Willpower: The complete guide to good habits

It’s common to think that obese people, smokers, and drinkers have little to no willpower. Is this true? How does willpower affect people? What is the difference between people with “little willpower” to those with “more willpower”? We will answer all these questions and even give tips on how to establish good habits. Continue reading!


What is willpower?- Definition

Willpower refers to an internal and innate ability to achieve what we set out to do, despite the inconveniences or obstacles in the way. It is about being able to postpone the immediate reward (of a sweet, for example) in favor of long-term goals (like having better health).

It is related to self-discipline and self-control. This definition sounds great, very motivating and optimistic. However, it also makes you believe that some people have that capacity and others don’t, meaning either you are born with it, or you are doomed to failure. Is this really so?

The belief that there really is willpower helps us to simplify things. For example, if you want to lose weight, you should eat less and exercise. Sounds easy but then when you don’t lose any weight, the connotations of failure appear, you become lazy, useless, lacking self-control … However, unhealthy habits, or laziness, are not only influenced by willpower, whether we want to or not. In this process, multiple factors intervene like genetic, environmental, etc.

In the 60’s at Standford University, a classic experiment showed us, how willpower works. It was called “The marshmallow test” or “the chocolate test”. In this test, the researcher put treats in front of children and tells them that if they don’t eat it when he returns he will give them another treat. In the following video, we can see how many children are unable to resist the temptation, even though they knew that they could have twice as many treats if only they waited for a little. Nonetheless, some of these children had enough “willpower” and did not eat it.

What differentiates people with “little willpower” and “strong willpower”?

 Lack of willpower has a psychological explanation

Why do some people lack willpower? According to this study, people who try to lead healthy habits from “obligation” (extrinsic or external motivation) or from the “I have to” point of view will try to put a lot of effort but will also feel exhausted. The exhaustion comes from having to maintain that self-control because they will perceive more temptations and will not achieve their goals.

One factor that can influence the loss of willpower is suppression and restriction. What happens when they tell you not to think of a pink elephant? Well, you immediately start thinking about the pink elephant. This happens with all kinds of thoughts and emotions. When you repress or deny your sadness, it is very likely that it will later be expressed as anger attack, health problems, etc. When you try not to think about something, the opposite of what you want to achieve happens.  If your purpose is not to eat sweets and junk food, you will immediately think more about them and in addition, that restriction will make you want them more.

People with strong willpower

This study followed 205 people for a week investigating about their desires, temptations, and self-control. They found that people who claimed to be able to resist temptations actually had fewer temptations throughout the day. Therefore, people who say they have self-control or willpower do not mean that they actually have it, but there are few things that really tickle or tempt them.

A person with strong willpower is likely to enjoy healthy activities, such as physical exercise, healthy food, not liking alcohol. That is, they will have an intrinsic motivation, that turns out to be a view of “I want to” instead of “I have to”. 

What happens if you think you have to go jogging but it is an activity you hate? Well, you’re going to jog the first day but no more. Discover here our the benefits of exercise. People with strong willpower also have learned better habits. Perhaps in childhood, they have been taught the importance of good sleep, study habits, healthy activities. These habits have become routines that have settled down in their way of life and for that reason, they are difficult to break.

These people also have particular personality traits. According to this study, the responsibility personality factor influences health behaviors. This would imply control of impulsive behavior, the planning, the organization, the careful accomplishment of the tasks, punctuality, etc. It is possible that it was this personality trait that influenced the differences between the children who ate the candy and the ones who didn’t in the “Marshmallow Test”. This personality trait has a strong genetic component, which does not mean that we cannot change certain aspects of our personality.

How to increase our willpower?

According to one study, our goal achievement is influenced by our experiences with temptations rather than by resisting or controlling them. So that we can create healthy habits is not so much in our willpower but in our ability to modify or control our environment so as not to expose ourselves to those temptations.

How can we train willpower? Although, as we have seen, the existence of willpower is rather a myth than anything else, we can all learn to resist temptation or be less in touch with stimuli that might tempt us. Here are some tips for increasing “willpower”:

  • Control your environment. You will have more willpower if you do not expose yourself to temptations. If you do not want to eat unhealthily, do not buy cookies, chocolates, pre-cooked food, etc. If you want to quit smoking remove all ashtrays.
  • Surround yourself with people with good habits. The social environment is also very important. When you don’t have the habit you want, it is very frustrating when you are trying to modify it and your friends propose doing just the opposite. For example, you are trying to eat healthier and your friends want to go every weekend to fast food places. So if you try to expand your circle of friends a little more and surround yourself more often with those who will not tempt you, it will be easier to increase your willpower and achieve your goals.
  • Share your goals with other people. Telling someone what your goals might be, might make it easier to achieve them since they can join you or motivate you.
  • Take it slowly so you don’t saturate your willpower. A habit is not something that can be established at once. It takes a few intermediate steps to reach it. For example, when dieting, I will bring fruit to work so I can eat it as dessert. When that small step has become a habit you can move on to the next one.
  • Find out what makes you fall into bad habits.  To do this, you can think of what you were doing or how you felt before “losing your willpower”. By identifying the situations that make you more prone to unhealthy habits you can foresee and remedy them.

Hope you enjoyed this article and feel free to comment below!

This article is originally in Spanish written by Andrea García Cerdán, translated by Alejandra Salazar.

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