Skip to main content
BlogMindset & Personal Development

Willpower Works, Until It Doesn’t

By April 5, 2021May 30th, 2023No Comments

The biggest reason people cite when asked why they don’t stick to their habits is lack of willpower.  New research is continuing to show that willpower doesn’t work– and that shouldn’t be a surprise!  The cognitive part of our brain that is good at decision making, the prefrontal cortex, goes offline when we are stressed, hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. The more you suppress your thoughts, the more you desire the thing you’re suppressing.  Here’s more.

Stress and sleep deprivation decrease willpower.

It’s kind of a chicken or egg scenario since people would argue it takes willpower to go to bed earlier or to take action to reduce stress.  But if you can understand that reducing stress and sleeping more will give you more self-control, it might help you make it a priority.  Why do stress and sleep deprivation reduce willpower? Well, it turns out that willpower mostly lives in the prefrontal cortex of the brain.  It controls some of our emotions, what we pay attention to, and the subject of our thoughts. The prefrontal cortex is broken up into three sections according to Dr. McGonigal’s book.  There’s a section for “I won’t”, a section for “I will” and a section for “I want.”  I won’t eat dessert.  I will get up early to do my workout.  I want to keep track of your goals. The prefrontal cortex is the first region of the brain that goes offline when we’re stressed.  Guess what happens? You lose your willpower.  Sleep deprivation is another problem.  It reduces brain activity because it’s actually harder for your brain to absorb glucose when it’s sleep-deprived.  Yes, you actually are in a fog!  Aim to reduce stress and get more sleep and you might find that you have more willpower.

Suppressing thoughts weakens willpower.  So does guilt.

You’ve heard of the experiment- don’t think of a pink elephant… and then that’s all you can think about.  Well, think about when you want that cookie. You tell yourself, “don’t think of the cookie!” The more we resist temptation, the more it persists…and then your willpower goes out the window.  Basically, try not to suppress your thoughts and keep listening for what to do instead.  Guilt-tripping yourself has also been found to make your willpower issues worse.  It might sound counterintuitive to let yourself off the hook, but studies have shown that self-compassion around breaking a habit helps you get back on track rather than chastising and berating yourself.  When you make a mistake, think encouragement over criticism.  Practice forgiveness when you fail and you’ll be more likely to succeed.

Get curious about your cravings.

Dr. Judson Brewer is another pioneer in the field behavior change.  Check out his book, The Craving Mind.  He advises getting curious about our cravings.  First, notice the urge, get curious about the urge- why is it there, what does it look like, what does it feel like, what is it there?  And then- feel joy of letting it go. Of course, this assumes a level of self-awareness so that you’re able to pause between cue for the craving and response.  When you notice the cue, ask yourself what’s it going to feel like if you don’t make this change or if you don’t do the thing versus if you do make this change.  Just thinking about it consciously will take away some of its power. Curiosity is also a way to increase mindfulness about your craving.  You can watch Dr. Brewer’s TED Talk in the show notes.  He gives an example of smoking.  There’s a group trying to quit smoking.  Instead of saying, “Don’t smoke the cigarette,” he tells them to smoke the cigarette.  While smoking the cigarette, think about how the smoke feels, how it tastes, etc.  By practicing mindful smoking, some people realized how gross it was and drastically reduced the number of cigarettes they were smoking leading to cessation.

Number 4 won’t be a surprise. Here it is: meditate 5-10 minutes a day!

The default mode network in the brain is the busy part that chatters away. It is the neurological basis for the self, thoughts of others and thoughts of past and future.  It also can distract you.  Meditation greatly reduces activity in the default mode network both during meditation and even when you’re not meditating.  The result is much better focus and you got it – better self-control too.  If you want to learn more about the science of meditation and its effects on the brain, make sure you listen to the episode I recorded with cognitive neuroscientist, Dr. David Vago.   

Meditation and mindfulness are probably the top way to boost your willpower.

Delay Gratification   

This one is something I started doing earlier this year.  Instead of saying I can’t have the pizza, I tell myself I need to eat something healthy first like a bean stew or a salad and if I still want the pizza, I can have it.   Rarely do I reach for the pizza if I do it this way.  Another thing you can do is just say, “I can have the cookie, but I have to wait 20 minutes.”

Hack your environment. 

This works for the I won’ts and the I wills.  Try to make the I won’ts difficult.  Here’s an example. Instead of keeping beer in the fridge where it’s easy to get at, I have it locked in the crawl space under my house…and it’s not cold. So if I want a beer, I have to get the key out, go downstairs, get the beer, put it in the fridge or freezer to chill it and then I can have it. It’s another way of delaying gratification.  A lot of the time, making it hard makes me not want the beer. You can also use this trick for the “I wills.”  A friend of mine leaves a kettlebell and foam roller in the middle of the room so he’ll do a few exercises if he sees it.   We leave all of our musical instruments in plain view in the living room to encourage playing them.  My husband wakes up at 6 AM to ride the trainer every morning. He gets all of his bike clothes out the night before to make it easier.  Meal planning is another example – if you make food in advance and it is waiting for you in the fridge, it’s easier to eat healthily. The same goes for leaving bowls of fruit out so when you want a quick snack, it’s there.

Check out this TED Talk by Dr. Jud Brewer: A Simple Way to Break a Bad Habit.

Leave a Reply