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What is willpower? Understanding how to exercise self-control

November 21, 2022 - 11 min read

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But what exactly is willpower?

The power of will

Increasing willpower is possible with these tips

What to avoid when nurturing your willpower

Increasing your self-discipline

You chose to watch a new episode of your favorite TV show rather than finish reorganizing your closet — again. 

If you’ve had enough of your lack of willpower, we understand. But how can you gain control over your desires and cravings?

Studies have found that the average person will spend 3–4 hours of their day trying to resist their desires. That’s a fair amount of time that you spend simply trying to resist temptations. 

But willpower is more than just saying “no” to cravings. It’s about keeping you on track to succeed at whatever goals you set, staying on top of your chores, and choosing what’s best for you. And we’re here to help with that. This article will explain what willpower is and how to build willpower and self-discipline so that you’re consistent in achieving your goals.

But what exactly is willpower?

Let’s start by breaking down the definition of willpower. The American Psychological Association (APA) describes willpower as your ability to carry out your intentions with self-control. Willpower is what helps you choose to ignore any cravings you come face-to-face with to instead stick to your intentions. 

Giving in to temptations can bring fleeting joy, like scrolling social media or sleeping in, but they might harm your ability to meet your short and long-term goals. If you’re constantly foregoing morning runs for sleep or avoiding doing laundry to watch TV, you might find it negatively impacts your well-being.

Here are a few examples of willpower to help put it into perspective:

  • You refrain from buying expensive concert tickets because your goal is to save money

  • You go on a run each day regardless of the weather because you’re training to complete a marathon 

  • You start meal prepping to limit how much junk food you purchase because you’re trying to eat healthier

Willpower relies on self-discipline, determination, and motivation. When making any decision, you’ll ask yourself if these decisions would help you work toward your goal or steer you farther away from it. Improving your willpower means recognizing how your choices impact your efforts to practice good habits and choosing what helps you grow.  

Your willpower also gives you the strength to overcome adversity and work through difficult situations. You might look at how the odds seem stacked against you and be tempted to give up.

But this discipline encourages resilience and gives you the endurance to keep moving forward. And the more you move forward, the closer you are to success, whether that’s finding your passion, living more meaningfully, or changing careers

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The power of will

Willpower is the tool you need to achieve your goals and stay focused on what you want to accomplish. This improves your life satisfaction because you can pursue your goals, passions, and purpose. It might seem obvious that you want to achieve your dreams, but are you truly dedicated? That’s where willpower comes in.

But willpower is a finite resource that your mind needs time to replenish. Social psychologist Roy Baumeister has found that constantly resisting temptations takes a toll on your mental health. The prolonged stress of resistance makes you tired, drains your self-control, and leads you to give up more often. Baumeister refers to this as willpower depletion, also known as ego depletion. 

There’s a solution to combat this: balance. Keeping your beliefs and positive attitude in check will help you remain driven to achieve your goals and ignore your cravings. And when you do give in to your cravings, you’ll know it was an act of self-care to indulge before refocusing. 

Learning how to increase your willpower sustainably will also help you avoid the negative toll and positively impact your decision-making skills.

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Increasing willpower is possible with these tips

You might find your current willpower levels are nowhere near where you want them to be. But that’s OK. You can always increase your willpower if you put in the hard work and dedication.

One study that spanned over 40 years found that self-control in childhood strongly predicts success in adulthood. Having self-control at a young age builds a stronger foundation of self-discipline that positively impacts your adult life. 

But don’t worry: It’s never too late to develop your self-control and strengthen your willpower. Here are six willpower exercises to help increase your self-control:

1. Meditate to help your focus and concentration

Mindfulness and meditation are ways of centering your thoughts and honing your focus. It reminds you of your goals and what’s meaningful to you. Meditation has been linked to both increased focus and concentration and improved memory and attention span. This practice will teach you which cravings and temptations to ignore and to focus on sustaining your willpower. 

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2. Create a long-term plan

Where do you see yourself in ten years? That’s a difficult question to answer, but thinking about it will help you outline what healthy habits you need to achieve that goal. Doing some life planning makes you excited for the future by showing you what you’re working toward and how valuable your willpower will be on that journey.

3. Make time for rest

Learning how to rest may seem easy, but it’s not just about a good night’s sleep. You need to rest daily, and it’s especially helpful when you’re trying to increase your willpower. Your mind and body need recovery time to prevent you from succumbing to ego depletion. Practice whatever good habits you want that flood your body with a sense of peace and help you feel replenished.

4. Apply the concept of delayed gratification

When you delay gratification, you’re ignoring impulses that would give you instant gratification and immediate rewards to achieve something more valuable in the future

An example of delayed gratification could be ignoring the temptation to order take-out because you want to save money to buy a new laptop. Resisting that instant gratification sets you up for an even greater, long-term reward.

5. Practice more positive self-talk

Your inner dialogue has a big impact on your self-esteem and confidence. More positive self-talk and affirmations empower you to practice more self-control because you believe in yourself. Try writing down a list of your strengths or things you admire about yourself. Review them when you feel like you’re really struggling to exercise willpower.

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6. Reflect on your behavior and progress

The first few weeks of exercising your willpower might be tough. But as you move forward, don’t forget to reflect on challenges you’ve overcome or mistakes you now know to avoid. In this process, you’re learning about yourself. And self-awareness has been found to help people become more accepting of themselves, be more proactive with their goals, and use their strengths to their advantage. This will help you understand how you best improve your willpower.

What to avoid when nurturing your willpower

Now that you know how to strengthen your mind and willpower, you also need to learn what might weaken it. Temptations are everywhere, and some might be more threatening than others. 

Here are four things to watch out for that might weaken your willpower:

  1. Self-doubt and an abundance of negative self-criticism

  2. Any type of stress that starts negatively impacting your health

  3. Poor sleep hygiene and inadequate amounts of rest

  4. Burnout at work and mental exhaustion 

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Increasing your self-discipline

A clear understanding of what willpower is will help you harness it. Now you know how to flex your self-control skills and make decisions with only your best interests in mind. 

Working on your sustainably increasing your willpower is what matters. You won’t become perfectly disciplined overnight, and if you did, you’d suffer ego depletion. Instead, focusing on forming healthy habits will help you find a realistic path to resisting temptations.

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Published November 21, 2022

Maggie Wooll

Managing Editor

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