontal cortex.

3 Reducing stress

When we’re in a relaxed state we’re more likely to make better decisions, resist impulsive behaviour and exert better self-control. When we’re stressed, we are more likely to get into reward seeking behaviour – looking for that think that’s will instantly make us feel better.  That’s why its so much easier after a stressful day to reach for the alcohol, sugar, or cigarette or blob out in front of the TV – possibly the thing we were trying to resist in the first place and also the least effective things to actually help us relieve stress.

4 Systemise

Setting up systems to circumvent having to exercise willpower can also set you up for success. For example, setting up an automatic payment into your savings account, making food plan and preparing for the week or making a commitment to get to an exercise class beforehand – all these things take the decision-making aspect out of it and has you relying less on willpower.

5 Exercise

Getting more exercise has been shown to be one of the keystone behaviours that leads to people making other improvements in their lives and improving self-control – from eating better food, being more productive and procrastinating less, it can start with getting more movement in your life. While exercise might be the willpower challenge many face, its also one of the best ways to improve willpower.

6 Nutrition

What we eat directly influences how we feel, so focusing on a variety of unprocessed wholefoods and reducing processed sugar can help reduce inflammation and stress on your body putting you in a better mood to make better decisions. Like exercise, eating better is often one of our challenges but also a cornerstone behaviour to help strengthen willpower.

If willpower hasn’t worked for you before, consider these strategies to help you get where you want to go or talk to me about how I can help.