In his book ‘The Power of Habit,’ Charles Duhigg says that ‘willpower is the single most important keystone habit for individual success’.

Is Willpower a Skill?

Is Willpower a Muscle?

The Physiology of Willpower: Linking Blood Glucose to Self-Control

Acts of self-control deplete relatively large amounts of glucose. Self-control failures are more likely when glucose is low or cannot be mobilized effectively to the brain (i.e., when insulin is low or insensitive). Restoring glucose to a sufficient level typically improves self-control. Numerous self-control behaviors fit this pattern, including controlling attention, regulating emotions, quitting smoking, coping with stress, resisting impulsivity, and refraining from criminal and aggressive behavior. Alcohol reduces glucose throughout the brain and body and likewise impairs many forms of self-control. Furthermore, self-control failure is most likely during times of the day when glucose is used least effectively. Self-control thus appears highly susceptible to glucose.

Matthew T. Gailliot, Roy F. Baumeister (2007)

Strengthening willpower by transforming it into a habit through self-discipline

Students displaying high levels of willpower typically have better grades, are accepted into more selective schools, have fewer absences, spend less time watching TV, and dedicate more hours to homework. Those with strong self-discipline outshine their impulsive peers in all academic performance variables. Self-discipline even shows a stronger correlation with academic performance than IQ, indicating that it’s more important than inherent intelligence.

To boost willpower in students, studies suggest developing it into a habit. Individuals with high self-control often seem to exert less effort because their willpower has become automatic and doesn’t require conscious thought.

This concept underscores the importance of enrolling children in activities like piano lessons or sports. It’s not about creating a skilled musician or a young soccer star, but about learning to dedicate an hour to practice or running laps, thereby cultivating self-regulatory strength. A five-year-old who can stay focused on the ball for ten minutes evolves into a sixth-grader who starts his homework on time.

Willpower is a learnable skill

The four-year-olds with the ability to delay gratification the longest achieved the highest grades and SAT scores, averaging 210 points above the rest. They were more socially accepted and less prone to drug use. The ability to resist the temptation of a marshmallow as a preschooler seemed to translate into skills like punctuality, homework completion, peer resistance, and friend-making as they grew older. It appeared that the ability to ignore the marshmallow endowed kids with self-regulatory skills that conferred lifelong advantages.

Scientists began conducting similar experiments to understand how to boost children’s self-regulatory skills. They found that teaching simple strategies, such as distracting themselves by drawing a picture or visualizing a frame around the marshmallow to make it seem more like a picture than an actual temptation, helped foster self-control. By the 1980s, a widely accepted theory emerged: Willpower, much like mathematical ability or politeness, can be taught as a learnable skill.

When children acquire habits that help them delay gratification, these habits influence other areas of their lives.

Willpower isn’t constant day-to-day

There are times when we feel as though we have forgotten how to utilize our willpower consistently. Some evenings, we return from work fully energized, ready to jog. Other days, all we can do is laze on the couch and watch TV. It seems like our brain, or at least the part responsible for encouraging us to exercise, can’t summon the willpower needed to nudge us out the door. We have healthy eating days, but on our tired days, we gorge on candy and chips from the vending machines.

If willpower is a skill, then why do its levels fluctuate so significantly from day to day?

Over two hundred studies confirmed the same thing: willpower isn’t just a skill. It’s a muscle, like those in our arms or legs, and it gets tired as it works harder, leaving less strength for other tasks.

This discovery has been used to explain various phenomena:

  • why otherwise successful people succumb to extramarital affairs, which typically start late at night after a long day of exercising willpower at work.
  • why excellent physicians make silly mistakes, which most often occur after a doctor has completed a lengthy, intricate task that requires intense concentration.

If we struggle with self-discipline at work, it’s likely we’ll also find it hard to attend a program aimed at strengthening our self-discipline after work.

If we intend to do something demanding willpower, like a post-work run, we need to conserve our willpower muscle throughout the day. If we exhaust it early on mundane tasks like writing emails or completing complicated, dull expense forms, there won’t be any strength left by the time we get home.

Planning to navigate painful inflection points strengthens willpower

Post-surgery patients were provided with a booklet outlining their rehabilitation schedule, which included an additional thirteen pages at the back—one for each week.

These pages contained blank spaces and instructions: “My goals for this week are __ ? Detail exactly what you intend to do. For example, if you plan to walk this week, write down where and when you will walk.”

The booklets were focusing on how patients planned to manage specific moments of anticipated pain. They strategized how to navigate painful inflection points, creating a roadmap for times they knew the pain—and the temptation to quit—would be most intense.

They could devise strategies for anticipated challenges and practice these plans until they became second nature.

Subsequently, the recovery progress of those who had made written plans was compared with patients who had been given identical booklets but who hadn’t written anything.

A striking difference was observed among the two groups three months later. Those who had filled their booklets with plans started walking nearly twice as quickly and began moving in and out of their chairs unaided almost three times as quickly. They also made faster progress in daily tasks such as putting on shoes, doing laundry, and preparing meals compared to those who hadn’t set any predefined goals.

Patients who hadn’t written down any plans found themselves at a significant disadvantage, as they hadn’t anticipated how to deal with painful inflection points and hadn’t consciously formed willpower habits. Their resolve weakened when they encountered the initial pangs of discomfort.

This process effectively transformed willpower into a habit: by choosing a specific behavior ahead of time, and then adhering to that routine when a challenging moment arises. When the cue presents itself, the premeditated routine is triggered.

Regularly ask questions like, ‘How do you plan to study tonight? What will you do tomorrow? How can you be sure you’re prepared for your test?’ This method train to set goals.

How to boost the willpower of people exceptionally resistant to change? If they’re just following orders, their willpower muscles get tired much faster

Despite some individuals managing to form willpower habits relatively effortlessly, others struggled, irrespective of the amount of training and support they received. The question was: what was the cause of this disparity?”

People who were subjected to rudeness found it difficult to perform even simple tasks. They often complained about feeling tired and struggled to concentrate. Researchers deduced that the harsh instructions they received had depleted their willpower.

Further investigations into why those who were treated kindly had more willpower revealed a critical factor – their perceived control over their experiences. It was repeatedly found that when tasks requiring self-control were framed as personal initiatives or enjoyable tasks that benefit others, the mental drain was significantly less. In contrast, when people felt like they had no autonomy and were merely following orders, their willpower wore out much quicker. Particularly when treated like mere cogs in a machine rather than individuals, the demand on their willpower was much higher.

A simple strategy to significantly enhance the energy and focus people put into their roles is to provide them with a sense of agency – a feeling of control and actual decision-making authority.

Instead of issuing directives, it’s beneficial to encourage individuals to apply their intelligence and creativity. After all, people yearn for control over their own lives.

People who repeatedly push themselves to exercise demonstrate increased willpower each time they hit the gym. The more time they devote to the gym, the less they smoke, and the less alcohol, caffeine, and junk food they consume. They invest more time in their homework and less time in front of the TV, resulting in decreased levels of depression.

Researchers initially considered whether these results were not related to willpower. Could exercise simply make people happier and diminish their craving for fast food? However, as people strengthened their willpower muscles in one area of their lives – at the gym or through a money management program – that strength seeped into other areas, influencing their diet and work commitment. As willpower strengthened, it affected all facets of life.

By choosing to go to the gym, start on homework, or opt for a salad over a hamburger, you are essentially changing the way you think. People improve at managing their impulses and learn how to divert their attention away from temptations. Once they get into the groove of exercising willpower, their brains become better at helping them concentrate on their goals.