5 Surprising Facts About Willpower

From the WebMD Archives

If only you had more willpower, you would easily stick to your diet or exercise program, right? Nope.

It turns out you need a lot more than willpower to do things like that. It's not just about self-control. In fact, willpower might be the most misunderstood of virtues.

Once you get wise to how willpower works, you'll know how to use it, why it can go off the rails, and how to get it back on track.

What Is Willpower?

The American Psychological Association calls willpower "the ability to resist short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals."

Using willpower sometimes means not doing something, like skipping that second slice of cake you really want.

Or it may call for a delay, like having a cooling-off period before you buy something that wasn't in your budget.

Willpower can also be about taking positive action, like working out as you had planned, though you really don't feel like it.

These five truths about willpower will change how you think about and use this inner resource to help meet your goals.

1. Your willpower is like a piggy bank.

Just like dollars in your bank account, your willpower is in limited supply. On any given day, you should budget your willpower so you have it when it counts.

For example, if you plan to hit the gym after work, pack a lunch. You may not have the wherewithal to resist pizza for lunch and also work out on your way home.

One thing can lead to another -- in a good way. One of the best things about willpower, according to Marina Chaparro, RD, is that growing self-control in one area of your life leads to other positive changes.

“It changes the way you think. Once someone gets back to the gym, they may also start eating better,” Chaparro says.


2. Your willpower is like a muscle.

“Many people think you’re either born with willpower or you’re not,” Chaparro says. “But that’s not true. It’s actually like a muscle you can strengthen over time.”

You work out your willpower a little differently than you exercise your abs, but both routines require doing it over and over.

Setting small, incremental goals that you regularly meet is the best way to boost your willpower. Much like with your body, if you overdo it by taking on a bigger challenge than you’re ready for, you won’t get stronger. You’ll just be sore.

3. Your feelings affect your willpower.

The connection between your emotions and your ability to turn down a cookie is not obvious, but it’s is definitely there.

A hard day at work can limit your ability to meet goals later in the day.

It's not just feelings that affect willpower. Anything that involves a lot of thinking and decision-making will make you more vulnerable to temptation later on.

4. You need more than willpower.

Willpower matters, but you’ll also need other strategies to help you keep on track.

By its very nature, willpower is something that comes and goes. And it can be gone when you need it most.

One of the most effective tools you can have is known as “precommitting.” It’s a technique that takes willpower out of the equation. You scrub your environment of temptations you know are likely to test you.

An example of precommitting is getting rid of all your junk food and not buying any more when you are at the grocery store. A shopping list you stick to is another good habit that can supplement your willpower.

5. Willpower is a renewable resource.

You're human. Just like everyone else, there will be times your willpower runs out. But it is possible to restore your supply.

Take time out for yourself as a way to recharge your willpower batteries. “If you get stressed, take a short walk,” Chaparro says.

She finds that the most rejuvenating “me time” is unstructured and offers freedom from your routine. Listening to music is another proven way to help restore your willpower.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on July 29, 2014



Marina Chaparro, MPH, RDN, spokeswoman, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

American Psychological Association: "What You Need to Know About Willpower: The Psychological Science of Self-Control."

News release, McMaster University.

Crocket, M. Neuron, July 2013.

© 2014 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.


Get Diet and Fitness Tips In Your Inbox

Eat better and exercise smarter. Sign up for the Food & Fitness newsletter.

By clicking Subscribe, I agree to the WebMD Terms & Conditions & Privacy Policy and understand that I may opt out of WebMD subscriptions at any time.