The Science of Self-Control: Can You Increase Your Willpower?

Does any of this sounds familiar:

  • You want to become an early riser, but once your alarm clock goes off,  you hit the snooze button, and go back to sleep.
  • You decide to eat healthier, but you find yourself  ordering a meal at McDonald’s.
  • You think that it would be great to hit the gym and shed those extra few pounds before the summer, but after a long way of work, you end up in a  couch in front of the TV.


You are not alone. Most of us say to ourselves “I wish I’d have more willpower” on a regular basis.  However, is it really possible to increase our willpower, and if so, what’s the best way to go about it?

Science has some answers that might surprise you.

Why should we care about willpower?

Roy Baumeister, one of the leading researchers on willpower, notes:

Most of the problems that plague modern individuals in our society — addiction, overeating, crime, domestic violence, sexually transmitted diseases, prejudice, debt, unwanted pregnancy, educational failure, underperformance at school and work, lack of savings, failure to exercise — have some degree of selfcontrol failure as a central aspect.

Psychology has identified two main traits that seem to produce an immensely broad range of benefits: intelligence and self-control. Despite many decades of trying, psychology has not found much one can do to produce lasting increases in intelligence. But self-control can be strengthened. Therefore, self-control is a rare and powerful opportunity for psychology to make a palpable and highly beneficial difference in the lives of ordinary people”

The research on the topic strongly supports the idea that increasing one’s willpower positively affects all the areas of one’s life. People who have more self-control are healthier, they relationships are stronger and more satisfying, they make more money and are more successful at their careers. It’s not surprising that those who have more willpower are also happier.

It seems that making a commitment to work on your willpower might be one of the best decisions that you can make.

What is willpower?

In order to understand how willpower works we first have to define what we mean when we use this word. We all have an idea of what we think it is. However, what do scientists who study this subject define as willpower?

In her book “Maximum Willpower”, Kelly McGonigal, a professor who teaches  “The Science of Willpower” class in Stanford, talks about three different aspects of willpower:

  • “I won’t” power – the ability to resist temptations.
  • “I will” power  –  the ability to do what needs to be done.
  •  “I want” power – the awareness of one’s long term goals and desires.

According to McGonigal, willpower is about harnessing these three power of I will, I won’t, and I want in order to achieve your goals and stay out of trouble.

Why do we have willpower?

Willpower is a fascinating phenomenon. In fact, some scientists even go as far as saying that  it may be what makes us humans, well, human. That makes sense when you think about: there are no other animals that would have such developed ability to control their impulses. How come we are so special in this sense?

Early humans lived in an environment where the individual was very dependent on the group for survival.  One had to be able to control one’s  impulses in order to get along with those around him or her.  This put a lot of pressure on the brains  to develop ways to control impulses that might get individual in trouble.

Our current ability to control our impulses is a result of  thousands of years of adaptation  to an increasingly complex social environment.

Your brain on willpower: meet the prefrontal cortex

Prefrontal cortex is a part of  the brain right behind your forehead and eyes. Throughout our evolutionary history, it was mainly responsible for controlling physical movements (walking, running, lifting, etc.). Over time, it not only got bigger, but also became more connected to other areas of the brain and took on some new functions. Now, prefrontal cortex is responsible for controlling what you do, what you think, and even what you feel.

There are three different areas of prefrontal cortex that control the three different aspects of willpower:

  • The left region of prefrontal cortex is responsible for  “I will” part of willpower.
  • The right region of prefrontal cortex is responsible for “I won’t” part of willpower.
  • The middle lower region of prefrontal cortex is responsible for “I wan’t” part of willpower.

Together, these three areas gives us our self-control and self-awareness, or, in other words, our willpower.

One of the best illustrations of the importance of prefrontal cortex are the cases of people who suffered injuries that affected this part of the brain. In 1848 Phineas Gage, a was a quiet, respectful, hard-working foreman. Unfortunately, he got into an accident which resulted in a very serious brain injury that damaged his prefrontal cortex, an injury that changed him forever.  Gage’s friends could not recognize him: he turned into an impatient, impulsive individual, virtually the opposite of his former self. Phinea’s Gage is one of the many examples of what happens when a person suffers from prefrontal cortex damage. This makes it clear that willpower isn’t something mystical, but rather one of the many functions of our brain.

Why our grandparents were more disciplined than we are

One of the most shocking discoveries regarding willpower is this: willpower is like a muscle that gets tired when you use it a lot.

Roy Baumeister ran many experiments in which he asked people to exert their willpower in a controlled laboratory environment (turn down biscuits, control their anger, hold their hands in an ice-cold water, etc.).  It turned out that the details of his requests didn’t matter much: people who had to use their willpower experienced a decrease in their ability to control themselves. This manifested in different ways: people who were asked to control their emotions were more likely to spend money on unnecessary items, resisting sweets led to procrastination, and so on. Finally, Baumeister came to a conclusion that willpower gets depleted when you use it.

Moreover, research indicates that there are many things that can deplete our willpower, some of which we probably  wouldn’t think of that way. Sitting through a boring meeting, trying to impress a date, not fitting in at your workplace – all these things drain your willpower. Every time you have to resist an impulse or make a decision, no matter how trivial, you are using your “willpower muscle” and therefore depleting your willpower reserves.

Kathleen Vohns, an associate professor of marketing at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minesota, notes:

“There is research that shows people still have the same self-control as in decades past, but we are bombarded more and more with temptations. Our psychological system is not set up to deal with all the potential immediate gratification.”

We might look at the people from previous generations and admire their self-discipline. As a martial artist, I remember how I  used to read the stories about masters of the past,   and beat myself up for not practising one punch for hours everyday like they did. However, it seems that the reason why our generation is not as diligent as the previous generations  is not necessarily the flaws of our characters, but rather the distractions that surround us. Would those martial arts masters have been as dedicated if they would have had Facebook, Twitter and Youtube? I guess we will never know the answer to that question.

Willpower on steroids: meditation

The good news is that we can increase our willpower if we commit to training our brain to be able to exert more willpower regularly.

Meditation has been shown to be one of the most powerful ways to increase willpower. Research on this subject indicates that three hours of meditation increases self-control and ability to focus and after eleven hours of mediation practice one can see visible changes in the brains. Why it’s so effective?

Meditation increases the blood flow to the prefrontal cortex. It looks like the brain adapts to exercise the same way muscle do: you do  push-ups, your gain muscle on your arms, you meditate, you improve neural connections in the brain between areas responsible for self-control. What is the best way to meditate if you want to increase your willpower?

Kelly McGonigal says that the following meditation technique will get the blood rushing to your prefrontal cortex, which is pretty much the closest we can get to speeding up evolution  and making the most of our brain’s potential:

  1. Sit still and stay put. You can either sit on a chair with your feet flat on the ground or sit on the floor with your legs crossed. Try to resist the impulses to move: see if you can ignore itches and urges to change your position. Sitting still is an important part of mediation because it teaches you not  to follow your impulses automatically.
  2. Turn your attention to your breath. Close your eyes and focus on your breathing. In your mind, say “inhale” when you breathe in, and “exhale” when you breathe out. When you notice that your mind is wandering, bring it back, and keep focusing on your breathing. This activates prefrontal cortex and quiets the stress and craving centres of your brain.
  3. Notice how it feels to breathe and how the mind wanders. After a few minutes, drop the words “inhale” and “exhale”, and focus solely on the sensation of breathing.  Your mind might wander a bit more without these words. However, when you notice that you are thinking about something else, bring your attention back to breathing. You can say “inhale” and “exhale” for few rounds when you find it hard to refocus. This part helps to train both self-awareness and self-control.

You might find meditation very difficult when you first start practising it. That’s completely normal: in our daily lives, we often don’t notice how scattered and noisy our minds are, and sitting stills while trying to focus on breathing brings all that mess to our attention. However,  it doesn’t matter how bad you think you are at this: the research suggests that even five minutes of meditation everyday will give you  the benefits of increased self-control and self-awareness.  Don’t be afraid to start small.

Conclusion: don’t beat yourself up so hard!

I think one of the most important conclusions that we can draw from  the current research on willpower is that we should stop feeling guilty and blaming ourselves every time when we fail to use it successfully.  More often than not, it’s the chemistry of our brain that is behind our lack of willpower, not our inherent character flaws. The same way it’s not reasonable to expect your muscles to exert unlimited amounts of  strength, it’s not reasonable to expect your brain to exert unlimited amount of willpower.  You have to understand that you have to train in order to increase your willpower the same way you train in order to increase your physical strength.  Meditation for the win, people!


Agota Bialobzeskyte is the author of “Relaxed productivity”, a book about getting things done when working from home. Tired of constantly feeling stressed out and not accomplishing as much as you would like to? There’s a way to get more done, in less time, with less stress. Get a FREE chapter “How To Increase Your Willpower” today!

44 Responses to The Science of Self-Control: Can You Increase Your Willpower?

  1. Jeff Urmston says:

    Thank you Agota for this piece! I appreciate your observation that we have not mentally devolved from our ancestors! Given that it is our more distracting environment that nibbles away at our willpower I am encouraged that this is a solvable problem. With creative and focused strengthening of our prefrontal cortices and strategic manipulations of out environment we can improve out willpower.

  2. Thanks for this awesome article Agota! The benefits of meditation seem to be never ending, don’t they? :) When you’re just starting out with meditation I suggest beginning with only a few minutes a day, maybe as little as 1 minute, and increase the time as you get more and more comfortable with being still in complete silence. Preferably meditate at the same time each day so that it becomes a routine. For me, early mornings have turned out best as that time of day usually is silent and without distractions.

  3. Dan Erickson says:

    I have willpower. Maybe it’s because I was raised as a kid in a cult where I had to perform daily and hard. Now I am able to set my mind to accomplishing things. I do have to rotate a variety of tasks due to time constraints, but I make a habit to spend 1-2 hours per day working at something productive and/or healthy.

  4. This was a nice, in-depth piece Agota! I’ve done a lot of research on willpower too, but I had not considered meditation as a method for increasing willpower. That’s interesting. I’ll look into it now.

    I can see you put a lot of work into this article, so thank you.

  5. Agota Bialobzeskyte says:

    Hey, Stephen!

    I recommend Kelly McGonigal’s book “Maximum Willpower” if you want to read more on the topic.

    She stresses meditation a lot since there’s plenty of research indicating that meditation is THE way to increase willpower.

    I’m glad you liked the article! :)

  6. Agota Bialobzeskyte says:

    Hey, Dan!

    That’s great, research indicates that two traits that best predict success are intelligence and willpower, so you probably have both of them handled :)

  7. Agota Bialobzeskyte says:

    Hey, Patrik!

    Yes, it’s amazing how many benefits meditation brings, it’s probably one of the best habits that you can have.

    I agree on 1 min, I think many people set their expectations for themselves too high, and therefore end up disappointed.

    Even if you start with only 1min/day, and add 1/min a week to that, you will almost get to 1hour/day in one year.

    It’s important to focus on lifelong habits, not on immediate results.

  8. Agota Bialobzeskyte says:

    Hey, Jeff!

    Yes, it’s definitely true that our brains haven’t changed too much since living in caves, that’s the reason behind many problems today.

    Another good example of that could be eating too much fats and sugar. We evolved to crave fats and sugar because eating food high in those things provided us with much needed calories. Now, there’s no food scarcity anymore, so we don’t need to get as much calories as we can anytime we have a chance, but the cravings are still there. Recognizing the fact that cravings for sugar and fats are natural helps to deal with them in a healthy manner.

    I’m also glad you’ve mentioned manipulating our environment. I think people spend too much of their limited cognitive energy on things that can be solved by simply adjusting something in our environment. I remember I was struggling with drinking too much tea with sugar, then I stopped keeping sugar in the house (I didn’t use it for anything else), problem solved! Why spend your willpower on something when there’s an easier solution?

  9. Natalie says:

    Excellent! I knew that will power can be depleted and strengthened. Just look at a toddler learning self control and how out of control they get when tired. But I had never connected the constant bombardment of distractions to the depletion our will power. It makes sense.

    So how do we find the ‘will power’ to meditate in order to strengthen it, when we are always using it up? If we are running a never ending marathon, how do we ‘train’ our already over worked muscle?

    With all that said, I still believe meditation is the key, but not for ‘strengthening’ the will power ‘muscle’. Meditation is more like the hot tub where the runner relaxes and lets the ‘muscles’ recover.

  10. I have worked with a lot of people on goal attainment. What the problem is for most people is that want something more than their stated goal. For example, if the stated goal was physical fitness, they may value their comfort more than being fit or they may value the pleasure they gain from eating foods they shouldn’t.

    To move forward with goals or any hard tasks you have to create the will inside of yourself to want that more than all the inertia and habits you have been doing before.
    You can do this a couple ways. One of my favorites is using a risk. If you don’t do what you say you are going to do, you have to do something you really don’t want to do. This aversion proves greater than your current inertia. For example, I had a friend who hated tomatoes. He was also a salesman who had to make sales calls. To motivate himself to make the calls, he committed to making ten calls a day or he had to eat a tomato. He made the calls.

  11. Agota Bialobzeskyte says:

    Yes, conflicting short-term and long-term desires are definitely a problem, you have to learn how to balance them in order to achieve your goals.

    I’ve noticed that it’s much easier to stick to something if you have a “cheat day”. This concept came from diets, when you stay on a diet for 6 days a week, and then for that 1 day you can eat anything you want, like in Tim Ferris’ 4HB diet. However, it works on many other things, such as exercise, work, etc.

    Why do people hate tomatoes? I remember that I didn’t eat tomatoes until I was 7. My reason for that: “They look suspicious”. Now tomatoes are my favorite veggies. There’s something suspicious about them, though.. <_<

  12. Agota Bialobzeskyte says:

    Hm, I think the easiest way to regain some willpower is to stop squandering it on trivial things, which all of us do way too often.

    Don’t keep junk food in your house and you won’t have to spend willpower on resisting it.

    Block internet while you are working and you won’t have to spend willpower trying to stay away from “funny cats” videos.

    Don’t have credit cards and you won’t have to worry about consumer debt (although you need to think things through before ditching credit cards because they help you to build your credit score which helps to get a better mortgage).

    Meditation does seem to work as a strengthening exercise for willpower. The research shows that there are observable changes in the brain of people who take up motivation. That’s most likely because meditation does require a huge amount of self-control.

    My suggestion would be to start meditating for 1min. everyday, then build up as you go. As I’ve mentioned in one of my comments below, if you start with 1min., then add 1min. every week, after a year you will be able to meditate for almost an hour, which is huge. It’s all about baby steps.. :)

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  15. Great post Agota, really interesting!

    I find a Kaizen http://thinkersplayground.com/what-is-kaizen approach works best for me when it comes to making a change.

    By focussing on changes that are so small that they don’t evoke a stress response, this approach helps you gradually build habits in the direction of your goal, without having to rely on willpower alone.

    What are your thoughts?

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  17. Agota Bialobzeskyte says:

    Hey, Gavin!

    I totally agree, it’s much better to focus on building habits, than to try to get things done through sheer willpower alone.

    Making adjustments in your environment also helps to decrease the amount of willpower you need. Say, when I wanted to drop the habit of drinking tea with loads of sugar, I stopped keeping black tea and sugar in the house, and started drinking green/camomile tea instead which doesn’t go well with sugar anyway. The easiest way to avoid temptations is not to have them around you.

    There are also “make or break” moments in most behavioral patterns. For example, I know that if I check my e-mail in the morning, that will lead to checking Twitter, and so on, until I’ve wasted an hour or two. Turning off wi-fi adapter in the evening made it much easier to go straight to writing in the morning. It’s much easier to change a behavior if you target the weak link in the sequence of actions.

  18. I love reading this inspring article. Speaking from my own experience, I think with the advance of internet revolution and social media influencing many aspects of our lives (Facebook, Twitter etc), we are constantly bombarded by various information. It takes enormous willpower not be distracted by the information overload. I know that this befalls many people. For example, when I am on public transport, I can see so many passengers have their eyes glued to their smart phones or tablets. It takes great effort not to be automatically sucked into this mindless activity. I do breathing meditation regularly and I have been experiencing the benefit from the practice. It is like a recharge mechanism. When my mind is so clogged up and confused, I practise meditation. At the end of the session, I could feel more relaxed and refreshed :)

  19. Agota Bialobzeskyte says:

    I totally agree with you on social media. I actually think that the attention span of an average person will decrease drastically over the coming several decades because of this constant influx of irrelevant information. Meditation definitely helps to cope with this :)

  20. Romane says:

    Wonderful article with alot of insights ,many people dont know much about their willpower ,I was introduced to this some years ago when i started my journey on self development.Meditation is very powerful and important ,but many persons dont practice because of the lack of self discipline and the stigma attach to meditation (only for Asians).Information overload is surely a problem because of the social media explosion and many persons are unaware of the negative effects of this ,we all need to go on a information diet and meditation is one way of doing this.

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  22. Agota Bialobzeskyte says:

    I didn’t know that there’s a stigma attached to meditation for Asians, can you tell me more about this?

    I agree on information overload, I have a hypothesis that our brain don’t have the ability to properly handle the influx of information we get from social media, and I think this drains our willpower that we need in other parts of our life. It would be interesting to test this.

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  24. krishna says:

    excellent article with lots of cool tips.

  25. Agota Bialobzeskyte says:

    I’m glad you liked it! :)

  26. This hits me. Sometimes I feel depress maybe that’s why, this one would help not only me but other people whose going through same situation and also to strengthen their weakness. Have you felt the same way before?

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  28. Jackie Paulson says:

    Meditation not “Medication” has to be the answer to a stress free life style iwth the will power to stay healthy and balanced…I quote you below because it helps others to see what you write. Bless you, Jackie (A FAN).
    Conclusion: don’t beat yourself up so hard!

    I think one of the most important conclusions that we can draw from the current research on willpower is that we should stop feeling guilty and blaming ourselves every time when we fail to use it successfully. More often than not, it’s the chemistry of our brain that is behind our lack of willpower, not our inherent character flaws. The same way it’s not reasonable to expect your muscles to exert unlimited amounts of strength, it’s not reasonable to expect your brain to exert unlimited amount of willpower. You have to understand that you have to train in order to increase your willpower the same way you train in order to increase your physical strength. Meditation for the win, people!

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  32. Arline George says:

    Excellent article explained in simple terms. Thank you & God Bless You

  33. vaibhav says:

    loved it ….gonna give a try

  34. Ajay Arora says:

    It makes sense to me…Thanks a ton

  35. eggnog says:

    The facebook twitter part was complete bullshit. All you need is focus. When you focus on important things and leave what’s unimportant behind you move on.

  36. Sathz kumar says:

    really nice explanation worth it

  37. I'll try says:

    I’ll do my best! You do yours :)

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  39. LovelyNordicHeidi says:

    Interesting article. Now I understand the phenomenon of hedonism better.

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