Sometimes the sensation creeps up on your or comes on suddenly: You have no energy to do anything. Work feels like a slog. You put off household chores like washing dishes or taking out the trash. In between, you settle for takeout because it requires minimal effort. Day after day, the sensation persists, and rather than attribute it to lifestyle habits, you conclude that you have a lack of willpower.
According to psychologist Caterina Lino, "Overall, self-control appears to be a better predictor of academic achievement than intelligence. It is also a stronger determinant of effective leadership than charisma, and more important for marital satisfaction than empathy."
Willpower and Your Brain
Do you believe you lack willpower? The reality is, you probably have more than you know. The truth is, everyone has two parts in their brain that are often in conflict. There is an older, "primitive brain" governed by the pleasure principle; it wants what it wants right now. Another part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex (PFC), is responsible for rational thought, planning, analysis and regulating behavior. The PFC is the reservoir of our willpower.
The PFC arose later in the course of human evolution and has expanded as the human species developed. It is also slower to develop in each human being, not fully maturing until around the age of 25. It can also be consciously increased by certain practices, which we'll talk about later.
As Stanford University psychologist Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., author of The Willpower Instinct, points out, although we have one brain, we are often "of two minds" and can be almost completely different people depending on which of the two parts of our brain is in control.
McGonigal is interested in finding ways we can strengthen the control of our PFCs, something that has become increasingly important as our environment becomes more and more stressful.
Stress in Relation to Willpower
Excessive stress seriously undermines the PFC, causing us to frantically seek pleasure as an escape.
Dr. McGonigal warns, "The biology of stress and the biology of self-control are incompatible. The fight-or-flight response floods the body with energy to act instinctively and steals it from the areas of the brain needed for wise decision-making. Stress also encourages you to focus on immediate, short-term goals and outcomes, but self-control requires keeping the big picture in mind."
So, stress reduction is one very important way to strengthen your willpower. McGonigal especially recommends meditation and exercise (either strenuous or meditative) for stress reduction. Over time, both have been shown to increase the size of the PFC and to strengthen self-regulation in all kinds of ways.
The Effects of Exercise on Willpower
In a classic study on exercise and willpower, researchers did nothing more than offer free health club memberships to a group of men and women who had not been working out regularly, along with encouragement to make use of it. During the first month, those who took advantage of the membership averaged working out once a week. By the end of two months, they were averaging three times a week.
The exercisers reported " significant decreases in perceived stress, emotional distress, smoking, alcohol and caffeine consumption, and an increase in healthy eating, emotional control, maintenance of household chores, attendance to commitments, monitoring of spending and an improvement in study habits."
As noted by McGonigal, although it took a little effort (willpower) to start exercising, these exercisers got huge dividends in terms of increased willpower affecting just about every area of their lives!
In thinking about the relationship between the PFC, stress and willpower, these factors should also be taken into account:
- Getting enough sleep (7-9 hours) also nourishes your PFC. Who hasn't succumbed to high-calorie comfort foods or made other poor choices when they've been sleep-deprived? According to Dr. McGonigal, sleep deprivation (less than six hours a night), is a stressor that weakens your PFC. It can impair your judgment as much as alcohol or attention deficit disorder.
- Don't ask too much of your will! Piling on too many challenges will also deplete your willpower, which is like a battery that starts out fully charged in the morning and degrades over the course of the day as it meets challenge after challenge.
- Diet is also important. McGonigal references research showing that a plant-based, low-processed foods diet increases energy to the brain, which can improve every aspect of willpower, while a low-glycemic diet will prevent energy spikes that deplete the brain.
What happens when you have a willpower failure? Do guilt and self-criticism help get you back on track? To the contrary, many studies have shown that feeling bad about yourself makes it that much harder to resist temptation the next time! The drive to feel good will shift control back into the hands of the primitive brain. Self-forgiveness and compassion, on the other hand, will strengthen your PFC.
McGonigal recommends the following self-compassion exercise:
- Allow your feelings. The primitive brain seizes control when you try to avoid unpleasant feelings.
- Recognize your common humanity. You're only human. You aren't uniquely flawed, wrong or weak. It happens to everyone.
- Offer yourself encouragement rather than criticism.
- Lino C. The psychology of willpower: Training the brain for better decisions. positivepsychology.com. March 28, 2022 . Over the last 5 million years, the human brain has tripled in size, while the PFC has increased its size by a factor of six.
- McGonigal K. The willpower instinct: Talks at Google. February 1, 2012.
- Ungless J. 4 ways to reinforce your willpower , Headspace.com. Accessed April 21, 2022.
- Oaten M. Longitudinal gains in self-regulation from regular physical exercise. British Journal of Health Psychology. November 2006;11 (Pt 4):717-33.