3 Ways to Boost Your Will Power

By , SparkPeople Blogger
Will power. It’s one of those ideas we all talk about pretty often—and not usually when things are going well. You don’t hear too many people talking about how they really gave their will power a good workout today, or how it’s responding so well to their efforts to strengthen it.

Nope—will power is that mysterious, ill-defined factor that always seems to be missing whenever we need it most: “I just don’t seem to have any will power at all when it comes to______” (you fill in the blank). And then everyone nods their heads sympathetically, and jumps in with their own latest will power horror story.

But if you asked 10 different people to define what “will power” actually is, you’d probably get quite a few different ideas.

In practical terms, most of us would probably agree that what we mean by “will power” is the capacity to stick to our own good intentions, goals, and responsibilities even when we’re faced with temptations to do something else instead. But what actually gives us that capacity? Is will power the same thing as motivation, or self-discipline, or focus, or determination? Does it come from inside or outside? Can you have very strong will power in some areas of your life (like getting yourself out of bed on time almost every day), but practically none in others (like resisting certain foods or staying consistent with exercise)?

And maybe most importantly, is will power something you can learn and develop over time, or is it just something you either have or don’t have courtesy of your genes?

So far, at least, scientists who study will power haven’t done much better than the rest of us at coming up with a definition. They also haven’t located a specific area of the brain that’s responsible for resisting temptations, or any genes that make it easier or harder to resist temptation and stick to your goals.

But they do know there’s quite a bit more we can do to resist our impulses and stick to our good intentions, beyond telling ourselves to “Just Do It.” According to the research, there are three reliable and proven ways you can boost your own will power.

The Marshmallow Test

The first and most time-honored strategy for resisting temptation is, of course, distraction. As described in this NPR story, Columbia University psychologist Walter Mischel did a series of famous experiments in the 1960s, where he put hundreds of young kids in a room, one at a time by themselves, with a marshmallow on the table. He explained to each child that s/he could eat the marshmallow right away if desired, or wait until Mischel returned to the room, in which case the child would get two marshmallows instead of just the one.

The results were pretty much what you might expect. Some of the kids could barely keep the marshmallow out of their mouths for a minute, while others managed to wait as long as 20 minutes and earn the second marshmallow. What Mischel did notice, though, was that virtually all the kids who were able to resist eating the marshmallow right away used the same strategy. They did everything but pay attention to the marshmallow—they wandered around the room, kicked the furniture, twisted their hair, talked or sang songs to themselves, and so on. The other kids often tried distraction for a little while, but kept coming back to the marshmallow until they finally ate it.

Turning the “Heat” Down.

In a different variation on this same experiment, Mischel tried to see if it would matter if kids were given some additional tools they could use to resist the “lure” of the marshmallows. One big reason a marshmallow (or any other treat) is so appealing is that we start anticipating the pleasure it will give us—the taste, the texture, the smell, memories of enjoying them previously, etc. When you bundle all these things together, you have what many psychologists refer to as a “hot” cognition—a thought that moves straight to center stage of our conscious attention, and becomes pretty hard to ignore or push aside. But what if you could use your imagination or your rational mind to take some of that emotional heat away? Would that make it easier to resist the temptation?

In this version of his experiment, Mischel gave his young test subjects the suggestion that they try to see the marshmallow as a cotton ball or a puffy cloud, instead of as a marshmallow. This simple suggestion produced a large increase in the number of kids who were able to resist eating the marshmallow.

Regular readers of this blog might recognize this as a very mild and user-friendly version of aversion therapy, where you try to take things one step further by not merely cooling down your “hot cognitions” but actually making them unpleasant and unwanted, so that you’re actively motivated to avoid them. Hopefully, you won’t have to resort to that. Another way to accomplish similar results would be to become an avid food label reader or calorie counter, so that you start looking at tempting foods not in terms of their emotional or sensory appeal, but in terms of their nutritional value and whether that one minute of pleasure on the lips is worth the consequences.

Pick your battles carefully.

A third effective strategy for boosting your ability to resist temptations is to simply recognize that you can’t resist all of them. As this research suggests, our ability to constantly regulate ourselves is very limited, and the more we struggle to control what we think or feel or say or do in one area, the harder it becomes to do it in another areas. This doesn’t mean that self-regulation is impossible or that it can't be improved--just that we need to be smart and careful about how we go about it. And it probably means that the approach that is most likely to succeed in real life is one based on moderation, balance, and planning ahead to minimize problems, not one based on trying to be a superhero and do everything perfectly.

Personally, I think the idea of “will power” is not all that helpful, mainly because it’s so easy to turn it into yet another example of what’s “wrong” with us—we’re missing some fundamental ingredient that makes it possible for people to be strong and avoid temptations. Or into an excuse for not taking a serious look at what we could be doing differently. The reality usually is that we just haven’t learned the skills and mental habits it takes to handle temptations more effectively—and it’s never too late to do that.

What do you think?

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I enjoyed this article as well as the members's comments. For myself, I believe that I have alot of will power but I have such an emotional attachment to food because they are linked to so many wonderful memories such as fun family gatherings and family recipes passed on from favorite deceased relatives that you feel you need to make in their memory. I didn't even know that there was such a thing as aversion therapy. I really enjoyed this article. Report
I don't have problems with will power. It's "won't power" that I struggle with! I won't have that biscuit, muffin, chocolate bar. Actually, I'm a lot better since joining SparkPeople. Thanks. Report
I had just been thinking how hard all this is and that I can't control everything that goes in my mind and mouth and then I read this wonderful article that tells me I only have so much control in my life. So, I know that when I plan ahead for my meals, exercise and keep the focus on my diet and health first that this is something I can do. It has worked for me before.

For me, it means clearing my mind of all the 'junk' that leads to 'junk' feelings. Believing in myself and repeating positive prayers, sayings, etc will keep me On Track with my diet and exercise; in other words, living the wonderful life I was created to live. Report
I don't really believe in will power. You cannot have will power without self control. Don't depend on your will power because it will sabotage you every time. Self control is the way to go. This article gave very good examples of how to build your self control. Report
I really appreciate this information. It put will power in an interesting and helpful perspective. I especailly was struck by the notion of balance. Seeking that, instead of striving for perfection and giving up when met with inevitable "failures" is tough! Report
I struggle with will power when it comes to 2 things...smoking and food. Nothing else really, which bugs me...ESPECIALLY when it really wasn't an issue till I hit my mid 20s!! I will try to apply distraction and aversion. Report
I thought this was a good article because it was based on a bit of scientific data (yes, I'm a nerd and almost done with a doctorate in psychology) UNTIL the conclusion became completely illogical.Willpower is one facet of the larger personality trait conscientiousness. People might think that you can't change a personality, but we know that's not correct. People are able to make small changes to personality all the time. If not, there would be no change in self-esteem and assertiveness levels, two personality traits I commonly help my clients change successfully. So, as Mischel's research suggests (and as several other comments suggest) will-power can be changed.

So why do I NOT like this article? Looking at will-power as a bad thing, something that is wrong with us, and thus ignoring it as a potential influence on lifestyle is dangerous. If you have a kid with impulse control problems (e.g., ADHD) you don't ignore the problem. Instead, you find ways to help that child succeed by providing structure and other strategies that will help the child succeed at school and later work. As people trying to change our lifestyles, we do the same thing. We read labels, articles, blogs, etc. We go to the grocery store after a meal instead of when we are hungry. We hire personal trainers to get us the gym, restructure our lives, choose water over soda, stairs instead of the elevator, play with the kids outside instead of inside, cook more meals at home, take the dog for a walk instead of letting him outside to do his business..... Those are all signs of some level of will-power/self-control/conscientio
usness. But, as all personality traits, will-power is not an either/or. Everyone has different levels of it. Some have really high levels and when they decide to apply themselves to something, they invariably succeed. Others struggle more and have to find other strategies to help. Knowing where you tend to be when it comes to willpower allows you to compensate using other strengths like creativity, financial resources, friends and family to reach your goals.

Just my two cents. And I'm now going to use a bit of my will-power and get to work and take my healthy sandwich, yogurt, apple sauce and big bottle of water with me so I will be able to avoid snack machines for the rest of the day. Report
A little trick i learned is to think of a food that you dont like, but you will eat if there is nothing else around. If that food sounds good, then there is a good chance you are really hungry and not just wanting to eat for other reasons. (mine is ramien noodles, I cant stand the smell of them usually) Report
So it's a different mind set instead of mind games. I think of will power as a mind game. I want to start thinking differently about food....and I quote Dean: "just that we need to be smart and careful about how we go about it. And it probably means that the approach that is most likely to succeed in real life is one based on moderation, balance, and planning ahead to minimize problems, not one based on trying to be a superhero and do everything perfectly." Report
I had plenty of "will power" when I was actively losing weight, but it has not been nearly so strong since I've been in the maintenance phase. It's been very easy to tell myself that "just a little" won't hurt, after all, I lost over 50 pounds, what could a few jelly beans or an extra cookie matter? The only tool I've discovered that works for me is distraction, but it's certainly not foolproof (as evidenced by the fact that the scale has crept up two pounds in the last three weeks). I would appreciate hearing from anyone who's in the maintenance phase and is struggling to keep that weight off! Report
Haha! I remember talking about this in one of my psychology classes. Good to have a reminder of it! Report
I used to pray b4 I went to an occassion that I would see all the yummy food as interesting as chewing on an old tyre! It worked too. I forget to do it now, must do it more often! Report
The information about having less "energy" for resisting favorite foods when using a lot of energy for other areas of stress really struck home for me. I am in pain a lot & have trouble sleeping. I've said for some time now that this influences my ability to lose weight, but now I have some scientific evidence. Thank you, Sparks People. Report
I've discovered that though I have managed to lose and keep off about 20 lbs., I had not used any willpower or discipline. For awhile, I simply accepted that I needed to eat and move differently if I wanted to be slimmer, and the desire to eat out of line with that wasn't very strong. It sounds nice, but unfortunately, I can't always depend on that low a level of desire, and I've been up and down the same 10-12 pounds for a few years now. Notice that the children in the study had to have a reward of another marshmallow in order to go through the waiting period. There had to be a payoff. For some reason right now, the payoff just doesn't seem worth giving up the pleasure of the food in the moment by employing the willpower techniques . I think I need to try using them anyway, to see if my dependence can be chipped away at. Report
I loved this article. Funny, marshmellows are yummy. I totally agree though. I know if I keep busy "distracted" I definitely snack less. I am focusing on cleaning right now to keep busy. Report
I actually had the willpower to resist (a really strong) taco bell craving tonight. I had bland soup I attempted to spice up and to help with my craving I had a whole wheat tortilla with onions, cheese, and salsa. Report
Without some will power I would not be able to eat healthy, or slowly lose weight. My will power is stronger when I have a goal or a focus. My will power is strong when it comes to somethings (eating), but lacks in other things (exercise). I will continue to work on this since I am aware of it. Report
I told my very supportive son and daughter-in-law that according to my nutrition plan I was allowed to have 1 oreo cookie. Well, they were shocked when I explained to them that by saying that I couldn't have any sweets just made me want them more. I have yet to eat a cookie. hmmmmm Report
Never say "never" to a food...as soon as you do, you will want it even more. My willpower comes from knowing nothing is really "off limits" and it's amazing how much more control you have. I like experiment example of picturing the "wanted" food item as something else too. I'm going to try that! Report
One way to deal with the issue of willpower is to go to a deeper level with hypnosis. Once the body and mind are deeply relaxed, you are more open to all the positive suggestions that will help you to make the changes that you desire. In that way, you are in essence re-programming your thinking in a way that will help you achieve your goals rather than relying on willpower alone. Report
One step forward is one step closer to our goal .. We need to give our selfs credit for the power we have within . Joanie Report
That makes a lot of sense. Report
These are great ideas. I will print them off and keep them close. I'm going to have my daughter read them. Report
This could not had been sent at a better time for me, I am at work, and the boss just brought in leftover cupcakes from their supervisors' meeting. I got up to look to see how many calories where in a cupcake and then I was thinking about just taking the icing off and eat the cake only, but, I did not! Went back to my desk and saw that I had mail, and like I said, good timing.
Cupcakes are not one of my favorites, but a quiet time at work right now and bored. I had already had something last week, so asked if it was worth it....not for a cupcake! Report
Great, timely article. I recently read that scientists found that we have a finite amount of willpower; that if we have to work really hard at one task, then we will cave in to temptation when confronted by another difficult task. One way to get around that is to try to perceive the difficult task as a fun game-- something to distract you from binging and thinking that you need to reward yourself with food afterward. I must think of everything as a punishment, because I'm forever thinking of how I should reward myself! Report
We went to Wendys yesterday. Even though I bought a burger I exchanged the frys for a side salad and drank water instead of pop. Report
For me, it is all about knowing myself and where the temptations are. My worst enemy is Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts - even if I tell myself I am only going in for coffee, I find it nearly impossible to not eat a sweet. So, IF I want the coffee, I try to go with my son. I buy HIM the treat to eat (he does not have any type of weight issues and rarely has sweets) - and he shares one bite with me. I then have the coffee. This has become our Friday "mom and son date". The focus is not the goodies, although he finds that fun. The focus is talking about what's important to him - at a time when mom leaves her cell phone and business stuff in the car and listens without interruption. Interestingly, this "date" makes it possible for me to not bother with coffee shops during the rest of the week. Why does it work? I'm not sure. Report
I hate to be hungry, and I find that my will power is weakest when I am hungry. I also LOVE food, and I REFUSE to eat food I don't like. So I plan out when I am going to eat, what I am going to eat, and make sure it is food I LIKE! There's no WAY I'll lose weight if I have to eat bad-tasting food - I would rather be fat than eat food I don't enjoy. I focus on making every meal healthy, and if there is one part that is unhealth, I will find a good-tasting substitute for it. For instance, one of my neighborhood restaurants has really good burgers, AND they have good veggie burgers. I'll get a veggie burger there, satisfy my craving, and have it with a salad instead of chips or potatoes. It's all about tasty choices for me. Report
When I really crave something, I just give in to that craving. However, it has to be an exact match to the craving. If I'm dying for Graeter's chocolate chunk ice cream, I have a child's cone. It's exactly what I want, but in a smaller portion. I find that if I try to substitute for what I really want, my craving isn't gone because I haven't been satisfied by the substitution. Report
For me, the more in control I feel in other areas of my life, the easier it is to also control my eating and stick with my exercise plan. It all goes hand in hand. Getting up on time, having a clean house, being current at work, and other areas that require some self-discipline helps me to also feel in control of my diet and exercise. For me, willpower is like a muscle, the more I use it in all areas, the stronger it becomes. Report
Wow, alot of good stuff on this one!! I like the quote from Colin Powell. I joined SP to learn and try new things. I lost 50 pounds 7 years ago, so I know I can do it. Planning is key for me, Report
If one is exerting willpower, one is consciously fending off something one wants. Willpower is less of an issue to me because I FEEL FREE TO CHOOSE. I can have anything I want... as long as I am AWARE. This is one of the lifestyle changes I've made here. Awareness and choice instead of desire and guilt.

Awareness of what one is doing is to me an ingredient to overcoming the need to think about willpower to 'avoid' things one wants. We CAN 'train ourselves' to associate negative thoughts about foods, activities or situations that we know are 'bad' for us. In fact SP Diet Stages gives us tools in helping us to uncover some of our ingrained bad habits and in guides us toward exchanging bad habits for good ones.

Some of the associations I've made might seem strange to others, but... they work for me. As I concentrated on increasing nutritional density in foods I ate, foods that revealed themselves as lower in value but higher in calories (a big form of 'cost'!) became less and less appealing. So avoiding fatty foods, salty foods, etc... is not a matter of willpower anymore. By reprogramming how I perceive foods, activities and many other aspects of life, I switched away from the willpower mode into a healthier way of regarding ...choices.

Often, habits are what we're fighting when we talk about willpower. A former bad habit can become more enjoyable as a rare treat if we focus on reprogramming how we percieve it.

Considering rewards we set for accomplishments is important. The minute we think of something that is bad for us a a reward, we invite the necessity of future willpower problems. Report
it is our willpower that keeps us away from unhealthy doings. Report
Willpower/Discipline is a fascinating topic to me. It is exciting to find so many others interested in exploring it further. I believe that sticking to the plan I create for myself when I'm in a healthy state of mind is so important for my feeling good about myself. We all know what would make us feel good, happy and healthy, but so few, myself included, are able to stick to the plan. I think the Colin Powel quote someone posted is so true, it's about hard work and planning. But is there any room for vegging on the couch to watch tv. It seems if I were to commit to all the things I know would make me feel good, eating right, preparing healthy foods, fresh ingredients, keeping my house organized and clean, quality time with my kids, etc. that there would be no time for the simple pleasure of vegging out at the end of a long day. So often, I just "don't feel like it." I think the post about having to choose what we're in control of may be true. Can we have everything be the way we want? I am a therapist moving toward life coaching and understanding this for myself before I try to help others is important to me. Report
My will power increases when I count my calories and subtract what I have left AND when I commit to someone else personally that I will keep my commitment for the day. Report
Hmm, to me the need for "will power" just means you are probably not eating properly. For me it is strict low carb. I eat a diet that is 80% fat, 8% carbs, 12% protein. I eat about 2000-2400 calories daily. On this I am never hungry, I never have any cravings. I never have any need for "willpower". "Willpower" never worked for me. I have been on low carb for three years and it gets easier and easier every single day. I love all my food and food choices. I make everything from scratch. I *never* buy processed foods of any sort, avoid all the toxic polyunsaturated vegetable oils, and avoid all grains (except for a tad in the flaxseed/brown rice/quinoa crackers that I enjoy sometime).

Best of all, I feel wonderful mentally and physically, have boundless energy, all my health markers have improved so much my doctor is in awe, and I'm off all prescription medications now. Best of all I'm down 84 pounds and still losing at a steady pace. Who needs willpower? :-) Report
MY WILL POWER kicks in when I say to myself THAT's IT!!!!!!!!! Report
I'm 57 and new to Sparkpeople. In 2003 I lost 50 pounds with Atkins. I've gained back 20 since prostate cancer/surgery in 2007 and want to get down to 175. I just hate being hungry. Low carb worked before so I'm looking for an alternative. I'm working out as usual, running 60 minutes along with 100- sit ups and pull ups and nothing is happening. So I need a change. Thanks for any tips. Report
I am new to Sparks trying to change my life style in different areas. I just quit smoking after many years and now plan to lose weight. Having some problems with not drinking so many diet cokes. I find myself getting severe head aches if I don't stop drinking diet coke. What can I do to get past this? Report
Wow! I got a chance to use some of the points in the blog on my little one! She wanted a soda, so I tried to make it associated with a time when the stuff made her feel bad. That didn't work. So I tried distracting her with water, then milk. Do ya think it could work on me, too? Report
i think willpower is just another word for self discipline. i don't see it as a bad thing. if you can empower yourself to make the right decisions and be able to say no when you need to, i think that's great. it's the difference between knowing the facts and methods and then putting them to work for you. i've learned a lot of mental "tricks" that have helped me come this far and i put them to work everyday. i keep a lot of pictures of myself that are purposely unflattering on hand to look at and when i am tempted by something unhealthy, i try to conjure up that image of myself and think, if i eat that, i will look this way longer and i'm trying to improve that! to me, that's what willpower is. Report
It's good to know that when I concentrate on one thing in my life to be more disciplined with but not too many. I've never thought of having a "limit on my amount of self-control" that seems very true to me!
Consumer Debt is paid off. Weight is stable. Sounds like this year is going to be about keeping my finances stable and LOSE THE WEIGHT! Report
First and foremost, welcome back Coach!

To me, willpower is nothing more than wishful thinking and a prescription for failure. Most people tend to try to convince themselves that if they only had the willpower, they could make anything right. What we need to achieve goals is not willpower, but rather information and practice. All the willpower in the world is useless if you don't know how to go about planning and achieving a goal. Willpower, pretty much by definition, implies that you are doing something you don't want to do (e.g. resisting temptation) so it immediately is a negative thought and activity. As others have suggested, the more you make willpower your mantra, the more likely you are to fail. Report
It seems that the mind wants what it isn't allowed to have. When you are told you are not allowed to have anything anymore that is when you seem to want it most. That's why I don't like to think about diet's. I eat healthier as I can but if I truley crave something I eat it and then get back to my healthier life style. Report
We do have willpower. If you have a 3 year old that you are watching, and you notice the front door is open and there is a busy street outside, you WILL get your lazy tush up off the sofa and go out to SEE if that little child is near or on the street. That is will power. We have it, but we make efforts to NOT use it when we want. Report
I have discovered that for me, with some things will power just does not cut it. I have what some call an addictive personality. I was addicted to "sweet" from my first taste of condensed milk during the Second World War. I used to steal the open cans and eat it straight from the time I was about 2 years old, in fact as soon as I was able to climb on the kitchen chair to get it from the top shelf where my mother kept it. The same thing with the blackcurrant puree, another wartime treat. I actually made myself so sick the thought of blackcurrants is still enough to make me shudder at the memory.
Not so with condensed milk however, and as I grew older any thing chocolate or sweet that I could lay my hands on. I have had several other addictions which have also been overcome in the same way. They are not relevant here, except for the one which paved the way for overcoming my other addictions, and that is alcohol. I joined AA 40 years ago and have not had a drink since, one day at a time with the help of the specific program that deals with addictions, the support of fellow recovering addicts and my Higher Power. It is not necessary to be religious to have a Higher Power, the program works just as well if you choose whatever your concept of something greater than yourself might be.
All my addictions to date have been overcome by applying the same principles one day at a time. There would have been no way for me personally to have overcome more than one addiction at a time, but I am happy to report that over the years, to date, they have all been successfully overcome.
The current one and perhaps the last, as it is the one I have had the longest, is my addiction to sugar and refined carbs. I have only started working on this Addiction since I joined Spark People. Because of my sugar and carb addiction I found that for me the amount of carbs used in the basic SP nutrition program, set up a craving that would have led me very quickly back to uncontrolled binging if I had kept on with it. I love Spark People, the Teams, the motivation, the wonderful caring people, but I had to find the eating plan that works for me. These days I am disabled, so have several other medical conditions that require a specific way of eating (I do not use the word diet - because I have used those all my life, lost the weight, returned to “normal” eating, put the weight on plus some more - and have always returned to my sweet tooth addiction). Until now, I had never reached the point where I am willing to seriously address this "sweet" addiction and eat what I know is “right” for me. I have discovered it is not possible for me to do anything worthwhile until I reach the place, which in AA, is called Rock Bottom. For me it means the place where I finally give in and accept the fact, that I am addicted and therefore no matter how much will power I may have in other areas of my life, no amount of wanting a healthy lifestyle and permanent weight loss, will make any difference. Until I can accept that fact and am ready to do what is necessary to overcome the continual craving, binging, guilt and remorse and to deal with the root of my problem, I know I will have no permanent success.
i think our upbringing plays a huge role in our ability to avoid things that are bad for us. my dad had superb willpower but i wasn't around him enough for those lessons to be passed down. my mother indulged herself with no thought of others. for her it truly was "all about me". as i spent most of my formative years with her, i lacked the knowledge that "willpower" existed. i am trying to make up for it later in life because now i realize my lack of willpower which causes food issues will affect my family if i have ill health or become incapacitated because of my weight. Report
I'm so glad I read this. Just yesterday I cheated and had McDonald's fries and double cheeseburger. Then, I had a midnight snack. I think I'll definitely print this for the future. Report
Hello, I'm brand new to Sparks. Weight has been a problem my entinre life. Needless to say I've tried EVERYTHING. This has been a real eyeopener for me. Visualizing !! Now why didn't I think of that?!! Thank you! This tool will really help. I'm looking foreward to getting to know the Sparks teams !! Report
Great article! I realized that the times my willpower is strong are when I use a bit of aversion therapy and visualize the unhealthy foods as making me ill. And, vice versa, I can usually overcome a gag reflex when taking vitamins by visualizing them as chocolate! Report