How to Improve Your Willpower

by Stephen Mills on December 30, 2009

Finish Line

“The one quality which sets one apart from another – the key which lifts one to every aspiration while others are caught up in the mire of mediocrity – is not talent, formal education, nor intellectual brightness; it is self-discipline.  With self-discipline, all things are possible.  Without it, even the simplest goal can seem like the impossible dream.” — Theodore Roosevelt, from The Skinny on Willpower by Jim Randel

Update From Stephen:  There is an excellent new book out on willpower that I highly recommend: The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It

Self-discipline, or what is more commonly called willpower, is an important component in the traits that are required to achieve long term goals such as hard work, determination, and perseverance.  These are being wrapped up in a trait that psychology researchers are calling grit.

“In a series of provocative new studies at the University of Pennsylvania, researchers find that the gritty are more likely to achieve success in school, work and other pursuits—perhaps because their passion and commitment help them endure the inevitable setbacks that occur in any long-term undertaking. In other words, it’s not just talent that matters but also character. “Unless you’re a genius, I don’t think that you can ever do better than your competitors without a quality like grit,” says Martin E. P. Seligman.” — Peter Doskoch

Grit goes beyond willpower, but willpower is a necessary component of grit.  In addition, willpower is critical in many short term goals and daily activities that don’t require large amounts of grit.

“There is nothing that matters more in goal accomplishment than the ability to resist the urge to give in to little voices that tell us that it’s okay to quit when the going gets tough… The key to success with any goal is to withstand temptation and persist through discomfort.” – Caroline Adams

Your Willpower is Limited

Research has clearly demonstrated that willpower is a limited resource.  When you exercise deliberate control to suppress urges, suppress thoughts, make decisions, resist temptations, or summon the will to do something, you are depleting a limited supply.  Having used up some of that supply, you will find it more difficult to summon willpower in the next situation in which you need it.

Sleep seems to refresh your supply of your willpower much like it refreshes other mental resources.  There are also indications that exercise and meditation increase your overall willpower capacity.  This should not be surprising as both exercise and mediation have been shown to improve a wide range of mental functions.  A sugary drink (definitely not recommended), or a rest period will also help.

The bottom line is that you must find ways to limit your need to use your willpower and thus preserve this critical resource.

Make it a Habit

The absolute best thing you can do to ensure you have the willpower to persist in the face of challenges and temptations, is to simply conserve it.  One way to do this by turning as much positive activity as possible into habitual behavior.  I assume you don’t have to exert willpower to brush your teeth every day and that doing so has just become an automatic part of your daily routines.

About 10 years ago I went on a very strict diet for about 1 year.  I went cold turkey on a bunch of crap I had been stuffing myself with for decades.  This took a lot of willpower at first, but after a few months on the diet it took absolutely no self-control to maintain.  I simply got in the habit of refusing to eat certain foods.  There was no decision involved.  I didn’t have to continually debate whether I should or I shouldn’t eat something and I thereby preserved my willpower resources for other issues.  Over the subsequent years, when I applied less strict standards, I found myself failing to eat properly much more frequently.  This was especially true when my willpower was drained at the end of a stressful day.

Other Ways to Enhance and Conserve Your Willpower

Avoid Temptations

You simply need to avoid putting yourself in situations that will constantly require you to exercise control of some tendency or urge.  This may seem counter-intuitive, but the evidence of depletion is convincing.

Connect Your Actions to Deep Values

Value-based decisions are easier to make.  They require less deliberate control.  You are creating rules for your behavior ahead of time.  A deep commitment to the values that are thus represented, make the decisions to act or to refrain from acting much easier as the individual situations arise.

Plan For Problems

When you are attacking a project, try to plan ahead for problems and challenges.  By creating some black and white rules for how you will act under certain circumstances, you can reduce the need for stressful deliberation.

Create a Keyword Reminder

Create a keyword or short phrase to remind yourself of whatever deep value you are trying satisfy and then use that keyword whenever you find yourself weakening.  It will remind you and motivate you to continue.  Furthermore you will create a habit of responding positively to the keyword.

Don’t Dilute Your Willpower Reserve

If you try to tackle too many projects or goals at once, you will likely not have enough willpower reserve to accomplish them all.

Control Your Thoughts

“Willpower is directly connected to mind control.  Once you realize that you have the ability to eject negative thoughts from you mind and inject positive thoughts into the void, you have taken a gigantic step toward a lifetime of self-discipline as and when you need it.” – Jim Randel

Break Tasks Into Small Chunks

It takes a lot of willpower to create momentum and get started on projects for which there is a large gap between where you are now and where you need to get to.  Instead, focus on the first tiny step that you can almost fall into.

Give Yourself Time to Recover

If you have just finished a willpower sucking activity, give yourself a break before starting anything else that requires self-discipline.

Use the Morning

Since your willpower is strongest in the morning, it just makes sense to undertake those activities that require the most willpower as early in the day is possible.  For example if you are starting an exercise program, try to develop the exercise habit in the morning when your willpower is at its strongest.

For an excellent treatment of willpower I recommend The Skinny on Willpower, How to Develop Self Discipline by Jim Randel.

What do you think?  Leave a comment and join the conversation.

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{ 36 comments… read them below or add one }

Gordie December 31, 2009 at 2:07 am

I agree that willpower/grit is strongest in the morning. I find that if I don’t do something that needs doing in the morning, there’s very little chance I’m going to do it in the afternoon or evening.

Happy New Year, Stephen!
.-= Gordie´s last blog ..Look, Mom! My Blog’s Sprouting Pubes! =-.

Reply

Stephen Mills January 2, 2010 at 6:41 am

Hi Gordie, thanks for your comment. I also find that my willpower is generally shot in the afternoon and evening. Sometimes though I seem to get a second wind later at night.

Reply

Diggy - Upgradereality.com December 31, 2009 at 5:57 am

Hey Stephen!
Your blog has come a long way this year! I wish you an awesome 2010 with lots of good things :)

All the best!
.-= Diggy – Upgradereality.com´s last blog ..Goals, Plans & Achievements =-.

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Stephen Mills January 2, 2010 at 6:41 am

Hello Diggy! Right back at you! Thanks.

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Positively Present December 31, 2009 at 10:36 am

I really needed this post today! My willpower’s struggling. Thanks!! :)
.-= Positively Present´s last blog ..a year of amazing: how to make this one the best yet =-.

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Stephen Mills January 2, 2010 at 6:42 am

Hi Dani, I’m glad it helped. Thanks for stopping by :-)

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Free Life December 31, 2009 at 5:05 pm

This is a great post. For 2010 I have decided to create 6 new habits that I believe will help me be a better person and help guide me towards my larger goals. I believe that willpower is limited and I am going to focus on only one habit at a time for 2 months each. I got the idea from the Zen Habits blog and hopefully it will work for me.
.-= Free Life´s last blog ..Happy New Year – 2010 =-.

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Stephen Mills January 2, 2010 at 6:44 am

Hello Free Life. That’s a fantastic plan. Leo’s site and ideas are excellent. Thanks for commenting.

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Jonathan - Advanced Life Skills December 31, 2009 at 7:09 pm

Stephen, I like the idea of managing willpower instead of assuming that you can continue to come up with more endlessly. Your article helps us to appreciate that willpower is a resource, and like most resources it is limited. Excellent!
.-= Jonathan – Advanced Life Skills´s last blog ..Optimism and the Spirit of Renewal =-.

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Stephen Mills January 2, 2010 at 6:47 am

Hi Jonathan. It really makes sense out of things like how difficult it is to accomplish multiple goals at the same time, afternoon procrastination, and other things I’ve noticed in myself. Thanks for your comment.

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Smoph January 1, 2010 at 11:09 am

Great post. I agree with absolutely everything you’ve said here!
Here’s to better utilising willpower in the new year!
.-= Smoph´s last blog ..Out of touch =-.

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Stephen Mills January 2, 2010 at 7:01 am

Hi Smoph, thank you for that comment!

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Earl January 1, 2010 at 10:42 pm

I took the approach of using meditation to clear out my mind and then filled it back up in a more orderly and beneficial manner, giving priority to the areas of my life/work/play that were the most important for my health, sanity and progress. Sometimes we just need to start from scratch and meditation can be a great tool for getting rid of all the unnecessary garbage floating around our minds. It’s incredible how easy it becomes to overcome challenges, both big and small, with such a clear mind.

This is an excellent and unique perspective on willpower that you’ve provided here.
.-= Earl´s last blog ..A Decade of Wandering Ends, Another One Begins (Part 2) =-.

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Stephen Mills January 2, 2010 at 7:04 am

Hi Earl. It seems that mediation has really widespread benefits and should be mentioned right along with nutrition and exercise as a key component in a healthy life. Thanks!

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Suzanne January 2, 2010 at 12:58 pm

Excellent thoughts, Stephen! I’ve stumbled and tweeted.

Thankfully, we’ve learned that we get farther by using our willpower more effectively than focusing on the self-defeating aspect of increasing it (and punishing ourselves when we fail).
.-= Suzanne´s last blog ..Quote to Reflect Upon (Jan10) =-.

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Stephen Mills January 5, 2010 at 7:44 pm

Hello Suzanne, thank you very much! :-)

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Vin - NaturalBias January 2, 2010 at 7:24 pm

Hi Stephen,

I’m glad that you pointed out how much easier it is to follow better habits, especially dietary ones, after getting past the uncomfortableness of change. It’s so true!
.-= Vin – NaturalBias´s last blog ..5 Keys to Successful New Year’s Resolutions =-.

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Stephen Mills January 5, 2010 at 7:46 pm

Hi Vin. Yes, if you can power yourself past the discomfort that inevitably occurs after the initial enthusiasm has worn off, you can usually turn it into an automatic habit.

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Hulbert January 2, 2010 at 9:34 pm

Hey Stephen, love the post. I never really thought of will power as self discipline; I thought they were two different things. But much of “being able to persist through anything” is the the ability to control our emotions, especially through much discomfort. I guess they go hand in hand.

This article really inspired me to become more self disciplined in myself this year. I like your story on how ten years ago, you went on a diet, and through a period of self discipline, was able to break free and just resist junk foods at will. Thanks for sharing this article, and I look forward to some more of your great posts in 2010. :)
.-= Hulbert´s last blog ..10 Strategies for Making It Through Your 2010 New Year’s Resolution =-.

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Stephen Mills January 5, 2010 at 7:47 pm

Hello Hulbert. Thanks for the comment. I’m glad the article helped.

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Steven Aitchison January 3, 2010 at 3:14 am

His Stephen. First of all Happy New Year to you, I hope you had a good one.

This post is perfect for the start of 2010. I had read the studies stating that we have a limited supply of willpower and it’s great to see you mentioned that here. I also love the idea of making habits to assist willpower, so in effect we don’t deplete our willpower supplies if we form habits, that’s brilliant. How much grit do you have for the coming year – I imagine you have loads :)

Have a great 2010 Stephen.
.-= Steven Aitchison´s last blog ..Can You Feel It? =-.

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Stephen Mills January 5, 2010 at 7:50 pm

Hello Steven! This stuff completely fascinates me. And yes I’ve got loads of grit ready for 2010 :-) Thanks for stopping by.

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Kenji Crosland January 5, 2010 at 12:38 pm

Great post Stephen. It was nice to read something like this at a time when I was finding my willpower supply depleted.

One thing that helps me conserve willpower is to stop telling myself I should do something or that I must do something. It’s almost as though I’m being told what to do by myself, and no one likes being told what to do. Niel Fiore offers an “I choose to” alternative, which I’ve found quite effective when I remember to use it.

Reply

Stephen Mills January 5, 2010 at 7:53 pm

Welcome Kenji :-) That sounds like a great idea. I have a couple of Neil’s books. One that read a long time ago and another that I haven’t read. I need to dig it out because I thought he did a great job on the earlier book. Thanks for your thoughts.

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Miche - Serenity Hacker January 5, 2010 at 1:24 pm

Hi Stephen, Happy New Year! I really enjoyed this article and have been pondering will power a lot over the past month or two. I was thinking of writing a post on it actually, but from a mindfulness take (still working that one out).

I like that the research reveals that will-power is a supply that can be depleted… that’s sort of what I suspected. It’s interesting to me, too, that when I was younger it seemed like I had more will-power, the sort of “sheer” kind. I made a decision and boom – I did it… that’s how I got things done. Now, it’s not like I don’t have any at all, but it’s sort of a different, more deliberate thing now, more of a process. What changed? I don’t know.

Are there different ways we use our will power as we mature? Am I rationing it out more deliberately now, maybe, knowing somehow that it’s a limited resource? These are questions that come to mind for me. I wonder if your experience has been similar.

Also, I really like your emphasis on connecting actions to deep values. I think that really helps with the commitment or conviction level of things, so that we don’t need to summon so much will power in our endeavors.

Cheers,
Miche
.-= Miche – Serenity Hacker´s last blog ..True Success: Finding Your Perfect Wave =-.

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Stephen Mills January 5, 2010 at 8:00 pm

Hello Miche, great comment – thanks!

I know what you mean. When I was young I thought I had a will of steel, but it’s not as easy anymore. I do think we are more careful with it as we get older because the supply is smaller. I’m sure I had more pure mental power when I was younger (e.g. concentration). Of course I had a lot less experience and wisdom so sometimes the power wasn’t used in the most effective way possible :-) . I look forward to your thoughts on the subject.

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Paul January 30, 2010 at 1:49 pm

My willpower is at its absolute zero in the morning, and at a maximum late in the evening. The same for my wife. It was a revelation to read that actually the reverse is considered normal :)
Anyhow, I can share a tip for those like me, who feel absolutely willlpower-less in the morning, especially in the grey hours — 50 pushups, or 2km. jogging really helps. A pity that THAT requires some willpower too.

Reply

bencai August 16, 2010 at 4:47 am

It is of great significance for us to maintain willpower and consume it on important things, we can get much more achivements from accomplishment of bigger things, and it can enhance our confidence and willpower on the other hand.

Reply

junzhang August 18, 2010 at 9:53 am

i admire your article named “how to improve your willpower”,
it really helped a lot

Reply

xiaobin wu September 10, 2010 at 3:13 am

非常好的一篇文章,感谢你的建议,我想这对我有很大的帮助!谢谢

Reply

Hunny October 13, 2010 at 1:55 am

willpower is very important to all! but ,how we have a will of stell?

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Colin May 25, 2011 at 9:27 am

What a great post! As a stand-up comic, the need for discipline affects me all the time. I’ve found a lot of success in this area by coming at it from a unique angle. Check it out: “KICKSTART YOUR WILLPOWER”

Reply

parvez akhtar August 14, 2011 at 2:42 am

great article !!!:)

Reply

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