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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  • 153
    I found the "pick your battles" and several other of the methods recommended very helpful in this article. Well said. Thank you. - 1/16/2018   6:14:31 PM
  • 152
    I thought this was a pretty good article. I have employed a couple of these. - 6/20/2017   9:10:06 AM
  • 151
    SparkPeople is constantly reminding me of things I have relegated to one of the many storage compartments of my memory and jogging my thoughts! - 5/16/2017   9:19:14 AM
    No pain No gain http://bestbinarycashback.com - 8/11/2016   4:05:54 PM
  • 149
    I wish the article addressed the lack of will power to exercise. That's what I'm faced with more than the will power to avoid bad foods. - 7/26/2016   3:31:15 PM
  • 148
    LOVE the example of the marshmallow. Distraction IS the key. Also YES I DO think about how nutritional is this for me? Will the calories take me over my goal for the day? - 5/25/2016   7:42:54 AM
  • 147
    Need to form habits, good habits and have support staff to help with good habits - 5/12/2016   1:52:58 PM
  • 146
    Now I really want a marshmallow! - 3/27/2016   5:47:24 PM
  • 145
    My best motivation just returned to Netflix..."Supersize Me". Every time I watch it, I can easily stay away from fast food for months at a time. I really should just buy a copy, so that it won't matter if Netflix takes it away. - 1/3/2016   11:41:54 AM
  • 144
    That's why I make a list of my absolutes of what I refuse to give up no matter what. For the greater good of my health I've given up ALOT. So I don't feel guilty about my absolutes. - 12/10/2015   2:51:49 PM
  • 143
    Our minds control SO much about us and how we function. - 9/2/2015   11:40:32 AM
    I believe if you practice moderation, will power is not as critical. Will power seems to come into play when you are denying yourself something and once something is denied, that is all you want. I know soda is not good for me, but ever once in awhile I find myself craving soda. Instead of denying that craving, I have a glass and the craving dissapates. I am no longer fixated on what I cannot have but am moving on and once again making healthier choices. - 8/17/2014   1:30:09 PM
    Loved the article. It is hard to have the will power but it is taking it one step at a time I still need to work up my will power on giving up sodas and chips but I have given up burgers and fries and have gone to one treat a month chocalate wise - 8/9/2012   1:14:26 AM
    I am Gabriel 25ys single , and the 3 Ways to Boost Your Will Power is one to find my soulmate .. two to have someone i can talk to all time .. three to have family and also be a real man. I'm saying this cos someone times,you can have everything in life but As we grow up, we learn that even the one person that wasn't supposed to ever let us down, probably will. You'll have your heart broken and you'll break others' hearts. You'll fight with your best friend or maybe even fall in love with them, and you'll cry because time is flying by. So take too many pictures, laugh too much, forgive freely, and love like you've never been hurt. Life comes with no guarantees, no time outs, no second chances. you just have to live life to the fullest, tell someone what they mean to you and tell someone off, speak out, dance in the pouring rain, hold someone's hand, comfort a friend, fall asleep watching the sun come up, stay up late, be a flirt, and smile until your face hurts. Don't be afraid to take chances or fall in love and most of all, live in the moment because every second you spend angry or upset is a second of happiness you can never get back... If you think we can be friends just look for me at skype -- vendolf1k or facebook -- Oduro Gabriel
    - 3/2/2011   3:56:31 AM
  • EVBG2000
    I remind myself of how I felt the last time I ate ____. With junk food like french fries it helps. I wasn't happy about eating them the last time, so that thought helps me stay away from them in the present.
    I think someone mentioned snacking... I have that problem too! not being conscious, just snacking on stuff, even healthy things. My will power is currently being exercised by eating only at meals -- hard, but distraction definitely helps when the snacking bug hits. - 3/12/2010   12:24:42 PM
    I practive distraction and aversion. Especailly aversion by counting calories. It is amazing how knowing what is actually in food and the cost to eat it to make you think twice about consuming or how much you consume of a certain food. - 8/14/2009   5:44:54 PM
  • 137
    I almost need to back up a step: before I can exert willpower, I need to be conscious! Many times I find myself in an eating-stupor - completely zoned out and shoveling in whatever is in front of me. Last night, dipping graham crackers into marshmallow creme - and I don't really like either one of those things! - 8/3/2009   6:07:21 PM
  • 136
    I really do several things that were mentioned. I look at myself naked every day to remind myself why I'm doing this. I read labels religiously. I only eat what I put on the nutrition tracker. I find when my life is a mess, it is one area I can control. - 6/21/2009   8:47:48 AM
  • 135
    Mr. Will Power is just another person to ignore in my quest for better health. He is toxic! I read labels before, instead of after, I eat now and if the fat/sodium/calories are too high, I'm scared off. I'm keeping my eye on the goal and trying very hard not to be distracted by 'ole Will, the boogieman. I loved this blog! - 5/24/2009   9:34:28 AM
    Someone probably said this already (sorry, there were waaay too many to read!) but I think it's helpful with the "hot" cognition idea, sort of, to go into Tim Horton's with the image of all the donuts and cookies covered in grease and lard. Then, you try not to look at them when you get in there (because you KNOW they will tempt you) and come out with just a tea or coffee.
    Also, try not eating in the coffee shop. Take it to go and walk home, it's so rewarding and you won't smell the tasty (calorie-filled) treats while they bake. - 5/5/2009   8:18:57 PM
    I find it helpful to go outside and take a quick walk, even if it is only for five minutes. It is a good distraction and reminder of what your long term goal is - 5/1/2009   11:35:53 AM
  • 132
    ERINBEAR2K, I tend to have the same problem, but for me keeping track helps a lot as does standing in front of the mirror naked every day. My current distraction technique is gum. If I still want to eat after chewing the gum, I'm probably hungry and I can eat something healthful, but often I just want to chew something. Admittedly, I prefer chocolate to gum, but my husband doles out the chocolate so I get some now and then, but I don't get carried away. I can eat a pound of peanut M&Ms in a day!! I don't need or want that flab! With the limitations I savor the chocolate more. I wonder if they could make chocolate calorie free gum. ??? - 4/29/2009   3:09:09 AM
  • 131
    I need to exercise more will power in my life. I have been jobless for 5 months and I seem to eat all day long! I have gained 22 pounds! - 4/28/2009   1:23:32 PM
  • 130
    i drink alot of coffee so i always crave something sweet when i'm drinking coffee and i used to not care about my weight so i ate sweets whenever i wanted but now i have gained alot over the winter so now i'm worried about my weight, it is very hard for me to quit eating sweets, i have no will power or whatever you call it and i just started excersising about 5 days ago and it's hard to keep going. - 4/28/2009   10:46:23 AM
  • 129
    I discovered that when I'm really obsessing on having something that I shouldn't be eating, that eating something healthy instead works for me. So maybe I'm just hungry? I don't know, but I was delighted to discover that thoughts of ice cream or chocolate went away if I ate an apple or popcorn or whatever. - 4/28/2009   9:17:47 AM
    My problem is I can't have "just a little bit." Once I have a taste or a small portion, it's game over. So I just have to avoid bad stuff altogether. Not much fun, and it doesn't work too well :o( Then I have to work out a lot to make up for it. However, sometimes it's easier to resist if I think of all the hard work I did in the gym, and how much of that gets undone. Sometimes.... - 4/27/2009   11:29:12 AM
  • MOMRAK54
    This may sound crazy but what really helps my will power is excercise, after a yoga workout, or 1 or 2 hours at the gym, or even a nice long walk with my dog I have such a positive feeling inside myself that I don't even crave any of the unhealty stuff, I want something green and cruncy. When I just sit around the house with nothing going on, and my mind dwelling on the nagative thoughts, that's when my will power goes down the drain. I guess exercise is the answer for me. - 4/27/2009   10:22:23 AM
  • 126
    My will power is not there, when it comes to chips, cookies, candy. I found myself having a victory when it's visibly in front of me. - 4/25/2009   9:39:19 PM
  • 125
    Cookies are one of those things that makes any will power I have melt away, especially if I can smell them baking. Smells really play a big impact on what I eat. I may not even have thought of eating something, but smell it cooking and wow - I need it.

    Distraction definitely is one technique. I know when I'm busy I think about food a lot less then when I'm just sitting around. - 4/25/2009   7:08:58 PM
  • 124
    Great and simple tips! I really agree with the distraction one. Especially when it comes to food. If you can do something else for even a few minutes the urge usually passes. - 4/25/2009   10:03:30 AM
    I know I don't have much will power (or whatever you choose to call it) when it comes to food, but distraction I can provide. My new distraction will be to take a walk. It doesn't have to be a hike, but just get out and walk. - 4/25/2009   9:47:14 AM
  • EVIE13
    We don't need will power to resist things or to keep moving. We need motivation. We need something constantly inspiring us and reminding us of why we're working so hard and why it's worth it. When people feel like they've failed, it isn't their will power that's gone, it's their motativation, thier inspiration, their determination, or their drive. That's what they need to work on. With the proper motivation, you will get the hard work done. - 4/25/2009   2:58:01 AM
  • 121
    Like every thing else in life... we are all different. What works for one may not work for another. What we need to learn is how to read our bodies. when I want that last snack in the evening and more importently when i want more then one i reach for a book of suduko. I need to be busy, Of course it doesn't help when they have yummy food commercials on.. but if i don't see them i am way better off. For me I need to make a good habit and will power be as one and vise sersa - 4/24/2009   3:54:39 PM
    I could do the marshmallow but once home I would eat an entire bag of them or something better like a bag of chips... - 4/24/2009   2:39:56 PM
    I know the marshmallow was only a test, but it wouldn't work for me as I am not fond of them. Now chocolate would be a test of will power. - 4/24/2009   10:18:57 AM
    Great article. It was a good reminder to be deliberate about "willpower." What works for me is to have plenty of good food options ready and handy so I'm not tempted to just grab anything. Don't just go through my day subjected to any ol' temptation that is thrown at me without having some backup with me.

    I have listened to other teachings this week that said you can't change your heart, but you can fall in love with something else that pushes the old love out. That's what I need to do: fall in love with some new healthy foods that push the old bad stuff out. - 4/23/2009   8:49:08 PM
    I agree with the "turning the heat down" point. I find that if I relate a certain food to consequence I find it easier to turn it down. For instance if there are two desserts available - I will refuse both because if I give in to the temptation of one dessert then I will probably take one of each. I also agree that "will power" is a negative term. I view resistance to temptation as "self discipline". - 4/23/2009   7:24:12 PM
  • 116
    My willpower comes from knowing nothing is really "off limits" and it's amazing how much more control you have, it does take willpower to only limit to 2-3 oreo cookies or a slice of your favorite pizza,but when it comes to alcohol i lose all control, sometimes i rather have a drink then eat it's a struggle cuz i love my beer or a mix drink just about every night and 1 beer leads to 2,3,4,etc. It's hard and i hate it, but then i take each day as it comes. - 4/23/2009   2:05:35 PM
    Will power-No power! I gave that away/surrendered it to Him & He has removed my obsession. Now it is up to me to do my part & stop eating the foods that are addictive/allergic to me. The craving will only kick in again when/if i pick up the addictive food. ... Please help me to do my part! :) - 4/22/2009   7:56:37 PM
  • 114
    I guess my will-power is on a sabaticle. I can do without sweets, sweetbreads, and all that stuff. I don't eat enough nutrician. I'm old school trying to get back in the gest of things. I thought I did a nono once a week or a couple of times a month, but now let me tell you...going by the charts I now see; eventhough I don't eat junk food...the real food is really not all of that healthy so, NOW that I understand a little better, I just have to be will-fully careful. - 4/22/2009   2:14:05 PM
  • 113
    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. - 4/22/2009   12:52:19 PM
  • 112
    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. - 4/22/2009   12:22:46 PM
    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. - 4/22/2009   10:33:27 AM
    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. - 4/22/2009   10:29:47 AM
  • 109
    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! - 4/22/2009   10:06:41 AM
  • 108
    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. - 4/22/2009   9:30:59 AM
  • 107
    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. - 4/22/2009   8:57:17 AM
  • 106
    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) - 4/22/2009   8:35:36 AM
  • 105
    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." - 4/22/2009   8:22:59 AM
    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! - 4/22/2009   8:06:55 AM

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