Do you need a willpower workout?

Sep 5, 2016

While some of us are probably born with more willpower than others, all of us can improve on the self-control we have.


Besides intelligence, willpower is thought to be the most important trait for success in life. Having good self-control is associated with being liked by others, better educational and employment outcomes, a higher income, and improved mental and physical health.

But what if you are someone whose resolve to eat right melts the second you see a dessert menu, or you are hopeless at, say, meeting deadlines? Does this mean you are doomed to a less than optimal life?

Not quite! Here are some research findings from the Behave Yourself team about why willpower waxes and wanes, and some suggestions for how you can boost it.


1) Willpower is limited and uses energy

Willpower has been likened to a muscle that can get fatigued from overuse. Using willpower to exert control over our behaviour – whether it involve stopping (e.g., resisting cake), or starting (e.g., going to the gym) behaviour – uses energy and this energy can become depleted.

Research shows that repeatedly resisting temptation, for example, can drain your ability to withstand future enticements. So, the more you use it, the more you lose it! This might explain why some of your colleagues are more likely to lash out at others as the day progresses.


2) Willpower is like a muscle; you can train it.

It’s not all bad. Willpower can be strengthened with regular use and rest – you know, like a muscle. As with physical exercise, using your self-control muscle may be tiring, but over time the repeated use increases your willpower strength and stamina. So what often starts out as difficult gradually becomes easier over time.

Engaging in any self-control activity each day is a good way to train your willpower generally. What is important is that you start replacing your habitual ways of doing things with more deliberate and controlled actions. In other words, start taking the stairs!


3) Control your environment

Supermarkets are designed to play off our depleted willpower. There is a reason why you can always find some glossy magazines and chocolate at the checkout. They don’t just know you’ve been working hard all day; they’re counting on it! What to do? Well, you can’t change the layout of your supermarket, but you can control your home and work environment. It requires far less energy to resist a sugary snack if you don’t have one sitting in your desk drawer.


4) Design your days

Your capacity to control your behaviour varies across the day and the working week, so it makes sense to plan your schedule around it. Don’t leave potentially high-conflict conversations until the end of the day, or toward the end of a tough week when your willpower is likely to be low. This might help you to avoid losing your cool with a colleague or sharing half-baked criticisms with staff that deserve more consideration.


Get in touch to learn how to strengthen your willpower and be the best you can be at work and at home.

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