How harnessing willpower to achieve your goals can transform your life

Willpower is incredibly useful for achieving goals and making positive changes in one's life. However, it can be difficult to maintain this kind of self-control, especially during times of stress, lack of sleep, or other challenges. It's normal to struggle with willpower from time to time, but there are strategies you can use to improve your abilities or get back on track after a setback.

What is willpower, and where does it come from?

The American Psychological Association defines willpower as the ability to control oneself and overcome unwanted thoughts, feelings, and impulses. It involves delaying instant gratification to achieve long-term goals.

There is a debate about the origin of willpower and whether it is an infinite or finite resource. Some older studies suggest that willpower is unlimited and derives from a combination of factors, including one's natural level of self-control, the difficulty of the task or objective being pursued, mood fluctuations, personal beliefs, and feedback.

According to the ego depletion theory, we have a limited amount of willpower that we can use at a time. This theory suggests that every decision we make requires mental energy. Once we exhaust our mental energy, it becomes difficult to exhibit self-control until we rest and allow our brains to recover. This means that willpower is finite, but we can increase our capacity for it over time, similar to how a muscle can be strengthened and expanded.

There is ongoing debate about the origin of willpower. Several studies indicate that up to 60% of willpower is inherited. However, the famous Marshmallow Test, which suggests that willpower is innate and can significantly impact one's life, has been updated with more recent research. The updated studies suggest that one's social and economic status and related factors play a more significant role in self-regulation than previously believed.

To put it simply, the source of willpower needs to be understood, and how much of it each person possesses needs to be clarified. However, some studies indicate that individuals who believe that willpower is limited may have difficulty accessing it. Believing that you can enhance your self-control abilities is often the initial step towards doing so, and it may aid in making the techniques outlined below even more successful.

Tips to increase your willpower

It may take some time and experimentation to figure out the tricks and strategies that work for you in terms of self-control. Different people have different needs, goals, and ways of thinking, which can affect what self-control looks like in their lives.

For instance, while attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is believed to result from structural and chemical differences in the brain rather than a mere issue of willpower, it can lead to increased impulsivity in some situations, making self-control even more challenging. Consequently, someone with ADHD may require different strategies to enhance self-control than someone who is not neurodivergent in this way.

If you're looking to improve your self-control, experimenting with different techniques and seeking assistance from a therapist are two ways to determine what works best for you.

Techniques to boost willpower

Reduce temptations when possible

It can be helpful to remove or reduce distractions or temptations whenever possible, even though it may not always be feasible. For instance, if you are trying to avoid impulse buying at the store, you may take only enough cash to purchase the item you need. Or, if you are trying to drink more water or avoid sugar, you may prevent keeping soda in the fridge.

Delay the decision

If you feel tempted, try telling yourself "not now, maybe later." This simple pause can allow the power of the temptation to pass.

Set realistic goals

It's important to set S.M.A.R.T. goals, which are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound. This approach can help you achieve success by breaking down your goals into manageable pieces. For instance, if your goal is to develop healthy habits, relying solely on willpower to resist temptations such as staying up late, skipping workouts, and not sticking to your meal plan may leave you feeling demotivated. Instead, by using this goal framework, you can take it one step at a time and make incremental progress. Start by attending one workout class per week, for example, and gradually increase from there.

Don't be too harsh on yourself.

If you find it difficult to control yourself and experience a setback, it's important not to be too hard on yourself. Your attitude towards the situation plays a crucial role, and believing in your ability to strengthen your willpower can actually help you improve it. One way to do this is by showing yourself compassion when you make a mistake.

Lifestyle practices to boost willpower

Certain lifestyle practices can help increase a person's willpower reserves. Examples include:

Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness is the practice of being aware of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment moment-by-moment. It involves cultivating a sense of compassion instead of judgment. Practicing mindfulness over time may increase your willpower and provide potential mental and physical health benefits.

Get enough sleep

Studies indicate that not getting enough sleep can lower an individual's capacity to exercise self-discipline. Therefore, ensuring that you get the recommended amount of sleep based on your age is another aspect of your lifestyle that can help you postpone immediate gratification to achieve your long-term objectives.

Manage stress in a healthy way

Stress triggers the body's fight-or-flight response, which can hinder clear thinking and the ability to focus on future goals. Studies show that people tend to procrastinate on healthy habits, such as going to bed at a reasonable time, after a stressful day at work. Therefore, finding healthy ways to manage stress can have a positive impact on overall willpower.

How speaking with a therapist could help

If you are striving to improve your self-control and willpower, seeking guidance from a therapist might prove beneficial. They can help you identify any underlying obstacles that may be hindering your progress and recommend effective tactics and strategies to support you on your journey.

The therapy format that works best for you is usually the one you feel most comfortable with. That's why many people are turning towards online therapy these days, as it allows you to meet with a licensed therapist virtually from the comfort of your home. Recent research suggests that online and in-person therapy offer similar benefits to clients in most cases, so you can confidently choose any format that suits you.