Cheating on your diet or exercise plan? Struggling with self-control or impulse choices? Science shows that willpower can get depleted! Learn how you can strengthen it and increase your ability to resist temptation.
Willpower May Be a Finite Resource
Willpower is the epic battle in your prefrontal cortex between the WILL of your logic and the POWER of your emotions.
You know this battle so well. Do you choose the chili cheese fries or have a side of grilled asparagus? After a hard day, do you hit the gym or have margaritas with your crew? Our lives are a constant game of “this or that” that often ends up feeling like “would you rather.”
Exerting your willpower can be exhausting. Sometimes you feel like you can’t make the best choice and you just can’t resist any longer. And there’s a reason for that.
Your willpower may be an exhaustible, finite resource. It may be used up over the course of a day in lots of tiny ways. This is called ego depletion.
Research by social psychologist Roy Baumeister and others suggests that if someone initially resists a temptation like warm chocolate chip cookies, the person is then less capable of resisting another willpower challenge or making a difficult decision.1,2
Translation: Doing something tough may use up some willpower, which makes resisting temptation super hard.
Ok, so what can you do about this depletion? Don’t fret, here are some simple strategies to level up your willpower.
Arrange things and make decisions when your willpower is sky high.
- Clean. Get rid of all the temptations. If all the junk food is gone you won’t have to resist later.
- Commit. If you have a plan with a friend for spin class, you won’t have to wonder what you’re doing later.
- Optimize. Change your timing for tasks, like grocery shopping right after a meal when your willpower is strong. If you don’t use your willpower to battle the cookie aisle in the store, you’ll have reserves for resisting dessert later tonight.
Boost your willpower in the moment it is being challenged.
- Postpone. “Not now, maybe later.” Saying a simple phrase like this can reduce your impulse to listen to that devil on your shoulder.
- Distract. Try distracting yourself to see if your impulse chills out. Giving yourself something else to focus on can calm the brewing willpower battle.
- Hide. Remove the temptation from your view or remove yourself from the situation. In the classic “marshmallow experiment,” even little kids trying to use willpower to wait for a delicious, squishy marshmallow had more luck if they simply hid it from their view. One kid sat on it to get it out of view! If a kid can do it, so can you.
Learn how to strengthen your willpower.
- Meditate. Yep, this one again. Even brief, 10-minute mindfulness meditations, done over time, can improve your self-control. The deal with mindfulness is you learn to bring your thoughts back to the present moment as they start to wander. And every time you do this, you’re flexing your willpower muscle.3
- Sleep. It always come back to getting enough sleep, we know! Studies indicate that getting enough sleep matters for your willpower, too.4 Healthy sleep can lower psychological strain, give you better self-control, and replenish self-regulatory energy. That’s all a fancy way of saying, “Get to bed!”
- Stop swearing. It’s not a joke. Baumeister suggests that challenging yourself to change a speech pattern, like using “hello” instead of “hey” or dropping that expletive and replacing it with something else, can help you learn to extend your willpower.
Excuse your setback and get on with it!
- Forgiving yourself for an oops moment frees up your willpower, so you can resist next time. It’s ok, you’re human, and you’re going to make mistakes.
In other words, using the first letter of each of these strategies, A-B-L-E, be able! Using your willpower doesn’t have to use up all your willpower.
Which willpower boost are you going to try next time you’re in a logic vs. emotion throwdown?
Last reviewed: January 2018
1Making choices impairs subsequent self-control: A limited-resource account of decision making, self-regulation, and active initiative, Motivation Science, 2014
2Ego Depletion and the Strength Model of Self-Control: A Meta-Analysis, Psychological Bulletin, 2010
3Mindfulness meditation counteracts self-control depletion, Consciousness and Cognition, 2012
4Interactions between sleep habits and self-control, Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 2015