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How to Strengthen Willpower Through Practice


One of the most encouraging pieces of information I’ve turned up lately about self-motivation is that willpower can be strengthened by practice. However, the exact kind of practice is important if you want good results.


Photo of a parrot exercising admirable restraint by Maria Gonzalez

Some articles I’ve read liken willpower to a muscle, and suggest that all you have to do to strengthen willpower is to exercise that muscle. A New York Times blog entry makes the recommendation as an example that you try strengthening willpower by making yourself brush your teeth on the wrong side.

The problem with this kind of view is that it assumes willpower is the same thing as self-control, ignoring the other pieces of the puzzle.

Willpower usually involves overcoming ingrained habits we don’t like (like staying up watching television too late every night) or developing new habits that we do like (like taking ten minutes to straighten up at the end of every work day). And while building or breaking habits can be done with self-control to some extent, trying to increase your self-control in general in order to build or break a particular habit is like trying to build a brick wall by lifting weights: sure, you’ll get a stronger over time, and be able to lift the bricks a little more easily. But why not concentrate on the wall? You’ll build up muscles that way anyway.

Concentrating on building the wall means

  • having clear goals
  • understanding what kinds of decisions are going to help get us to those goals
  • recognizing the times when we have such a decision to make, and
  • making the right call at those times.

General self-control only helps with that last piece, and it’s not the only tool we can bring to bear even for that.

The other pieces have a lot to do with self-awareness (mindfulness) and self-understanding, and there are some good techniques to help those things along that I’ll discuss in other posts.

For now, here are some simple guidelines for practices that help build willpower and get you some immediate results at the same time:

1. Begin by choosing one area of your life where you want to make progress
2. Figure out what kinds of decisions you want to see yourself making in that area
3. Put special effort into noticing when those decisions come up
4. Pay attention to your mood and what’s influencing it. Are you more likely to make bad decisions when something’s bugging you? What kinds of distractions keep you from paying close enough attention to your decisions?

The more aware you become of your own mental processes, the more automatically you recognize the chance to make good decisions and can take advantage of them.

There’s a particular technique I’ve been experimenting with called “decision logging” that seems to be very promising in terms of building up willpower and clearing away mental obstacles; I’ll take the opportunity to blog about that in the near future.


  • Exercising willpower can help make willpower stronger
  • To make good decisions, we have to first figure out what kinds of decisions we want to make
  • Good decisions come in part from understanding ourselves and being aware of our moods and reactions


  1. Olli Savolainen  •  Feb 23, 2012 @8:47 am

    Hi Luc!
    How about adding a link to that decision logging article?

  2. Luc  •  Feb 23, 2012 @10:32 am

    Thanks: good idea!

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