Willpower is defined by Merriam-Webster as the “ability to control one’s own actions, emotions, or urges.” Willpower is seen as a strength and something that everyone has if they just use it. In reality, anyone who has tried to change to lose weight, get to the gym on a regular basis, or make a behavior change at work or home knows that willpower is not the magic bullet to success.
Research into how individuals are able to tap into their mythical source of willpower is linked to the chances of a sustained change. When individuals are surveyed about why they failed to meet goals around lifestyle changes, the most frequently selected answer is “lack of willpower.”
Psychologists studying the power of willpower in making changes have a very a different way to look at this hidden superpower. They see willpower as the ability to delay gratification, to stifle impulsive behaviors, and to consciously regulate behaviors through thinking about the behavior.
Willpower, in this definition, is like a braking system on acting. Rather than reacting to a stimulus in the environment, such as dipping into a box of chocolate chip double fudge cookies on the breakroom table, people using willpower think about the action, evaluate the pros and cons of taking action, and then make an informed choice.
They are utilizing the executive functions of the brain to think through the consequences of the action. This is very different than reacting to the stimulus with the emotional part of the brain that allows behaviors to run on autopilot.
The Cost of Using Willpower
Willpower as a function of the brain is an energy-intensive activity. The more decisions the brain makes in a day, the more energy levels are depleted. This is sometimes known as decision fatigue, and it can occur at any time during the day based on internal energy levels.
Poor sleep, a rushed breakfast, answering a lot of emails or employee issues in the morning can dramatically deplete the energy reserves in the brain to act as a brake on impulsive or automatic behaviors. This is not a lack of willpower; it is a lack of fuel to use willpower.
Managing Willpower Levels
There are techniques to use to help bolster or support your willpower energy levels. Effective strategies include:
- Routinize basic decisions and processes to limit the need to make the same decision over and over again.
- Limit temptations when possible, reducing the need to use your brain braking system.
- Build in rewards.
- Practice delaying gratification early in the day when willpower reserves are high.
- Create alternative behaviors to environmental triggers (learn a better habit).
- Recognize the signs of willpower and decision fatigue.
Willpower can be developed over time, but it takes conscious practice. Becoming aware of when you are tapping into your willpower and when you are running on autopilot is a critical first step.