3 Ways to Boost Your Will Power

By , SparkPeople Blogger
Will power. It’s one of those ideas we all talk about pretty often—and not usually when things are going well. You don’t hear too many people talking about how they really gave their will power a good workout today, or how it’s responding so well to their efforts to strengthen it.

Nope—will power is that mysterious, ill-defined factor that always seems to be missing whenever we need it most: “I just don’t seem to have any will power at all when it comes to______” (you fill in the blank). And then everyone nods their heads sympathetically, and jumps in with their own latest will power horror story.

But if you asked 10 different people to define what “will power” actually is, you’d probably get quite a few different ideas.

In practical terms, most of us would probably agree that what we mean by “will power” is the capacity to stick to our own good intentions, goals, and responsibilities even when we’re faced with temptations to do something else instead. But what actually gives us that capacity? Is will power the same thing as motivation, or self-discipline, or focus, or determination? Does it come from inside or outside? Can you have very strong will power in some areas of your life (like getting yourself out of bed on time almost every day), but practically none in others (like resisting certain foods or staying consistent with exercise)?

And maybe most importantly, is will power something you can learn and develop over time, or is it just something you either have or don’t have courtesy of your genes?

So far, at least, scientists who study will power haven’t done much better than the rest of us at coming up with a definition. They also haven’t located a specific area of the brain that’s responsible for resisting temptations, or any genes that make it easier or harder to resist temptation and stick to your goals.

But they do know there’s quite a bit more we can do to resist our impulses and stick to our good intentions, beyond telling ourselves to “Just Do It.” According to the research, there are three reliable and proven ways you can boost your own will power.

The Marshmallow Test

The first and most time-honored strategy for resisting temptation is, of course, distraction. As described in this NPR story, Columbia University psychologist Walter Mischel did a series of famous experiments in the 1960s, where he put hundreds of young kids in a room, one at a time by themselves, with a marshmallow on the table. He explained to each child that s/he could eat the marshmallow right away if desired, or wait until Mischel returned to the room, in which case the child would get two marshmallows instead of just the one.

The results were pretty much what you might expect. Some of the kids could barely keep the marshmallow out of their mouths for a minute, while others managed to wait as long as 20 minutes and earn the second marshmallow. What Mischel did notice, though, was that virtually all the kids who were able to resist eating the marshmallow right away used the same strategy. They did everything but pay attention to the marshmallow—they wandered around the room, kicked the furniture, twisted their hair, talked or sang songs to themselves, and so on. The other kids often tried distraction for a little while, but kept coming back to the marshmallow until they finally ate it.

Turning the “Heat” Down.

In a different variation on this same experiment, Mischel tried to see if it would matter if kids were given some additional tools they could use to resist the “lure” of the marshmallows. One big reason a marshmallow (or any other treat) is so appealing is that we start anticipating the pleasure it will give us—the taste, the texture, the smell, memories of enjoying them previously, etc. When you bundle all these things together, you have what many psychologists refer to as a “hot” cognition—a thought that moves straight to center stage of our conscious attention, and becomes pretty hard to ignore or push aside. But what if you could use your imagination or your rational mind to take some of that emotional heat away? Would that make it easier to resist the temptation?

In this version of his experiment, Mischel gave his young test subjects the suggestion that they try to see the marshmallow as a cotton ball or a puffy cloud, instead of as a marshmallow. This simple suggestion produced a large increase in the number of kids who were able to resist eating the marshmallow.

Regular readers of this blog might recognize this as a very mild and user-friendly version of aversion therapy, where you try to take things one step further by not merely cooling down your “hot cognitions” but actually making them unpleasant and unwanted, so that you’re actively motivated to avoid them. Hopefully, you won’t have to resort to that. Another way to accomplish similar results would be to become an avid food label reader or calorie counter, so that you start looking at tempting foods not in terms of their emotional or sensory appeal, but in terms of their nutritional value and whether that one minute of pleasure on the lips is worth the consequences.

Pick your battles carefully.

A third effective strategy for boosting your ability to resist temptations is to simply recognize that you can’t resist all of them. As this research suggests, our ability to constantly regulate ourselves is very limited, and the more we struggle to control what we think or feel or say or do in one area, the harder it becomes to do it in another areas. This doesn’t mean that self-regulation is impossible or that it can't be improved--just that we need to be smart and careful about how we go about it. And it probably means that the approach that is most likely to succeed in real life is one based on moderation, balance, and planning ahead to minimize problems, not one based on trying to be a superhero and do everything perfectly.

Personally, I think the idea of “will power” is not all that helpful, mainly because it’s so easy to turn it into yet another example of what’s “wrong” with us—we’re missing some fundamental ingredient that makes it possible for people to be strong and avoid temptations. Or into an excuse for not taking a serious look at what we could be doing differently. The reality usually is that we just haven’t learned the skills and mental habits it takes to handle temptations more effectively—and it’s never too late to do that.

What do you think?

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YMWONG22 4/3/2021
Thank you Report
SNUZYQ2 11/21/2020
It’s a work in progress for sure. My willpower depends on the foundation it’s built on. My willpower to lose weight is weak if my only reason for doing it is just to look better. It’s much stronger if I’m doing it to avoid an early grave and realize the many negative affects that obesity has on my health and well-being. My level of willpower gives me an equal portion of “won’t-power” too. So, the donut at the local coffee shop is no longer appealing to me. However, my willpower disappears totally when my attitude toward life is “meh” or “let’s do this tomorrow”. There is coming a time when we all will run out of tomorrows. In fact, I can’t figure that tomorrow is even promised to me! Hey everybody!...let’s do what we can today to make our lives better...one day at a time. Great article! Thank you for sharing! Report
RAPUNZEL53 11/18/2020
Great Report
CKEYES1 10/27/2020
I have no willpower Report
TURQUROISE 10/9/2020
Thank you for the ideas Report
PLCHAPPELL 9/10/2020
Good tips Report
NIOMIW 7/19/2020
Good points. Report
Very enlightening Report
My willpower comes from God. Report
I appreciated reading this article. Thanks! Report
thanks Report
Great article. Thanks for posting! Report
Sometimes we need to admit, we just are not ready to do this......has nothing to do with will or won’t . That explains the constant repent and repeat cycle, useless to the body. You will know when you are really ready. Report
Thank you. Report
I'm learning that it's more of an issue of having clear goals that we really are interested in making happen. It's about determination versus just being mildly interested in a certain goal. Report
A great read the second time too! Report
Awwww, I Love this guy! I like the tried and true successful approach, Distraction, I'm just learning how to do this myself with the Beck Diet Solution. I would also like to see the unhealthy food as something not attractive, even more unattractive. And like he said, we can't just put our hands up in the air and say you have no will power but take responsibility and use the skills he mentioned ( I also like the concept of the "HOT cognition"! I got lots of Those!! Excellent article! Report
thanks for sharing Report
"Will Power" is a grossly misunderstood concept and one which empowers the enemy. Will Power requires us to focus on the perceived problem or threat. As the article says, redirection of your attention to something positive is a far more successful tactic! Report
Working on it, I now drink my coffee without any added sugar. Report
This article is very timely even after all these years. Good points and things to remember.

I remember in my youth, craving chocolate so very much. I did okay during the day, because I had many tasks: homework, helping siblings with homework, starting dinner, washing dishes, ironing, etc., but after I went to bed, I couldn't deal with the craving, so crept downstairs and got into my mom's unsweetened baking chocolate... melting a square and adding confectioner's sugar bit by bit until it was palatable. That one ounce was all I needed... cleaned up my mess, went back to bed, and the craving was satiated for weeks. So, I am all for picking your battles. Report
I found the "pick your battles" and several other of the methods recommended very helpful in this article. Well said. Thank you. Report
I thought this was a pretty good article. I have employed a couple of these. Report
SparkPeople is constantly reminding me of things I have relegated to one of the many storage compartments of my memory and jogging my thoughts! Report
I wish the article addressed the lack of will power to exercise. That's what I'm faced with more than the will power to avoid bad foods. Report
LOVE the example of the marshmallow. Distraction IS the key. Also YES I DO think about how nutritional is this for me? Will the calories take me over my goal for the day? Report
Need to form habits, good habits and have support staff to help with good habits Report
Now I really want a marshmallow! Report
My best motivation just returned to Netflix..."Supersize Me". Every time I watch it, I can easily stay away from fast food for months at a time. I really should just buy a copy, so that it won't matter if Netflix takes it away. Report
That's why I make a list of my absolutes of what I refuse to give up no matter what. For the greater good of my health I've given up ALOT. So I don't feel guilty about my absolutes. Report
Our minds control SO much about us and how we function. Report
I believe if you practice moderation, will power is not as critical. Will power seems to come into play when you are denying yourself something and once something is denied, that is all you want. I know soda is not good for me, but ever once in awhile I find myself craving soda. Instead of denying that craving, I have a glass and the craving dissapates. I am no longer fixated on what I cannot have but am moving on and once again making healthier choices. Report
Loved the article. It is hard to have the will power but it is taking it one step at a time I still need to work up my will power on giving up sodas and chips but I have given up burgers and fries and have gone to one treat a month chocalate wise Report
I am Gabriel 25ys single , and the 3 Ways to Boost Your Will Power is one to find my soulmate .. two to have someone i can talk to all time .. three to have family and also be a real man. I'm saying this cos someone times,you can have everything in life but As we grow up, we learn that even the one person that wasn't supposed to ever let us down, probably will. You'll have your heart broken and you'll break others' hearts. You'll fight with your best friend or maybe even fall in love with them, and you'll cry because time is flying by. So take too many pictures, laugh too much, forgive freely, and love like you've never been hurt. Life comes with no guarantees, no time outs, no second chances. you just have to live life to the fullest, tell someone what they mean to you and tell someone off, speak out, dance in the pouring rain, hold someone's hand, comfort a friend, fall asleep watching the sun come up, stay up late, be a flirt, and smile until your face hurts. Don't be afraid to take chances or fall in love and most of all, live in the moment because every second you spend angry or upset is a second of happiness you can never get back... If you think we can be friends just look for me at skype -- vendolf1k or facebook -- Oduro Gabriel
I remind myself of how I felt the last time I ate ____. With junk food like french fries it helps. I wasn't happy about eating them the last time, so that thought helps me stay away from them in the present.
I think someone mentioned snacking... I have that problem too! not being conscious, just snacking on stuff, even healthy things. My will power is currently being exercised by eating only at meals -- hard, but distraction definitely helps when the snacking bug hits. Report
I practive distraction and aversion. Especailly aversion by counting calories. It is amazing how knowing what is actually in food and the cost to eat it to make you think twice about consuming or how much you consume of a certain food. Report
I almost need to back up a step: before I can exert willpower, I need to be conscious! Many times I find myself in an eating-stupor - completely zoned out and shoveling in whatever is in front of me. Last night, dipping graham crackers into marshmallow creme - and I don't really like either one of those things! Report
I really do several things that were mentioned. I look at myself naked every day to remind myself why I'm doing this. I read labels religiously. I only eat what I put on the nutrition tracker. I find when my life is a mess, it is one area I can control. Report
Mr. Will Power is just another person to ignore in my quest for better health. He is toxic! I read labels before, instead of after, I eat now and if the fat/sodium/calories are too high, I'm scared off. I'm keeping my eye on the goal and trying very hard not to be distracted by 'ole Will, the boogieman. I loved this blog! Report
Someone probably said this already (sorry, there were waaay too many to read!) but I think it's helpful with the "hot" cognition idea, sort of, to go into Tim Horton's with the image of all the donuts and cookies covered in grease and lard. Then, you try not to look at them when you get in there (because you KNOW they will tempt you) and come out with just a tea or coffee.
Also, try not eating in the coffee shop. Take it to go and walk home, it's so rewarding and you won't smell the tasty (calorie-filled) treats while they bake. Report
I find it helpful to go outside and take a quick walk, even if it is only for five minutes. It is a good distraction and reminder of what your long term goal is Report
ERINBEAR2K, I tend to have the same problem, but for me keeping track helps a lot as does standing in front of the mirror naked every day. My current distraction technique is gum. If I still want to eat after chewing the gum, I'm probably hungry and I can eat something healthful, but often I just want to chew something. Admittedly, I prefer chocolate to gum, but my husband doles out the chocolate so I get some now and then, but I don't get carried away. I can eat a pound of peanut M&Ms in a day!! I don't need or want that flab! With the limitations I savor the chocolate more. I wonder if they could make chocolate calorie free gum. ??? Report
I need to exercise more will power in my life. I have been jobless for 5 months and I seem to eat all day long! I have gained 22 pounds! Report
i drink alot of coffee so i always crave something sweet when i'm drinking coffee and i used to not care about my weight so i ate sweets whenever i wanted but now i have gained alot over the winter so now i'm worried about my weight, it is very hard for me to quit eating sweets, i have no will power or whatever you call it and i just started excersising about 5 days ago and it's hard to keep going. Report
I discovered that when I'm really obsessing on having something that I shouldn't be eating, that eating something healthy instead works for me. So maybe I'm just hungry? I don't know, but I was delighted to discover that thoughts of ice cream or chocolate went away if I ate an apple or popcorn or whatever. Report
My problem is I can't have "just a little bit." Once I have a taste or a small portion, it's game over. So I just have to avoid bad stuff altogether. Not much fun, and it doesn't work too well :o( Then I have to work out a lot to make up for it. However, sometimes it's easier to resist if I think of all the hard work I did in the gym, and how much of that gets undone. Sometimes.... Report
This may sound crazy but what really helps my will power is excercise, after a yoga workout, or 1 or 2 hours at the gym, or even a nice long walk with my dog I have such a positive feeling inside myself that I don't even crave any of the unhealty stuff, I want something green and cruncy. When I just sit around the house with nothing going on, and my mind dwelling on the nagative thoughts, that's when my will power goes down the drain. I guess exercise is the answer for me. Report
My will power is not there, when it comes to chips, cookies, candy. I found myself having a victory when it's visibly in front of me. Report
Cookies are one of those things that makes any will power I have melt away, especially if I can smell them baking. Smells really play a big impact on what I eat. I may not even have thought of eating something, but smell it cooking and wow - I need it.

Distraction definitely is one technique. I know when I'm busy I think about food a lot less then when I'm just sitting around. Report