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Do You Have No Willpower?

Mark Tyrrell
Article by Mark Tyrrell
Therapist trainer of 25 years
Co-founder of Hypnosis Downloads

7 tips to increase your willpower to previously unknown heights

"Will is character in action." ~ William McDougall

Willpower was, as I recall, never really a problem for Popeye. When low on verve, he'd tip open a can of spinach and quicker than you can say, "What on earth did he see in Olive Oyl anyway?", he'd renewed his vital drive and was back fighting villains (namely Bluto). But when willpower in the real world melts quicker than ice cream left on the seat of a Spanish hire car in August, we need to resort to less vegetarian tactics.

I'm sure you've had times when your intentions were good, when you really believed what you wanted to do was positive and for the best... but somehow the actual doing of the exercise, switching off the TV, focusing on that project, practicing that instrument, sticking to that diet, or building that business didn't really materialize. Willpower matters because it helps make the possible real. And lack of self-control has been linked to addiction, overeating, interpersonal conflict, and underachievement. What about you?

Do you even need to boost willpower?

Maybe you don't strive to be different or better and maybe that's fine. Perhaps you're entirely happy with the way you and things are. But if not and if you have the strength of will, then read on. Some of this might surprise you.

So why does willpower sometimes desert us when our intentions were so good and worthy? Actually, there are some very good reasons why this happens. And knowing them will help boost your willpower.

What is willpower?

Willpower links to self-control, determination, and self-respect. Controlling impulses that, if carried through, would result in poorer health or wasted time is vital for a well-ordered and successful life. As is overcoming inertia when it's easier to do nothing or replace action with fantasy.

Being able to say 'no' to yourself on occasion is vital. Determination and making sacrifices and effort now for a later payoff can make the difference between happy fulfilment and a life squandered.

But is increasing willpower really akin to gaining more brute force? The mental equivalent of Popeye's immense forearms?

You and your mental muscles

Yes, developing greater willpower is remarkably similar to developing a muscle. But there is more to it than that. Researchers at the University of Hamilton in Ontario (1) discovered that in just the same way we can exhaust a muscle (and therefore temporarily weaken it), so too can an exertion of willpower in one area mean we have less available willpower to focus in another. So resisting that Black Forest gateau, then making yourself exercise will mean you'll have less 'willpower reserve' when sitting down to work on your dissertation. Willpower is a finite resource.

This is why you shouldn't beat yourself up too much if your willpower sometimes sags after a particularly tough day. It might just be that you've been using it up in areas outside of where you really want to use it. Willpower - like any power - isn't inexhaustible.

This brings us to my first tip for boosting willpower:

1) Be careful how you 'spend' your willpower

New Year's is often the time we decide that the next twelve months will be different - "I'm going to stop smoking, learn tennis, climb Mont Blanc, run a marathon, and desist insulting the neighbour...maybe!" Whoa, hold on! One thing at a time. If the researchers are right that using willpower depletes it, then it makes sense not to attempt too many willpower-based changes all at once.

Choose one thing to focus on. If you have a project to work on, you might like to spend a few hours in the morning to give it the full force of your available willpower before the day has thrown other willpower-requiring temptations at you (such as that offer of a drink or movie outing). Resisting these may deplete your willpower for the project if you leave it to do later on. Ah, that reminds me: watch who you mix with, too.

2) Limit your exposure to people who drive you nuts

If , say, you're unlucky enough to work with someone to whom you are required to be professional and polite even as every fibre of your instinctive being is champing at the bit to scream in their ear to shut the *£@! up (sorry, I'm working through a few things from the past here), then that requires an almost constant effort of willpower.

If you can avoid or limit your time with people who require you to exert willpower just by being with them, you'll have more willpower to focus on what's really important. So avoid situations (and people) that deplete your willpower unnecessarily, because it takes time to renew it. This may be one reason why authors or painters sometimes retreat into solitude when they need to focus.

And did you know using willpower even uses up physical energy in just the same way that using muscular effort does - even when you're sitting still?

3) Understand how exerting willpower saps your energy

Exerting willpower lowers your blood glucose levels. Since glucose is the same fuel that powers your muscles, using willpower literally fatigues the body (2).

So just like with Popeye, researchers (3) have concluded that willpower is very similar to physical strength in that:

  • Willpower is a mind-body response, not merely a mindset.
  • Using willpower depletes resources in the body (namely, available glucose).
  • Willpower is limited (just like muscle power).
  • Willpower is trainable (just like muscle power).

So many people report going to the gym and, through force of sweaty will, staying on the treadmill only to 'spoil it all' on arriving home by stuffing down half the world's supply of cheese bagels washed off with a keg of beer. But if willpower measurably depletes glucose levels (sugar), surely having a more sugary diet will increase willpower? You wish!

4) Watch your blood sugar levels

Yes, research found that willpower could be temporarily restored by having a glass of lemonade (4), but the problem is that the more sugar we consume generally, the less able we are to manage insulin in our bodies, meaning we're more likely to feel horrendous 'sugar dips', meaning we'll have less willpower. By starting to limit insulin-raising carbohydrates and sugary foods in your diet, you'll find that when you do exert willpower, you'll lose less glucose. So healthy eating can make it easier to engage in healthier eating (or anything that requires willpower).

How else can you boost your willpower?

5) State your core values

When you feel weak, stating aloud (or to yourself if in public) your core values can be a quick and easy self-control booster, according to some more research (5). The researchers surmise that the reason for this might be because when we feel impulsive, we stop thinking and start acting on emotionally-driven instinct. Any way of breaking the instinctive trancelike state of mind can be an effective way of regaining the reins of our behaviour. So consciously breaking the impulse to watch a Sesame Street rerun rather than get on with writing your novel by stating aloud (or to yourself), "Determination is important to me!" can actually boost your willpower.

Schmeichel and Vohs conducted research on two groups who were asked to perform the unpleasant task of holding their arms in ice water for as long as possible. The group that were asked to state positive self-affirmation statements prior to the willpower test performed significantly better than the control group. This is because what exercising self-control often means is avoiding our automatic response, which might be to automatically stuff your hand into the cookie jar (my own default setting). So if this research is anything to go by:

  • First evaluate when you are likely to weaken.
  • Next decide what your core value is in this context and what your affirmation (6) would be: "I value marriage.", "Honesty is important to me!", "Healthy living is vital."
  • Then prepare to use this self-affirmation when willpower starts to deplete.

And talking of strengthening exercises...

6) Use it or lose it!

If we never exert willpower, we never get to exercise it and it gets flabby. The diagnostic term is 'laziness'. Don't be frightened to engage in activities that require effort. Make a promise to yourself that you won't give up, and exert that will; the more you exert it, the more it will grow. One friend of mine started having climbing lessons. Not naturally lithe, he found it a real struggle at first and, indeed, couldn't remember the last time he'd had to exert such willpower. But as the months progressed, he reported a strange thing: "It's like the willpower I've developed from the climbing has crossed over to help me in my job!" Use it or lose it.

7) Avoid perfectionism

Imagine someone walking up a thousand steps. Near the top, they get tired and pause, then step down a step or two in their exhaustion. They now feel that they've failed completely because, well, they paused and stepped back. What would you think of such a person?

But this is what perfectionists do. "If it's not completely perfect, it's a total failure!" And, "Even though I've lost 20lbs, because I had that piece of pizza I may as well forget the whole thing and binge out!" Give yourself some leeway. We can all be slovenly, unmotivated, and lazy sometimes (just as long as we're not this way most of the time).

Being a perfectionist can actually needlessly leak willpower because all kinds of stuff that don't need to be controlled through force of will get brought into the mix. Perfectionism is a fast-track route to feeling less motivated than Popeye during a national spinach shortage.

Boosting willpower is a combination of understanding that:

  • Willpower depletes like any 'fuel'.
  • Using willpower saps glucose just as muscular effort does.
  • Willpower can be strengthened and trained in the ways I've outlined here.

I'm reminded of the words of author and Nobel prize winner Pearl S Buck:

"I don't wait for moods. You accomplish nothing if you do that. Your mind must simply know it has got to get down to work."

Popeye would agree.


  1. Their study was published in Psychology and Health (Sept 24, 2009).
  2. The mind-body response of exerting willpower literally fatigues us (Tice et al., 2007). It depletes physical power, as shown in one study that looked at the effects of mental self-control on physical stamina (Bray et al., 2008). In this study, trying to control one's thoughts decreased muscular endurance, as measured by performance and EMG activity. The researchers who conducted this study called the effect 'central fatigue'. This all provides another reason why it might be a good idea to exercise first thing.
  3. One study has found that exercising self-control is such hard work, it measurably depletes our glucose levels (Gailliot et al., 2007).
  4. The Gailliot et al. study also found that having a glass of lemonade afterwards can restore us to full power.
  5. Schmeichel and Vohs (2009).
  6. It seems self-affirmations are not universally effective. For those with pre-existing low self-esteem, for example, stating positive statements about the self (such as "I am a lovable person") made them feel worse, not better about themselves. Such self-esteem 'raising' self-affirmations seem to work for people who already feel good about themselves. The study, conducted by Canadian researchers from the University of Waterloo and the University of New Brunswick, appears in the journal Psychological Science. The psychologists also asked the study participants to list negative and positive thoughts about themselves. They found, paradoxically, that those with low self-esteem were in a better mood when they were allowed to have negative thoughts than when they were asked to focus exclusively on affirmative thoughts.
Published by Mark Tyrrell - in Personal Skills