How To Build Willpower Muscle


Psychologist Roy Baumeister has called willpower “the key to success and a happy life.”  After investigating the research on willpower, and considering my own willpower battles, I can’t disagree with him.  People who have better control of their attention, emotions, and behaviors are better off in every way.  They’re more successful, can better handle stress and adversity, have better relationships, and are healthier.  So willpower, a.k.a. self-control, is a great place to start if you want to improve your life.

But there are a couple of problems (come on, you knew this was coming).  We have a willpower energy reserve, and we can exhaust those resources as we’re confronted daily with self-control choices.  Research shows that with every act of willpower we are drawing from the same limited source of energy.  These findings led professor Baumeister to conclude that self-control is like a muscle, and it can get tired if overworked.

Another problem has to do with self-awareness.  People simply lack the insight into why they maintain bad habits.  The people I’ve advised over the last 16 years as a counselor and health coach have a general idea they should eat better, start exercising, quit smoking, stop biting their nails, eliminate automatic negative thoughts, control anger, stop compulsively checking e-mail, lay off the doughnuts, resist the urge to shop, and save for retirement.  But having a vague awareness that there’s a problem isn’t the same as having the self-awareness needed to challenge our willpower failures.

Ok enough negativity, now the good news.  If we train intelligently, we can strengthen our willpower muscle as we confront those self-control challenges life throws at us.  Just like a good assessment and performance evaluation helps an athlete know how to train to turn weakness into strengths, we can learn to observe and assess our own willpower weaknesses and develop self-awareness to fight our battles wisely.

Defining the Battle

In what is now a classic psychological experiment, a group of 4 and 5 year olds were tested in a study that would become very popular and talked about for decades.  The kids were given a choice.  They had to sit alone in a room with a marshmallow.  If they could wait 15 minutes without eating the marshmallow, they would get another one, but if they couldn’t wait and ate the marshmallow, they wouldn’t get the 2nd one.  So, wait and get two marshmallows, or give in and have that tempting treat now.  There is hilarious footage of the kids trying to resist the urge to eat the marshmallow during that 15 minutes as the researchers watched through a one way mirror.  Several kids gave in quickly (one child ate the marshmallow before the researcher was even done explaining the rules of the experiment).  This experiment has been repeated several times, and each time the experimenters followed up many years later with the kids.  In the original experiment, conducted at Stanford University, the kids were followed for over 40 years.  What they found was fascinating.

Years later, they found that each kid who was able to delay gratification and wait for the 2nd marshmallow earned better grades, had higher SAT scores, better social skills, was healthier, and were more successful by many other measures including handling stress, obesity, instances of crime and drug use.  Waiting 15 minutes for that 2nd marshmallow predicted academic, social, and overall life success and health many years later.  This test answered two vital questions: could the child cope with temporary discomfort for the sake of a long-term goal?  And did the child have a strategy for focusing away from the promise of an immediate reward?

We have a lot to learn from these kids. They teach us about the battle between what we want now vs. delaying what we want to do the harder thing and protecting our long-term goals.  Our minds are designed this way, partly wanting relief now, and partly able to delay instant gratification in order to choose the harder path.

So understanding our brain architecture is one thing, but from here we get a deeper understanding of ourselves by asking another question – where do we turn for relief?  Psychologist Kelly McGonigal talked about how important self-awareness is in developing self-control in her book “The Willpower Instinct”:

Without self-awareness, the self-control system would be useless.  You need to recognize when you’re making a choice that requires willpower; otherwise, the brain always defaults to what is easiest…When your mind is preoccupied, your impulses, not your long-term goals, will guide your choices.

The phrase from that quote that helps me is “the brain always defaults to what is easiest.”  Do we seek relief in the easier path?  We all have our go to relief strategies, for some surfing the internet, for others going shopping, eating certain foods, or other impulsive habits that promise immediate reward.  But therein lies the problem.  Some of those strategies are not good for us.

Building Willpower Muscle

When training my own willpower muscles, I try to hit the right balance.  You can’t run a marathon every day, and you can’t lay on the couch every day either.  But we can commit to any small, consistent act of self-control.  Just focusing on one small thing can be the exercise our willpower muscle needs.  And just as our muscles get stronger over time with exercise, the self-control muscle will grow.  Your one small act may be cutting out soda, candy or sweets, or maybe it’s a bigger goal broken down into small steps that you’ll focus one at a time, each with a deadline (I get overwhelmed thinking about the mess in my basement, which has collected junk for over 12 years, but it’s not so daunting if it’s broken down into smaller steps with a deadline).  Sometimes we need to push ourselves, but small acts of self-control can make us stronger.

I also remember the lesson learned from endurance athletes.  The above mentioned Kelly McGonigal makes this point in her book. If we’re running a marathon, our minds may be telling us it’s time to quit, but physically we still have some energy left in the tank to go further.  Research has found that the brain tries to put the brakes on the body and tell it to stop because it fears energy exhaustion, but extreme athletes realize this isn’t the real limit, just the first wave of fatigue.  These athletes push past this early warning sign and muster up the motivation to go further.  Our brain’s work the same way with self-control, telling us to put on the brakes for the sake of conserving energy, but it doesn’t mean we’re out of energy.  We can push past this limit if we muster up the motivation.  But it’s vital to recognize when we’re working ourselves to true exhaustion.  If athletes overtrain, they set themselves up for injury.

Lastly, it’s vital to understand how stress affects our self-control.  People in a chronic state of stress can be too tired to fight against their worst urges and impulses.  Energy that could be directed to that part of our minds (the pre-frontal cortex) in charge of self-control, long-term goal planning, and regulating emotions is instead directed to addressing the steady flow of emergencies.  Handling stress wisely means choosing our battles wisely and learning to focus our attention where it needs to be while preserving and refueling our willpower gas tank


The Stanford marshmallow experiment proved to be amazingly accurate in predicting future success of the kids who had a strategy and waited for that 2nd marshmallow.  For us, self-knowledge and developing our willpower muscle is our strategy for success.  Here are a few practicals from this discussion.

  Become an objective observer.  Observe your behavior in different situations and you’ll start to identify targets for change.  You’ll gain the self-knowledge you need to begin your self-change/willpower project (mainly by seeing how you get into trouble).

  Watch out for self-criticism.  Adopt a forgiving, non-judgemental attitude toward yourself.  We all should honestly assess our challenges, but many of us are so self-critical that it does nothing but produce shame and guilt.  And people will seek relief from that shame and guilt by going back to the old habits we’re trying to change.

  Commit to one small thing.  If you have a big goal to change, break it up in smaller chunks and focus on one small step at a time.  Love the process, one thing at a time.

  Eat a willpower diet.  When you eat a balanced diet (protein, complex carbs like whole grains, and fruits/veggies), you’re giving you brain the food it needs. High sugar foods, sugary soda, or other foods with no nutritional value don’t give your mind and body the lasting energy it needs to tackle the day’s self-control battles.

  Have strong conviction about rest and recovery.  Diet and quality sleep (stage 3 and 4 sleep) are two of the most important factors in rest and recovery.

  Live mindfully.  A big part of mindfulness practice involves focusing on the moment, and inviting any thoughts into awareness without getting swept up in those thoughts.  We can become calm observers of harmful thoughts but learn to dismiss them and return our focus to the present moment (many use the breath, a steady breathing rhythm, as the target for returning to the present moment).  Mindfulness practice encompasses many of the principles discussed here and is a great way to recharge the willpower fuel tank throughout the day.  Mindfulness also helps us learn to face the difficult things in life that we’d instinctively want to avoid.

Good luck flexing that willpower muscle!

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