What Is Willpower? The Psychology Behind Self-Control

Willpower ResilienceIn 2011, 27% of the respondents of the Stress in America survey reported a lack of willpower as the greatest obstacle to change.

We rely on willpower to exercise, diet, save money, quit smoking, stop drinking, overcome procrastination, and ultimately accomplish any of our goals. It impacts every area of our lives.

Willpower is not a new concept, but we still do not have widespread awareness as to how to nurture it

Spiritual leader and activist Mahatma Gandhi described willpower by noting that:

“Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.”

Many people have an intuitive sense of what this willpower is but lack the scientific knowledge to understand the forces that undermine it.

How can we work with willpower instead of against its stubborn nature?

They say knowledge is power, and in this case, knowledge is willpower.

Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Goal Achievement Exercises for free. These detailed, science-based exercises will help you or your clients create actionable goals and master techniques to create lasting behavior change.

What is Willpower?

People use different definitions to describe willpower, but some of the most common synonyms 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 source of long-term satisfaction over instant gratification.

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

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

  • The ability to delay gratification and resist short-term temptations to meet long-term goals;
  • The capacity to override an unwanted thought, feeling or impulse;
  • The 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 behavioral, 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. How do we refuse that chocolate cake, the department store, the internet, that cigarette, or that after-work drink?

It is hard. We have trouble saying “no” when our bodies and senses are screaming yes.

Psychologist Kelly McGonigal calls this the “I won’t power.” McGonigal is a frequent lecturer at Stanford University and the author of  “The Willpower Instinct.” In this latest text, she tackles the concept of self-control and why it matters.

According to her, saying “no” is just one part of what willpower is. But the other part of willpower is “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 want to follow through.

She calls this the “I will power.”

These concepts are explained in her video and visual summary of her book, The Willpower Instinct:

If you watched that video, then you already have a better idea of what derails us from our goals and what leads us in the right direction. Overall, it seems that we need to remember what we really want.

Willpower according to McGonigal is comprised of three things:

  • I won’t power;
  • I will power;
  • I want power (remembering what you really want).

Our brains have the capacity to harness all three of these capacities and, as McGonigal conveys, the development of these abilities is at the core of what it means to be human.

Why Willpower Is 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, but it required self-control. For example, you could not steal someone else’s dinner or girlfriend without consequences.

Self-control was a necessity for survival back in those days and served us well evolutionarily. Today, we are still born with willpower, but some people use their willpower more effectively than others.

In a classic willpower study, psychologist Walter Mischel, 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, smiles and laughs guaranteed.

Most of us are aware of the importance of willpower, nevertheless, we’ll run through the findings of multiple studies on willpower.

Overall, self-control appears to be a better predictor of academic achievement than intelligence. It is also a stronger determinant of effective leadership than charisma and more important for marital satisfaction than empathy.

Anywhere you look at it, people with greater willpower are:

  • Happier;
  • Healthier;
  • More satisfied in their relationships;
  • Wealthier and further ahead in their careers;
  • More able to manage stress, deal with conflict and overcome adversity.

The point is this: we all have willpower and we all use it to some extent. But most of us would be closer to achieving all our goals if we focused on improving our willpower.

Why is this? It is time to examine the human brain.

The 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.

When you meditate or ponder conflicting thoughts, predict outcomes of our choices, and decide “right verse wrong,” you are relying on your PFC. In the figure to the right, it is highlighted in red.

The PFC controls what we pay attention to, how we express our personality, what we think about and how we feel. In other words, it controls a lot of “who we are.”

The PFC expanded in size throughout human evolution, which indicates a natural selection process in favor of its continued growth and evolution. 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.

As social animals, this makes sense: we evolved to regulate our behavior based on what is needed for healthy group interactions.

Studies show that this part of the brain is the last to mature; its development is not complete until around age 25. Which is likely why otherwise intelligent and sensible teens still engage in high-risk or excessive behaviors, even though they understand the potential consequences.

Robert Sapolsky, a neurobiologist at Stanford, believes that the main job of our 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 even though it’s easier to procrastinate, etc.

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 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 until you are stuffed.

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 Mysterious Case of Phineas Gage

In 1848, Phineas Gage was just a 25-year-old foreman working on the rails. On a very bad day for Phineas, a large iron rod tore through his skull and prefrontal cortext—he survived for the next 12-years, but with some major shifts in personality.

What happened exactly, on this fateful day? This video summarizes the fascinating case-study of poor Phineas and his famous personality shift.

As the video covers, September 13th was not a good day for Phineas Gage.

Before this accident, coworkers and family members described Gage as a quiet and respectful gentleman. His physician writes that he was exceptionally strong both physically and psychologically.

But during a routine procedure, a 7-inch tamping iron went straight into Phineas skull, piercing his head and blowing away his PFC. The figure to the right shows where the iron impacted his brain and skull.

Surprisingly enough, Phineas did not die from this traumatic brain injury. After a couple of months, he recovered and proceeded about his life. Eventually, he left America to be a stagecoach driver in Chile.

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, can be enough for us to focus on our impulses, rather than our long-term goals.

One note to consider in the analysis of Gage as a “medical curiosity,” and how perhaps his tale grew to be exaggerated over time. Nevertheless, it was one of the first instances where personality began to associated with the PFC.

Two systems in conflict

If the PFC is responsible for the part of the brain that makes us question, “Do I really need a highly expensive pair of shoes?” then what part is responsible for our cravings and impulses?

Some neuroscientists say that it is like we have two people living inside our mind.

One is a spoiled brat who “wants what it wants” and is always on the look for instant gratification. The other might consider our long-term goals and delay gratification. Sound familiar to the marshmallow study? It is.

Every human has both of these systems, neurologically, in your brain. We flip back and forth between these parts. The part of our brain responsible for our impulsive desires is referred to 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 long-term goals.

5 Ways to Strengthen Willpower

Aristotle’s quote is at the core of each of the following ways people can improve their willpower.

“Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.”


Once we understand the root source of our behaviors, it is easier—though still difficult—to work towards our goals. Scientific studies highlight exactly how the following behavioral changes can influence willpower.

Each of these suggestions, such as “improve your self-awareness,” relate to these deeper themes in positive psychology of doing the activities that are centered around wellness and flourishing.

1. Improve your self-awareness

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

If you carefully track 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.

Any behavior that you aren’t aware of is much harder to manage.

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.

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 fast-paced lifestyles, constant distraction, and over-stimulation, self-awareness is not something everyone realizes. How does this relate to willpower? 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 purchase items that were 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. At the end of the day analyze which ones supported your long-term goals and which ones didn’t.

For more on decision making, here’s a short video of Baba Shiv:

As Baba Shiv explains, there are neurological components to decision-making that most people are unaware of. Because of dopamine and serotonin levels, for example, it is much better to make decisions in the morning.

2. Meditate

Meditation does not mean you need to find a quiet view and begin your days by watching the sunrise. Although if you have access and the ability to do that, that’s great.

Meditation can be as simple as taking five deep, calming breaths the next time you are stuck in a long line. The neurological benefits are huge.

“I meditate so that my mind cannot complicate my life.”

Sri Chinmoy

Historically, the psychological paradigm was that we had a “fixed brain,” meaning you were born a certain way and over time, your brain will decline. This is no longer what science reveals.

With modern technology and research, today’s neuroscientists know that the brain is responsive to experience—it actually changes based on what you do.

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 because the brain region associated with that will grow denser. Practice concentration and you’ll also get better at it and your brain will respond accordingly.

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. See if you can feel the sensations and not follow them.
  3.  Bring your attention to your breath. As you breathe in, just in your mind say to yourself “inhale” and “exhale” as you breathe out.
  4. When your mind wanders off, and it will, just gently bring it back to the breath, again and again. Don’t be hard on yourself if your mind wanders, just gently bring attention back to your breath.

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. Some days will be harder than others.

If you didn’t resonate with this particular approach, remember there are many different forms of meditation. 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.

3. Exercise

For a lot of people, exercise is their willpower challenge. But exercise is one of the best tools you can use to strengthen your willpower.

Megan Oaten and Ken Cheng devised a study of treatment to enhance self-control. The participants were 6 men and 18 women, ages 18-50. 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;
  • Arriving more on time 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, and 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. With such a small number of participants, it would be worthwhile for other researchers to continue this study and compare results.

Regardless, you may be wondering: how much exercise do I need to do for results? Consider instead, how much you’re likely to do, and start with realistic goals.

Remember that consistency over intensity is more important.

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.

Any type of physical activity that gets you out in nature can strengthen your willpower.

4. Eat well

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, and it needs fuel.

“Food is like a pharmaceutical compound that affects the brain.”

Fernando Gómez-Pinilla

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. Did drawing on willpower to resist the cookies drain 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. Not all sugars are created equal.

Studies show that sugar, especially the pervasive high fructose corn syrup 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.

Researchers on self-control also advise that muscles can become fatigued when overused in the short term, but over the long run, they are strengthened by regular exercise.

Similarly, using your self-control frequently and effectively can lead to stronger willpower muscles.

5. Relax

Heart rate variability is one of our body’s physiological indicators of stress and relaxation. It’s the time variation of the 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, and the heart rate variability increases since there are longer pauses between heartbeats.

In this relaxed state, you’re more likely to manage stress better, resist impulsive behavior, exert self-control, and 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, meaning, they are in a calm state with longer pauses between heartbeats.

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.

Heart rate variability a predictor of who will give in to temptations and who will exert willpower.

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 interfere, whereas anything that allows you to tap into the parasympathetic nervous system will benefit you.

A 2010 survey by the American Psychological Association (APA) found that 75% of people in the United States report high levels of stress. Americans are also increasingly sleep-deprived, 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.

Stress will shift your brain to a reward-seeking state. Whatever will make you happy at the moment will become a fixation, as you 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 APA, 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, thus rescuing your mind from a state of stress.

Bringing a sense of calm and focus that is more conducive to self-control.

Willpower Weakeners

By now you’ll have a pretty good idea that stress is one of the biggest obstacles to self-control.

Two other hindrances are self-criticism and temptation.


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 was to 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. 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 because we want to cover our shame and guilt with instant pleasure, or in this case, candy.

Study after study shows how 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? Or 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 in markets will also leave people hungrier and thirstier, therefore in a reward-seeking mode. This reward-seeking mode might result in extra purchases, and unintended buying of candy and chocolates.

Marketers use the promise of reward to sell you their projects. That’s why it is key to reflect before you act.

Where does this leave someone with goals and challenges then? Simply summarized: avoid temptation when you can, and go easy on yourself when you indulge.

A Take-Home Message

Stress, self-criticism, and temptations are some of the biggest obstacles to willpower, whereas 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—is an effective strategy. Other willpower-strengthening activities are exercise, healthy eating, meditation and relaxation. All of these increase your PFC activation and willpower.

The essence is to train your brain to pause before you act.

The promise of reward doesn’t always equal satisfaction. Your mind tricks you into believing the object of your desire is what will make you happy. But long-term satisfaction is rooted in your ability to refrain from impulses that stray from your goals and values.

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

Now 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? Leave a comment below.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Goal Achievement Exercises for free.


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  1. Damian M Smith

    An interesting and thought provoking article in which I recognised a number of traits that I have and need to address. Incredibly informative and written in simple easy to understand language. Many thanks for the effort to research, analyse and report. Your work in greatly appreciated and will be used to the best of my ability.


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