Debunking Willpower

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I don’t think I’m alone when I stare at a long list of things to do on my whiteboard and wonder to myself, how in the world am I going to find the motivation to do all of this? This frequent thought led me to explore my lack of motivation and whether there were real strategies to increase my willpower.

So, what does the latest research tell us about willpower? Here are a couple of tips that I’ve picked up:

1. Willpower is not about forcing yourself to do what you don’t want to do, but about the ability of doing what you really want to do.

This could be the biggest misconception to willpower. People normally define having willpower as the ability to force themselves to get things done, especially things that may be tedious and uninteresting. But this idea could be very conflicting because people have a hard time doing things they don’t care about. This does not mean that no one should wash the dishes or write that chapter of their book. Even though these things may not always be fun, they provide long term satisfaction or contribute to your long term goal. Instead of thinking that you have to wash the dishes, think about how clean your kitchen is going to be and how satisfying it is to sit in a clean house. A lot of willpower is center around delaying instant gratification and thinking of long term goals. Sometimes the steps may sound tedious (such as doing the dishes), but it brings you to a bigger goal (having a clean house). Willpower is about re-framing your mind in a way to remind yourself of what you really want to do (or what your long term goals are) and not forcing yourself to do what you don’t want to do.

2. The best strategy to willpower may be self compassion and self cultivation.

Perception matters a lot in willpower. Just the belief of whether or not you can complete a task or accomplish a goal contributes to the success of whether or not you reach that goal. Simply put, if you don’t have the confidence in yourself to handle certain situations or get certain things done, then you’re most likely going to be right. If you have inner trust and think that you can go a weekend without chocolate, then you’re going to do everything you can to make that a reality. On the other hand, if you only believe in losing weight because others tell you have to, but never truly believing in it, then you are more likely to engage in self sabotage. Self sabotage can be hugely detrimental to willpower because it conflicts with what you believe and what your goal is. The stronger the source of desire to do something comes from within, then the more likely you’ll accomplish it.

3. Willpower becomes easier when it is automated.

Willpower is a limited resource. Unfortunately, we don’t have the ability to have unlimited willpower to do everything we want to do with the time we’re given. Hence, a good cheat strategy might be to automate task that you have to do and know that it will take willpower to get it accomplished. For example, instead of sitting down to write checks every month, it might be a good idea to set up automatic bill pay. Automating this task might take out a stress in your life that would require willpower. Putting tennis shoes right next to your door will make it easier to go running since you won’t be faced with the inconvenience of finding them. Simple strategies such as these will decrease your willpower fatigue and make it easier to get things done.


One of the biggest experts on willpower is Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist and professor at Stanford University. Her latest book The Willpower Instinct discusses her research on willpower– how it works, and why it matters. Some ideas in this post were an exploration of ideas in Kelly’s book.


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