Y.E.S. News

Willpower, What You Don’t Know

Most people think of willpower as a resource that runs dry. However, here’s the truth — and a much more hopeful approach.

These are the three reasons why 6 out of 10 promises to change end up failing within three months.

  • Some folks try to introduce too much change all at once.
  • Others never create a solid action plan to work from in the first place.
  • Others fail to address life patterns that reinforce old habits.

However, there’s one key factor that plays a central role in making or breaking our ability to change, and as a culture, we don’t understand it.

Improving your life — whether that means quitting smoking, losing weight, or getting a handle on your disaster of an inbox — requires change. To make change happen, we go to willpower.

We draw on willpower a lot. But what is it exactly? Why does it seem to fail us? Most importantly, how can we make it work better?

How do we think of willpower? You may know it by these different names:

  • determination
  • drive
  • restraint
  • resolve
  • self-discipline
  • self-control
  • resilience
  • can-do spirit

The common thread: They all make your palms sweat and your mouth go dry when forcing yourself to do something you really don’t want to do.

Definitions of willpower include similarly discomforting concepts:

  • 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.
  • the ability to employ a “cool” cognitive system of behavior rather than a “hot” emotional system.
  • conscious, effortful regulation of the self by the self.
  • a limited resource capable of being depleted.

That last definition, in particular, is interesting. Because, you see, it might not actually be true.

We used to think that willpower was a limited resource, something that we use up until it’s gone.

That’s the belief we fall back on when, after eating chicken and broccoli all week long, we find ourselves knee-deep in nachos and margaritas at 7PM on Friday night. My (depleted) willpower made me do it!

Thankfully, new discoveries in willpower research have revealed that this viewpoint falls short.

Before we get into the new research, here’s a crash course on what we thought we knew… until recently.

Is willpower really a finite resource?

University of Kentucky psychology professor Suzanne Segerstrom began researching the biological basis of willpower in the early 2000s. Studying physiologic correlations, she found that heart rate variability (HRV) increases when people call on their willpower.

From there, a study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology showed that using willpower literally fatigues participants. In another, stamina was shown to be depleted.

Florida State University professor Matthew Gailliot then proposed that the mind and body pull the same resources for fuel, suggesting that willpower uses glucose. Gailliot’s research at least suggested that individuals with high glucose resources would have more self-control.

Follow-up studies showed that having too many choices-say, at a buffet-decreases our ability to restrain ourselves. The take-home: Limit your options if you want to conserve your willpower.

From these studies and other data, we get the picture that willpower is a limited resource. That is, we must prioritize our willpower-requiring activities, since we’ll likely run out.

Books have been written on the subject. The first wave of books stated: If willpower is a biologically limited entity, it’s not our fault if we run out. The second wave compared willpower to a muscle, suggesting that it can be strengthened. Here’s the only problem with all this: The willpower-as-limited-resource narrative is only half right; which means it’s also half wrong.

Change your beliefs on willpower and you change  everything! In more recent studies, one thing really stands out: willpower is surprisingly simple to boost. It is so easy that merely suggesting to people that willpower works cumulatively, rather than being a finite resource, can be enough to improve the numbers.

In one study from Stanford, researchers gave subjects the prompt, “Sometimes, working on a strenuous mental task can make you feel energized for further challenging activities.”

Simply sending the message that willpower can build on itself rather than run out was enough to get people to be significantly more successful at the tasks at hand.

It is not saying this is going to work like a charm every time. But it does reveal the power of our own perception when it comes to finding motivation.

If it is true that willpower is a finite resource. You will absolutely run out of it if you use too much. However, this is the case only if you believe that’s how willpower works. What happens if you believe the opposite — that doing something requiring willpower can drive you to accomplish even more? For example, when the Stanford researchers asked 153 college students about their attitudes regarding motivation and willpower, the ones who felt that willpower was a limited resource felt “depleted” after a difficult task.

Yet the students who felt that willpower was cumulative did better on every task given. As the saying goes, nothing seems to succeed like success.

From here, anything is possible. Excelling at something in one area of life might lead to a whole chain of successes in seemingly unrelated areas.

For instance, a good test score could lead to improved academic growth, which could lead to procrastinating less, which could even lead to things like healthy eating or sticking to a budget more effectively.

Just like every other life situation, our own self-talk and beliefs determine how we handle difficult situations.

This means that how you think about willpower can actually translate to how you act, and that can mean better results.

For example, if you’re having trouble finding the motivation to get to the gym, or you’re tired of white-knuckling yourself away from the refrigerator, try re-framing the situation. Tell yourself that every time you work on a challenging task you become more capable of rocking the next one.

That mindset alone can make you feel more empowered.

Think about your understanding of willpower. How do you define it? How do you think it works? Consider how your definition of willpower affects your actions.

Try giving yourself a prompt to encourage a different view of willpower and motivation.

Consider how a different view of willpower might help you with challenges like:

  • nutrition consistency
  • sticking to a workout routine
  • preparing meals ahead of time

The next time you feel like you’ve exhausted your willpower, ask yourself: How can I reframe what willpower means for me? What successes have I already achieved? How can I draw energy from those successes?

Remember, willpower is another tool you can use to empower yourself to make positive changes. And, like most things in life, it’s best used with a hefty dose of self-compassion, positive self-talk, and social support.

Resource: Precision Nutrition 



Michelle’s ability to wear many hats has made her a valuable asset to the Y.E.S. Fitness team.