Willpower is a person’s ability to control their own actions in order to pursue long-term goals. Other names for this concept include self-control, discipline, and resolve.
However, psychologists have differing ideas about how willpower works and how important it is for explaining human behavior.
In this article, learn more about what willpower is, how it affects behavior, and how to improve it.
Willpower is a person’s ability to consciously control their behavior. Often, people use the term “willpower” when talking about behaviors that require significant mental or physical effort, such as:
- giving up smoking
- getting regular exercise
- saving money
These changes in behavior involve delaying immediate gratification in order to meet long-term goals. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), this is a key characteristic of willpower.
Although psychologists generally have a similar concept of what willpower is, there are differing theories about how it works.
According to the strength model, people have a finite amount of willpower they can draw upon. It is possible to exercise willpower for some time, but eventually, a person will run out.
The researchers who proposed this model in the 2000s compare this to exercising a muscle. If a person overuses a muscle, it will get tired. Psychologists call this “ego depletion.”
Once ego depletion occurs, a person has few mental resources left for self-control. Obstacles such as temptations, distractions, and other pressures all add to this.
However, people who believe in the strength model also believe it is possible to strengthen willpower with regular practice.
The process model
In the 2010s, some psychologists began to question the concept of ego depletion. A 2014 paper proposes an alternative model in which willpower is part of an ongoing negotiation between a person’s “have to” goals and their “want to” goals.
For example, a student who has homework to do after school may feel a strong desire to play video games. This could be because they are tired, find the work boring, or find it too difficult. As a result, their short-term desire to relax may take priority over their long-term goal of getting good grades.
This may look like a “failure” of willpower from the outside, but proponents of the process model argue it is more about shifting priorities. The mind is constantly trying to balance competing physical and mental needs, which become more or less important depending on a person’s circumstances.
Rather than trying to increase the strength of willpower itself, this model suggests strengthening the impulses that lead to helpful actions and weakening impulses that undermine them.
Below is some of the research on how willpower affects behavior and decision making.
A 2019 study notes that self-control is essential for academic achievement. In fact, high levels of self-control predict higher attainment. However, it is something students of all ages can find challenging.
This is because the work involved in achieving high grades is often significantly less satisfying than other activities, such as sports or socializing. Despite this, many students say studying is important for their long-term goals.
The authors speculated that people who believed in limited willpower may experience more mental tiredness than others, and therefore find it easier to recognize the signs of tiredness in others.
The study suggests this may be true, as participants who subscribed to the strength model were more likely to report tired partners.
However, these participants also reported more tiredness in themselves. As a result, those who believed in limited willpower offered less support to their partner overall.
Resilience at work
A 2017 study found that believing in unlimited willpower, as opposed to limited willpower, acts as a “buffer” against emotional dissonance at work.
Emotional dissonance in a workplace occurs when an employee’s feelings contradict those of their employer. For example, employees may have a negative reaction to news that the employer views as a positive, creating emotional dissonance.
Emotional dissonance causes discomfort and is mentally tiring, which the authors of the 2017 study connect to ego depletion.
But when employees believe willpower is infinite, they have a better ability to cope with emotional dissonance. This also spills over into their personal lives, meaning they have better self-control at work and at home.
Diet and behavior changes are a common part of medical treatments, particularly for chronic conditions. Willpower plays a role in whether a person is able to make those changes.
For example, a 2020 study found that people with knee osteoarthritis who believed in unlimited willpower were more likely to keep up with physical activity as part of their treatment.
However, additional factors, such as severe symptoms, depressive symptoms, and a higher body mass index, appeared to counteract this benefit.
This shows how a person’s circumstances can make it harder to exert self-control – or, from the process model perspective, how they cause a person’s priorities to change – even if they believe willpower has no limit.
There are many ways of making it easier to exert willpower.
Setting goals, plans, or rules
Having a clear goal in mind, and understanding the motivation behind it, can help a person gain momentum and stay focused on long-term progress. The more they desire the goal, the easier it may be to prioritize.
For example, a person may know they will benefit from performing well at work in general. But having a clear career goal, such as a promotion, gives a person more powerful reasons to keep doing so.
For longer projects, planning may provide additional help. Breaking a long-term goal down into smaller pieces can help people feel a sense of achievement when they complete each step. They can also set aside time within that plan for breaks.
Alternatively, people can try setting personal rules. For example, a person can set a rule for themselves that they always do their homework right after getting home from school. This may help with maintaining consistent habits.
Changing the situation
This involves changing the circumstances of the task a person wants to perform, such as by changing the location, timeframe, or workload. People can try:
- Changing locations: Some environments are more conducive to certain activities than others. For example, a classroom or library is a quiet environment to work in, with fewer distractions than a person’s home. If there is a location that is well-suited to the task, try going there and seeing if it helps with self-control.
- Changing their current environment: If a location change is not possible, small adjustments to the current location may help. For example, a person might tidy their workspace, put on music that helps them focus, or make the space more comfortable.
- Limiting distractions: Removing distracting objects from a person’s line of sight may help them stay focused. People can also mute notifications or use apps on their devices to limit their usage.
- Setting deadlines or rewards: A deadline can help people delay gratification because they know that, once they meet the deadline, they will no longer need to. Similarly, rewards can help motivate someone by balancing something difficult with something fun or enjoyable.
This strategy involves intentionally directing attention toward the task or goal a person wants to pursue. People can do this via:
- Visual cues: This could be as simple as deliberately looking away from one object and toward another. For example, a person might look away from their computer and toward a book they want to read.
- Progress monitoring: People can also use self-monitoring to keep their attention on their goals. They might do this by keeping a dedicated journal on their progress, having an accountability partner, or hiring a coach or counselor.
- Mindfulness: Becoming aware of a person’s own conflicting wants and needs may help them make decisions more intentionally.
When performing a difficult or boring task, people can gain willpower by changing how they think about the task. This is known as reframing.
For example, a person might dislike physical therapy after an injury because they find it hard, tiring, or frustrating. They could reframe these feelings as a sign they are progressing or reframe the activity as their route to getting back into a hobby they enjoy, such as dance or sport.
Sometimes, people can benefit from support in changing how they think about a situation, such as from a therapist.
Willpower is the ability to control one’s own behavior intentionally. It is part of how humans make decisions, particularly when it comes to prioritizing long-term goals or short-term gratification.
Psychologists have varying theories about willpower and how it works. There are also many methods for strengthening willpower. What helps may differ from person to person.
Some medical conditions can affect willpower and focus. If a person finds focusing on a task or meeting a goal particularly hard, they may want to speak with a doctor or therapist.