How Strong is Your Willpower?

We tend to regard willpower as an attribute of character. People who have it achieve great things. People who don't are doomed to a mediocre life of unguided self-indulgence.

In fact, willpower is a complicated brain function, involving the limbic system, the part of the brain associated with emotions, drives, and urges; and the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for logical thinking and reasoning. Your prefrontal cortex interprets and controls your emotional responses. The more active it is, the stronger your ability to resist immediate temptation and accomplish long-term goals. 

Like a muscle, your brain grows stronger with exercise, and becomes weak and tired when it is overworked. It needs good nutrition to function well, and periods of rest to regenerate itself. There are periods when your willpower is strong, and times when you can expect it to be weak and ineffective. By understanding these ups and downs, you can manage your willpower to make positive changes in your life. 

  • Don't expect your willpower to be strong all the time. Your prefrontal cortex has many jobs: assessing situations, solving problems, taking in information, concentrating, ignoring distractions, and directing most of the conscious activities that make up your day. After a hard day at work, or an intense study session, your mental energy is exhausted and you are more vulnerable to temptation. In scientific studies, people who were given a difficult problem to solve were more likely to choose an unhealthy snack afterwards than people who had solved a simple problem. 
  • Make your goals specific. Your brain needs less energy to process, "Avoid white bread," than, "Eat less carbohydrates." Identify individual goals and establish one behavior before you move on to the next one. 
  • Nourish your willpower. Studies have found that exerting self-control and making difficult choices uses up energy. Dieting can diminish your willpower by sapping your energy. Nourish your brain by eating regular meals and complex carbohydrates that provide a steady supply of glucose in your bloodstream. 
  • Choose priorities. Concentrate on your most important goal first, and leave other choices for later. Try to identify the one goal that will automatically make all the other choices easier. You cannot control every aspect of your life; focus your attention on the area where you can achieve the most results.
  • Boost your willpower by removing temptations from your environment. Get rid of the junk food in your pantry. Move the television into another room, or cancel your cable subscription. Cut up your credit card. Avoid companions who encourage your bad habits, and spend time with people whose goals are similar to yours.
  • Turn a choice into a habit. Make your desired behavior part of your daily routine, like brushing your teeth or drinking coffee in the morning. It will require effort at first, but when the behavior becomes a habit, you will no longer have to exert willpower to do it. Your attitude towards other aspects of your life will gradually alter, and new possibilities will arise for you.  
  • Set yourself up for success. Remove obstacles that might distract you from your goal. If you intend to exercise after work, buy comfortable shoes and keep them by your front door. Put a box of healthy snacks in your desk drawer for when you feel hungry. Clean your desk and create a dedicated place in your home to study or write. Develop strategies for times when you know your willpower will be weak.
  • Understand yourself. Your willpower is only as strong as the desire that underlies it. Willpower succeeds most when you do something because you want to do it, not because you want to please someone else. 

Further reading:

What You Need to Know About Willpower: The Psychological Science of Self-Control.  American Psychological Association (

The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It. Book by Kelly McGonigal (

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Internal Medicine

Weight Loss