Maryland Women's Heritage Center

What is willpower?

"Willpower is the key to success. Successful people strive no matter what they feel by applying their will to overcome apathy, doubt or fear."
- Dan Millman

People will use different definitions to describe willpower, some of the most common ones are: drive, determination, self-discipline, self-control, self-regulation, effortful control.

At the core of willpower is the ability to resist short-term temptations and desires in order to achieve long-term goals. It's the prevailing of long-term satisfaction over instant gratification.

According to APA (American Psychological Association) most psychology researchers define willpower as:

>> The ability to delay gratification, resisting short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals.
>> The capacity to override an unwanted thought, feeling or impulse.
>> Conscious, effortful regulation of the self by the self.
>> A limited resource capable of being depleted.

The general idea linking these definitions is of a self effortfully regulating the self. Studies show that people scoring high on self-control are more apt at regulating behavioural, emotional and attention impulses to achieve long-term goals when compared to more impulsive individuals.

For most of us, when we think of willpower, the first things to pop to mind are the challenges that require us to resist temptation, right? Staying away from the chocolate cake, the department store, the cigarette or from another drink.

In simple terms, we have trouble saying no when our bodies and senses are screaming yes. Kelly Mcgonigal calls this the "I won't power". Mcgonigal is a health psychologist, lecturer at Stanford University and the author of "The Willpower Instinct".

According to her, saying no is just one part of what willpower is. Afterall "just say no" is the mantra for professional procrastinators and couch potatoes around the globe. The other part of willpower is the "saying yes" to the things you know will lead you closer to your goals. It's the ability to do what you need to do, even if you don't feel like it, or a part of you doesn't doesn't want to follow through. She calls this the "I will power".

Yet, to enable us to say no to what derails us from our goals and yes to what leads us in the right direction, we need to remember what we really want. Willpower, according to Mcgonigal, is comprised of:

>> I won't power.
>> I will power.
>> I want power (remembering what you really want).

Luckily, our brains have the capacity to harness all three of these capacities and, in fact, the development of these abilities is at the core of what it means to be human.

Why is it so important?

In order to survive 100 000 years ago, we had to find food, reproduce and avoid predators. Living in a tribe greatly increased chances of survival too. So stealing someone else's dinner or girlfriend might jeopardize not just our life but ultimately the tribe's life. Self-control was a necessity for survival back in those days and served us well evolutionarily.

We're all born with willpower, but some people use their willpower more effectively than others.

In a classic willpower study, Walter Mischel, now a psychologist at Columbia University set out to study self-control in children, with a simple yet effective test. Known as the marshmallow test, Mischel and colleagues presented preschoolers with a plate of marshmallows. Each child was then told that the researcher had to leave the room for a few minutes and if they waited until his return, the child could have two marshmallows. If the child couldn't wait, she could ring a bell, the researcher would immediately return, but she could only eat one marshmallow.

Years later, the research team followed up with these kids and found that the children who waited for the second candy were generally faring better in life scoring higher SAT's and lower body mass index(BMI), 30 years after the initial test. Here's a video of a marshmallow test, laughs guaranteed! Most of us are aware of the importance of willpower, nevertheless, we'll run through the findings of the research.

Self-control is a better predictor of academic achievement than intelligence, a stronger determinant of effective leadership than charisma and, brace for impact, more important for marital satisfaction than empathy. Anywhere you look at it, people with greater willpower are:

>> Happier
>> Healthier
>> More satisfied in their relationships
>> Making more money and further ahead in their careers
>> Better able to manage stress, deal with conflict and overcome adversity

Point being, we all have it, we all use it to some extent, and most of us would be better off if we improved our willpower.

Neuroanatomy of willpower

The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is the part of our brains, right behind our forehead and eyes that's responsible for abstract thinking, analyzing thoughts and regulating behavior. This includes mediating conflicting thoughts, making choices between right and wrong and predicting the outcomes of our choices.

In simple terms, it controls what we pay attention to, what we think about and even how we feel, hence, it controls a lot of what we do.

The PFC has greatly expanded in size throughout human evolution, which indicates a strong selection pressure in favor of its continued growth and evolution.

In fact, while the brain itself has only increased in size about three-fold over the last five million years, the PFC has increased its size six-fold over this period of time. Studies show that this part of the brain is the last to mature. In other words, its development is not complete until around age 25. Which is likely why otherwise intelligent and sensible teens, engage in high-risk or excessive behaviors, even though they understand the potential consequences.

Robert Sapolsky, neurobiologist at Stanford, believes that the main job of the modern PFC is to encourage the brain towards doing the harder thing. Ordering the salad instead of the steak, going to the gym when your friends are at the pub, getting started on that project you've been dreaming about lately, when it's easier to procrastinate. The "I will, I won't and I want powers" that comprise willpower, draw on different parts of the PFC. The brain region near the upper left side is responsible for the "I will power", helping you start and stick with not so fun or stressful tasks. The right side handles the "I won't power", refraining you from acting on your every impulse or craving.

And the third region which tackles the "I want power", sits a bit lower in the middle of the PFC, keeping track of your goals and desires. This is the part of your brain that reminds you that you want to live a healthy and full life when everything else in your body is telling you to eat the bacon!

To understand how important the PFC is for self control, let's look at what happens when you damage it. The most famous case and a psychology classic is the story of Phineas Gage.

The Case of Phineas Gage

In 1848, Phineas was a twenty-five year old foreman working in rails. Coworkers and family members respected him, deeming him as quiet and respectful. His physician described him as exceptionally strong both physically and psychologically. On September 13, while doing a routine procedure something went terribly wrong and a seven inch tamping iron went straight into Phineas skull, piercing his head and blowing away his PFC.

Surprisingly enough he didn't die and was able to fully recover in a couple of months. However even though his wounds healed, something was fundamentally different and not quite right. According to friends and colleagues, his personality changed. His physician Dr. Harlow, described the differences like this:

"The balance between his intellectual faculties and his animal propensities seems to have been destroyed. He is fitful, irreverent, indulging at times (...) impatient of restraint or advice when it conflicts with his desires..."

It seemed that when Phineas Gage lost his PFC, he also lost his willpower. And even though most of us, are not in danger on an iron piercing through our skull, there are multiple states that inhibit our PFC. Being drunk, sleep deprived or just distracted, will leave us less equipped to deal with our impulses.

Two systems in conflict

If the PFC is responsible for the part of the brain that makes us question if we really need an overly expensive pair of shoes, what part is responsible for our cravings and impulses?

Some neuroscientists say that we have two people living inside our mind. One is a spoiled little brat who wants what it wants and is always on the look for instant gratification. While the other will take into account our long-term goals and possibly refrain or delay gratification. Sound familiar?

We have both, and we go back and forth, between these parts. The part of our brain responsible for the cravings and desires we constantly experience, is frequently referred by neuroscientists as the primitive brain.

This primitive brain is where the hippocampus, the hypothalamus and the amygdala are found. This system is responsible for emotions, behavior, motivation and long-term memory, to name a few.

Whenever a willpower challenge occurs, let's take the marshmallow example, the kids see the candy, and their primitive minds will kick and scream for that piece of candy. Then comes the PFC and reminds them, that what they really want is 2 pieces of candy.

In short, a willpower challenge is a clash between these 2 systems, where one has to overpower the other.

Remember Walter Mischel, the researcher from the Marshmallow study? Well, he and his colleagues developed a framework they called "hot-and-cool" system that aims to explain why willpower will ultimately succeed or fail.

The cool system is the cognitive, thinking system that reminds you why you shouldn't have that marshmallow. The hot system is the impulsive, emotional part, responsible for your responses to certain triggers.

When willpower fails, a shiny object of your desire activates your hot system, leaving your cool system with the hard part of talking you back in the direction of your longterm goals.

What strengthens willpower?

"Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom." -Aristotle


How many food choices do you make in a day? An interesting study asked people this very question. On average participants guessed they would make about 14 choices per day.

While if you carefully tracked all your decisions, the average number would be 227. Which shows that, for the vast majority, people aren't aware of all the food decisions they are constantly making. And behavior that you aren't aware of, is much harder to manage.

As simple as it is, science has shown that most of our choices are made on autopilot, without any awareness of what's really driving them or the effects they will have in our lives. So, the first step to changing any behavior, is self-awareness. Simply put, self-awareness is the ability to recognize what we are doing as we're doing it. Our thought processes, emotions and reasons for acting are an important part of making better choices.

With our fast paced lifestyles filled with constant distraction and stimulation this is even more important. Baba Shiv, professor of Marketing at Stanford Graduate Business School, found that distracted people are more likely to give in to temptation. For example, distracted shoppers are more sensitive to in-store promotions and more likely to end up with items not on their shopping list.

One thing you can do to increase your self-awareness is to keep track of all your choices in a given day. Then, by the end of the day analyse which ones supported your long-term goals and which ones didn't.


"I meditate so that my mind cannot complicate my life."

-Sri Chinmoy

For a very long time, the operating paradigm in the world of psychology, was that the brain was fixed in structure. You were born a certain way and the only change your brain was going to see was the decline that comes with getting older. Over the last decade however, science has made remarkable progress. Neuroscientists now know that the brain is incredibly responsive to experience and it actually changes based on what you do.

In other words, when you practice a certain behavior, you're strengthening the neural connections for that behavior, making it more accessible and more likely to occur. Practice worrying, and you get better at worrying and the brain region associated with that will grow denser. Practice concentration and you'll get better at it and your brain will respond accordingly.

Just like that, you can also train your brain for better self-control. And meditation is one of the best ways to do it. Why? Because meditation has a powerful effect on a wide range of skills that relate to self-control:

>> Attention
>> Focus
>> Stress management
>> Impulse control
>> Self-awareness

When you meditate you're training your mind to focus on a particular given point (your breath for example).Paying attention and observing thoughts, emotions and impulses without identifying or acting on them. Therefore you're literally training multiple important skills at once.

Regular meditators have more grey matter in the prefrontal cortex and other areas of the brain responsible for self-awareness. And contrary to what you may think, it doesn't take years of practice to observe changes in the brain. One study showed that only three hours of meditation resulted in improved attention and self-control, and eleven hours led to visible changes in the brain.

If you want to improve your willpower, try this 5 minute meditation.

1. Sit comfortably with your spine straight, and for the first few moments allow yourself to settle in so you can stay still. 2. Notice any urges to move, scratch an itch, adjust or fidget and see if you can feel the sensations and not follow them. 3. Bring your attention to your breath and as your breathe in, just in your mind say to yourself "inhale" and "exhale" as you breathe out. 4. When your mind wonders off, and it will, just gently bring it back to the breath, again and again.

If you found this hard, you're not alone, anyone who meditates will tell you how hard it was in the beginning. You'll get better the more you practice and naturally some days will be harder than others.

But if you didn't resonate with this particular approach, remember there are many different forms of meditation, and you can try different ones to see which one suits you best.

If you want more guidance you might want to check out headspace or omvana, both great tools for your meditation journey.


For a lot of people exercise is their willpower challenge. But what if I told you that exercise is one of the best tools you can use to strengthen your willpower?

Megan Oaten and Ken Cheng devised a study of a new treatment to enhance selfcontrol. The participants were 6 men and 18 women, their ages went from eighteen to fifty years old. After two months of treatment these people were:

>> Eating less junk food
>> Eating more healthy foods
>> Watching less television
>> Studying more
>> Saving more money
>> Procrastinating less
>> Less likely to be late to appointments

The treatment? Physical exercise. These participants were given free memberships to a gym and encouraged to use it. They were not asked to make any other changes, yet the program infused new found strength and willpower in all areas of their lives. These were people who didn't work out regularly before the study. For the first month of treatment they exercised on average once per week but increased to three times per week by the end of the study.

If the next question on your mind is: how much do I need to do? You might want to consider instead how much you're likely to do, and start with more modest and realistic goals. Remember consistency over intensity. Anything that you like to do and gets you moving can be beneficial.

A great idea is to take your workout outdoors. Science shows that "green exercise", decreases stress, improves mood and enhances self-control and focus. So any type of physical activity that gets you out in nature will help strengthen your willpower.

Eat your way to will

"Food is like a pharmaceutical compound that affects the brain."
-Fernando Gómez-Pinilla

Roy Baumeister is a social psychologist well known for his theory of willpower depletion. Since the moment we wake up until we go to sleep, we are constantly using our willpower.

A growing body of research proves that resisting temptations takes a toll on us mentally. Some researchers claim that our willpower, just like a muscle, can get tired if overused.

In one of his studies, Baumeister brought subjects to a room filled with freshly baked cookies aroma and then sat them at a table with one plate of cookies and another bowl of radishes.

Some were asked to try out the cookies and others were asked to eat the radishes. After this, they were given a complex geometric puzzle to solve and were given 30 minutes to complete it.

Participants who ate the radishes, and resisted the cookies, gave up the puzzle after about 8 minutes, while the cookie eaters lasted for about 19 minutes, on average. Leading to the conclusion that drawing on willpower to resist the cookies, drained them of self-control for the subsequent task. After this work, an array of studies has built a case for willpower depletion or ego depletion.

These findings are linked to the glucose levels of our brain. Glucose is our body's fuel for energy. The brain's normal functions such as thinking, learning and memory depend completely on it. Exerting our willpower uses a considerable amount of this fuel. Leaving our brains in a state of alert trying to get back to normal blood sugar levels. This drop in blood sugar will normally leave us feeling cranky, moody and more prone to driving to the local bakery.

Studies show that sugar, especially in the form of high fructose corn syrup, which is pervasive in anything from soda, to salad dressings and yogurts, can increase the levels of stress hormones in the brain and trigger mental health problems like anxiety and depression.

To prevent this, eating whole foods regularly and avoiding refined sugars will keep your glucose levels stable and therefore better equipped when it comes to willpower. Mark Muraven studied ego depleted individuals and found them persisting longer on a self-control task when they were paid for their efforts or told their efforts would benefit others. So it seems high motivation can be a powerful ally to overcome depleted willpower.

Another thing researchers on self-control advise is that while muscles can become fatigued when overused in the short term, over the long run they are strengthened by regular exercise. So frequently and effectively using your self-control can lead to stronger willpower muscles.


One of our body's physiological indicators of stress and relaxation is something called heart rate variability. It's the time variation of interval between heartbeats. Everyone's heart varies to some degree. For an average healthy person the heart will have normal ups and downs.

When you're stressed, the sympathetic nervous system takes over. This is the branch of your nervous system frequently referred to as the "fight or flight system". It enables your body to respond quickly to perceived threats or stress. When this happens, your heart rate goes up but the variability goes down, so your heart gets stuck at a higher rate, leading to physical feelings of anxiety and anger.

When you're in a calm, relaxed state, the parasympathetic nervous system is in charge. This is the other part of your nervous system, often called the "rest and digest system". You'll experience a lower heart rate, but the heart rate variability actually goes up. You're able to manage stress and control impulsive behavior, successfully exerting selfcontrol, which will lead you to experience a sense of focus and calmness.

Recovering alcoholics are more likely to stay sober when they see a drink if their heart rate variability is high. In contrast, when their heart variability drops they're at a greater risk of relapse. Other research shows that people with high heart rate variability are better at:

>> Ignoring distractions
>> Delaying gratification
>> Coping with stress

Making heart rate variability a great predictor of who will give in to temptations and who will successfully exert willpower.

A number of different factors influence this physiological measurement, from pollution, to the food we eat. Anything that puts your body or mind in a state of stress can potentially interfere. Anything that allows you to tap into the parasympathetic nervous system will benefit you.

A 2010 survey by the American Psychological Association found that 75% of people in the United States report high levels of stress. Americans are also increasingly sleep deprived, which may be causing an epidemic of poor self-control and focus. Lack of sleep creates impulse control and attention problems similar to attention deficit (ADHD) and hyperactivity disorder.

This is draining their energy and compiling stress that steals their ability to self-control. Another interesting thing that happens, is that stress will shift your brain to a reward seeking state. Turning you in the direction of whatever it believes will make you happy at the moment. You'll find yourself craving whatever your brain believes will make you feel better. This is why people who are stressed are more likely to reach for a cigarette, a drink or fast food.

According to the American Psychological Association the most common stress coping strategies are also the least effective ones:

>> Gambling
>> Smoking
>> Playing video games
>> Surfing the internet
>> Watching TV or movies (for more than 2 hours)

Some of the most effective stress-relief strategies are:

>> Exercising/playing sports
>> Praying or attending religious service
>> Reading
>> Listening to music
>> Spending time with loved ones
>> Getting a massage
>> Meditating and doing yoga
>> Going out for a walk

To tap into your body's relaxation response try slowing down your breath to 4 to 6 breaths per minute. This activates your prefrontal cortex and increases heart rate variability, rescuing your mind from a state of stress. Bringing a sense of calm and focus that is more conducive to self-control.

What weakens willpower?


By now you'll have a pretty good idea that one of the biggest obstacles to self-control is stress. Another significant hindrance is self-criticism.

Two psychologists, Claire Adams and Mark Leary invited a group of weight-watching women into the lab and encouraged them to eat doughnuts and candy for the sake of science. Their plan: make half of these dieters feel better about giving in to the doughnuts.

Their hypothesis was that if guilt is a self-control deal breaker, maybe the opposite of guilt would support willpower.

The women were told they would be taking part in 2 different studies: one was on the effect food has on mood and the other was a taste test. For the first part all the women were encouraged to eat a doughnut and drink a full glass of water (meant to assure the women felt full and slightly uncomfortable). For the second part of the study, before the taste test, a researcher came in and encouraged half of the women to be kinder to themselves and to remember that everyone gives in to temptation every now and then. The other half of the women received no message at all.

These women were then asked to sample an array of different candies aimed to appeal at any sweet tooth. All the women were told to eat as much or as little as they wanted. The women with the self-forgiveness message ate 28 grams of candy. The women who had no message ate about 70 grams of candy. Contrary to common sense, guilt and shame often don't lead to change but to overindulging. Feeling bad makes it harder to resist temptation.

Study after study shows that self-criticism is correlated with less motivation and worse self-control. In contrast, self-compassion – being supportive and kind to yourself as you would to a friend, especially when confronted with failure – is associated with greater motivation and self-control.


Did you know that erotic images make men more likely to take financial risks? Ot that fantasizing about winning the lottery makes people overeat?

When your brain is in a reward seeking mode it releases a neurotransmitter called dopamine.

When your system is flooded with dopamine, the appeal of immediate gratification is amplified, leaving you less concerned about your long-term consequences and more prone to temptations of any kind.

Subliminal environmental cues create tempting environments and retailers are fully aware of how these can trigger your impulses.

That's why grocery stores will put their most tempting articles front and center.Food and drink samples for example, will leave people hungrier and thirstier, therefore in a reward seeking mode, leaving them more likely to stock up on candy and chocolates. Paying attention to how marketers use the promise of reward will give you a chance to reflect before you act.

Avoiding temptation when you can, and planning ahead have also shown effective tactics for maintaining self-control in the face of temptation.

Take Away Message

Stress, self-criticism and temptations are some of the biggest obstacles to willpower. While the power of paying attention is one of your greatest allies. A willpower challenge involves a conflict between two systems: the cognitive system and the impulsive system.

Training yourself to notice when you're making a decision rather than acting on autopilot can be a very effective strategy, while including exercise, healthy eating, meditation and relaxation into your life are sure footed ways of increasing your PFC activation and willpower.

The essence is to train your brain to pause before you act. Another important take away message is how the promise of reward doesn't necessarily equal satisfaction. Your mind tricks you into believing the object of your desire is what will make you happy.

When in fact, long-term satisfaction is related to your ability to refrain from impulses and act in line with your goals and values. So, next time you're faced with a willpower challenge, what will you do?

"People with low willpower use it to get themselves out of crises. People with high willpower use it not to get themselves into crises."
- Roy Baumeister

Next we'd love to hear from you, what was your biggest willpower insight, and which strategy are you more likely to start using in your life?

About the Author

Catarina Lino

Catarina Lino's life long passion is well-being. Her quest for meaning led her to Psychology and to pursue an Executive Masters in Positive Psychology which she uses to help people live healthy and full lives. Get to know our whole team!

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