What you don’t know about willpower: Why popular ideas about determination and drive are all wrong.

As I write this I am in the process of writing down the things I am currently going through, as I don’t want to forget them. I know that I need to pay more attention to the foods I eat, but I had been running and I am feeling very tired, which is making me less aware of the foods I am eating.

In the past decade, a handful of books have attempted to explain how we become successful, or succeed in anything we do. According to these books, motivation comes down to willpower, which comes from self-control.

Digital health products like Fitbit and Apple Watch boast a lot about how much willpower you have. It’s no wonder, as the hardware and software they use is designed to monitor your activity and exercise, and suggest ways to improve. But the truth is that willpower is a very limited resource. It’s like a battery: It can’t be recharged, and it can run out quickly. That’s why people who want to achieve their health goals need something else: intentional, strategic planning.

Willpower is often seen as a finite resource… Then you’re just out of luck. But here’s the reality – and a far more optimistic solution.


There’s a reason why six out of ten large, bold pledges to change fizzle out within three months. Alternatively, there are a few explanations…

  • Some people attempt to make too many changes at once.
  • Others never start with a strong action plan from which to work.
  • Others, on the other hand, ignore life patterns that reinforce old behaviors.

However, there is one critical element that may make or break our capacity to adapt. And as a society, we just don’t get it.

I believe it is past time for us to discuss willpower.


Change is required to improve your life, whether it’s stopping smoking, reducing weight, or getting a grip on your inbox catastrophe. And, in order to effect change, we typically turn to our old pal willpower.

Typically, the mental dialogue goes something like this:

Willpower, get up! I’ve got a lot of tasks for you! First and foremost, I need your assistance in getting me out of bed at 5:30 a.m. Then you must get me out of the house for a run. Don’t let me have any sweets today, either. While you’re at it, please assist me in remaining silent the next time my boss says something dumb.

Does this ring a bell?

We rely heavily on willpower. But what precisely is it? Why does it seem to be failing us? Most importantly, how can we improve it (or, if you’re a personal trainer, how can you improve it for your clients)?

What we think about when we think of willpower

It’s known by many distinct names:

  • determination
  • drive
  • restraint
  • resolve
  • self-discipline
  • self-control
  • resilience
  • can-do attitude

When you force yourself to do something you truly don’t want to do, they all make your hands sweat and your mouth dry.

Willpower definitions contain the following unsettling concepts:

  • the capacity to postpone pleasure in order to achieve long-term objectives by rejecting short-term temptations
  • the ability to suppress a negative idea, emotion, or urge
  • the capacity to use a “cool” cognitive system rather than a “hot” emotional system to behave
  • Self-regulation by the self is a deliberate, effortful process.
  • a finite resource that may be depleted

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It’s impossible to have enough willpower.

It’s especially important to note the final definition. Because, as you can see, it may not be true.

We used to believe that willpower was a finite resource that we could only utilize until it was depleted.

That’s what we tell ourselves when, after a week of chicken and vegetables, we’re knee-deep in nachos and margaritas at 7 p.m. on Friday night.

I had to do it because of my (depleted) willpower!

Thankfully, recent findings in the field of willpower study have shown that this perspective is flawed.

Before we go into the new study, let’s go through what we thought we understood… until now.

Is it true that willpower is a limited resource?

Suzanne Segerstrom, a psychology professor at the University of Kentucky, started studying the molecular foundation of willpower in the early 2000s. When individuals use their willpower, heart rate variability (HRV) rises, according to Segerstrom, who studied physiologic connections.

Following that, a research published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that exercising willpower causes individuals to become physically exhausted. Stamina was found to be reduced in another.

Professor Matthew Gailliot of Florida State University then suggested that the mind and body utilize the same resources for fuel, implying that willpower consumes glucose. Though debatable, Gailliot’s study did indicate that those with a lot of glucose resources had better self-control.

Following up research shown that having too many options, such as at a buffet, reduces our capacity to control oneself. The takeaway: If you want to preserve your willpower, limit your choices.

We may deduce from these and other research that willpower is a finite resource. That we must prioritize our tasks that need willpower since we will most likely run out.

There have been many books and methods published on the topic.

If willpower is a naturally limited thing, it’s not our fault if we run out, according to the initial wave of literature. Not very optimistic — and effectively worthless when it comes to major life choices.

The second wave was a little more successful. Willpower was likened to a muscle in several studies, implying that it can be strengthened. As a result, writers offered a variety of methods for doing so.

The only issue is that the story about willpower as a finite resource is only partly accurate. As a result, it’s also half-wrong.

Change everything, even your ideas about willpower.

One finding from more recent research is that willpower is surprisingly easy to increase.

It’s so simple that just explaining to individuals that willpower is a cumulative rather than a limited resource may help them improve their numbers.

“Sometimes, focusing on a difficult mental activity may make you feel invigorated for more demanding activities,” researchers told participants in one Stanford study.

Simply conveying the idea that willpower may be built upon rather than depleted was enough to substantially improve people’s performance on the activities at hand.

Isn’t it incredible?

I’m not guaranteeing that this will work every time. However, it does highlight the importance of our personal perspective in terms of motivation.

Where can we go from here if we use our willpower?

Okay, there’s no denying that willpower is a limited resource. If you utilize it too much, you will run out of it.

But only if you think willpower works in this way.


What if you think that performing something that requires willpower would motivate you to achieve even more? Amazing things do happen.

When Stanford researchers polled 153 college students on their motivation and willpower views, those who believed willpower was a finite resource felt “depleted” after completing a tough job.

However, pupils who believed that willpower was cumulative performed better on each successive trial.

Nothing appears to succeed like success, as the adage goes.

Anything is conceivable from here. Success in one area of life may lead to a cascade of apparently unconnected achievements in other areas.

For instance, a good test score could lead to improved academic growth, which could lead to procrastinating less, which could even lead to things like healthy eating or sticking to a budget more effectively.

Brain, you did a fantastic job. You did an excellent job.

What does this imply for you personally?

Our own self-talk and beliefs, like everything else in life, influence how we manage tough circumstances.

This implies that how you believe about willpower may affect how you behave, which can lead to better outcomes.

Try re-framing the issue if you’re having difficulty finding inspiration to go to the gym or if you’re weary of white-knuckling your way away from the refrigerator.

Tell yourself that each time you complete a difficult job, you will be better prepared to tackle the next one.

Just having that attitude may make you feel more powerful.

Oh, and if you’re a coach, this is very useful information.

You may use it to help your clients rethink motivation so that they feel invigorated and empowered rather than tired and weary when they undertake major life changes. They’ll be able to behave more consistently and achieve greater outcomes with your help.

What should I do next?

  1. Consider how you interpret the concept of willpower. What is your definition of it? What do you believe the mechanism is? Think about how your concept of willpower influences your behavior.
  2. To promote a new perspective on willpower and motivation, try giving yourself (or your clients) a provocation. Use the example from the research I cited (“Sometimes, focusing on a difficult mental activity helps me feel invigorated for more hard activities”), or create your own (“Following through on my new habits makes me feel like a rockstar who can do anything”).
  3. Consider how a new perspective on willpower might assist you or your customers with issues like as:
    • constancy in nutrition
    • committing to an exercise schedule
    • preparing meals in advance
  4. When you feel like your willpower has run out, ask yourself, “How can I redefine what willpower means to me?” What achievements have I already made? How can I re-energize myself by focusing on my accomplishments?

Remember that willpower is just another weapon you may use to help yourself (or your customers) achieve good changes.

It’s best utilized with a healthy dosage of self-compassion, positive self-talk, and social support, as with most things in life.


To see the information sources mentioned in this article, go here.

Effects of self-regulatory strength depletion on muscular performance and EMG activation, Bray, S.R. et al. Psychophysiology, vol. 45, no. 3, pp. 337–43, 2008.

Self-control depends on glucose as a finite energy source: Willpower is more than a metaphor, according to M.T. Gailliot and colleagues. 325–36 in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2007.

Job, V., Dweck, C. S., & Walton, G. M. Ego depletion-Is it all in your head? Implicit theories about willpower affect self-regulation. Psychological Science 2010;21(11):1686-93.

Norcross, John C. & Vangarelli, Dominic J. The resolution solution: Longitudinal examination of New Year’s change attempts. Journal of Substance Abuse 1988; 1, 127-134.

Segerstrom, S.C., & Solberg Nes, L. Heart rate variability reflects self-regulatory strength, effort, and fatigue. Psychological Science 2007;18(3):275–81.

Restoring the self: Positive affect helps enhance self-regulation after ego depletion, Tice, D.M., et al. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 43, no. 3, pp. 379–84, 2007.

Making choices affects later self-control: A finite resource explanation of decision making, self-regulation, and active initiative. Vohs, K.D., et al. The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (in press/May 2008) is a journal dedicated to the study of personality and social psychology.

If you’re a coach or wish to be one…

It’s both an art and a science to guide clients, patients, friends, or family members through healthy food and lifestyle adjustments in a manner that’s tailored to their individual body, tastes, and circumstances.

Consider the Level 1 Certification if you want to learn more about both.

A lot of people believe the way to get anything done in life is by “willpower”. Yet, the problem with willpower as a technique for success is that although it works for the short term, it doesn’t work for the long term. Here are some of the reasons:. Read more about precision nutrition protein infographic and let us know what you think.

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