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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

Self-Control Fatigue

Habits, States of mind

This New York Times blog entry had at least two interesting pieces of information in it for me, echoing ideas I’d seen elsewhere. At the same time, it seemed to take a very narrow view of the subject of willpower: the studies they talk about look at body chemistry only, and while that’s an important part of the picture, it doesn’t offer nearly as many opportunities for improving self-motivation as the psychological parts of the picture do. After all, they’re about studies where groups of people are asked to do tasks they don’t care about, then either are or aren’t given some lemonade. These are very useful studies, but any time we look at this kind of information, it helps to remember that there are a lot of habits and thought processes going on that we’re not even touching.


Photograph by Palagret

So with that disclaimer, here are the things that might be most useful to us directly in understanding self-motivation:

First, we have a limited amount of energy and attention to give to self-motivation or changing habits at one time. If we try to push in too many directions at once, we’ll rapidly become fatigued and usually lose our grip on all of the pieces. This is why, generally speaking, self-motivation works best when we work on one and only one kind of goal at a time. This can sometimes include mutually supportive sub-goals, like working on both diet and exercise or physical organization and time management, but two very different goals will suck attention and energy away from each other unless at least one of them has already developed into a habit. Fortunately, we can develop a new habit and then move on to a new goal, so that over time we can address many goals.

The second useful point is that self-control draws energy from our body in the same way physical tasks do. It helps to be aware of this to understand when we’ll be capable of better self-motivation (which is to say, not when we’re hungry, distracted, or tired) and to understand that eating habits can directly affect how much we can motivate ourselves at any given time. For anyone working on weight loss, this is a point in favor of the “smaller meals, more often” approach.

The Times has several other interesting pieces on willpower that I’ll delve into in the near future.


  • Self-motivation is influenced both by our thinking and by our physical state
  • A little food energy can help boost self-motivation in the short term
  • We have a limited capacity for reversing our habits, so to be effective, that effort has to be focused rather than used to try to change everything at once
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