Strengthening Willpower: How Your Brain Works Against Your Goals


May 30, 2017


All of us want to change something about ourselves – we want to be more organized, to lose weight, to Carpe Diem more often in team meetings, to procrastinate less, or to be more even-tempered. We want to be better versions of ourselves. But few of us ever manage it.

It’s not because we’re weak, or unworthy of achieving goals. It’s because what we’ve been taught about willpower – the force behind that change – and how to improve willpower is all wrong.

What is willpower?

Willpower used to be the idea that hard work and inner strength (and hard work at inner strength) would get you what you needed or wanted. Throughout the 20th century, the concept of willpower was still heavily influenced by its roots in Victorian Christianity and pseudoscience. Willpower was often framed as resistance of temptation, as not giving in to what we know to be bad for us – as just saying, ‘No.’

The problem with this conception is that it’s only about one-third of what willpower actually is, according to Kelly McGonigal.

McGonigal is a health psychologist at Stamford University and teaches one of the most popular public courses there: The Science of Willpower and Change. Over the past decade, McGonigal has been at the forefront of compiling research from the fields of neuroscience, medicine, psychology and more in order to construct a newer, clearer picture of what willpower is, and what it can do for us.

McGonigal, in her book The Willpower Instinct, breaks down what willpower is: It’s as much about saying yes, sometimes, as it is about saying no — plus one more thing: “To say no when you need to say no, and yes when you need to say yes, you need a third power: the ability to remember what you really want,” which may not match what you want in the moment. In other words, the ability to remember you really want to feel on-top-of-it and prepared for a big presentation – even if, in the moment, it sure feels like all you want to do is binge on Netflix.

All of these abilities – “I will, I won’t, and I want,” as McGonigal calls them – are housed in our prefrontal cortex (PFC), the part of the brain that gives us the ability to exercise self-control and choose to do the hard, less enjoyable thing.

Unfortunately making that choice is where we trip up, and it’s our own brains – just a different part – doing the tripping.

Draining willpower

There’s a neuroscientific theory that we have one brain but two minds: the advanced, evolved PFC and the more primitive part that’s all about immediacy and impulses. As often as these two ‘minds’ work together for our healthy functioning, when it comes to willpower, they’re gladiatorial: Two minds may enter, but only one can survive. When the PFC takes a beating, our willpower fails.

(Incidentally, this is why adults find it so hard to say yes and no when they should in pursuit of long-term goals, but it’s also why preteens and teens find it nigh impossible; the PFC doesn’t fully develop until the mid-20s, leaving the other ‘mind’ – the one all about instant gratification and urges – to run unchecked. Read more about this here.)

The key to developing self-control, then, is to keep the PFC strong. Willpower is like a muscle, McGonigal writes; you can build it over time through exercise, but overtax it and it turns to jelly, like legs after too long a run, or your New Year’s resolution by mid-February. Which means, much like an actual muscle, rest is as important to long-term performance as training.

But this rest is difficult to find. You don’t realize it, but every time you make a decision, your willpower is taxed a little. And you make a lot of decisions. McGonigal cites one study that found in one day, participants made, on average, 227 decisions – only about food.

But on top of that, your PFC is taxed by the basic attributes of modern living – we are all sleep deprived, preoccupied multitaskers, which means our PFCs are slowly draining willpower without a break.

This is where we get caught up in a vicious cycle: The more decisions you make, generally the poorer your choices. Then, the more preoccupied you are by your poor choices – which makes your choices even worse. (McGonigal cites a study wherein students who were asked to remember a phone number were 50% more likely to choose the less healthy of two snack options.)

Strengthening willpower

Under the old understanding of willpower, the way to strengthen willpower and self-discipline was simply to show more of each — not very helpful (or possible). With a more scientific understanding of self-control, however, McGonigal describes exercises for strengthening willpower in her book – much like actual fitness workouts – starting with learning to recognize when we give into our impulses, which is the key to understanding why we do it and changing our response. These small self-control exercises actually change brain structure, rewiring your brain to respond with self-control better and faster.

Or, you can just meditate.

“One study found that just three hours of meditation practice led to improved attention and self-control,” she writes. “After eleven hours, researchers could see those changes in the brain. The new meditators had increased neural connections between regions of the brain important for staying focused, ignoring distractions, and controlling impulses. Another study found that eight weeks of daily meditation practice led to increased self-awareness in everyday life, as well as increased gray matter in corresponding areas of the brain.”

This fosters a new cycle – but one that is beneficial, not vicious. Because according to Roy F. Baumeister, head of the social psychology graduate program at Florida State University and another specialist in willpower: Willpower begets willpower. In his book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, Baumeister and co-author John Tierney cite a study that found people who were able to improve willpower at the gym by following a workout plan, were also able to exhibit more self-control in other areas of life.

So, saying no to Netflix and saying yes to preparing in advance for your big presentation isn’t just good for your goal of procrastinating less – it’s good for your goal of gossiping less and calling your mom more, too. That hard work at inner strength gets easier.



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Written By Liesl Goecker

Liesl Goecker is The Swaddle’s managing editor.


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