Willpower, Won’t Power, and Want Power

Have you ever set the intention to eat a more healthful diet? You pass up the doughnuts at work, eat a salad for lunch, snack on almonds or raw veggies in the afternoon . . . then at home, after work, you find yourself sitting on the 2nd shelf of the refrigerator, eating everything in sight. Or you decide to start an exercise program and to go to the gym directly after work. You load your gym bag in the car . . . but at the end of the day, you are so tired, you drive straight home – past the gym – and collapse in a heap in front of the TV. What happened to your willpower?

Roy Baumeister, a leading researcher in the psychology of willpower, has shown that willpower is like a muscle. As you use it during the day, your willpower “muscle” weakens and becomes depleted. [Baumeister]

Self-control has 3 components.

Self-control has 3 components: willpower, won’t power, and want power.

Willpower: doing what you need to do even if you don’t want to or don’t feel like it.

Won’t Power: saying no to temptation.

Want Power: saying ”no” when you need to say “no” and “yes” when you need to say “yes” and remembering what you really want when you face temptation.

How willpower is depleted.

Researchers have discovered a number of tasks that use up willpower. Performing these tasks makes it harder to draw on willpower afterwards. Some tasks that might appear to require willpower actually do not deplete it at all. Here are some things you might think would deplete willpower but actually do not: Performing a task that is mentally challenging, such as solving a puzzle; being mentally or physically fatigued; having low self-esteem. These have their own unique challenges but none of them require you to use willpower.

But there are plenty of things you do during the course of the day that weaken the willpower “muscle”.

  • Making decisions. Every time you make a choice, some of your willpower stores are used up. [Achor 166]
  • Suppressing normal urges, such as saying or doing something inappropriate, like laughing during a serious discussion. [Miller 95]
  • Trying not to think about something (“Don’t think of a white elephant.”) as when you need to concentrate on a project at work while you have an important personal issue to deal with. [Miller 95]
  • Having conflicting goals, such as passing up a plate of cookies for a healthier snack. [Achor 153]

In research trial after trial, performing tasks like these made it more difficult for participants to draw on willpower in a subsequent task. [Achor 153]

What is your willpower challenge?

Every willpower challenge requires you to do something difficult. What is your willpower challenge? [Hint: What is one thing you could start doing or stop doing that would have a major impact on your life?]

Which is harder – the willpower or the won’t power?

What makes it so difficult?

How do you feel when you think about doing (or not doing) it?

How to strengthen willpower

There are two proven interventions that immediately restore willpower: 1) Make yourself laugh and 2) eat a small amount of sugar. However, just as physical exercise strengthens muscles, there are exercises to strengthen your willpower “muscle” and increase stamina. Anyone can improve their self-control through practice.

Examples of exercises to boost willpower:

  • Follow a regular exercise program.
  • Start a money management program.
  • Get rid of clutter.
  • Monitor and maintain your daily food intake.
  • Monitor and correct your posture.
  • Use your non-dominant hand.
  • Meditate.

How to strengthen “I won’t” power

  • Change a speech pattern.
    (Examples: Commit to not swearing; drop “like” or “you know” from your speech, you know?)
  • Commit to one small, consistent act of self-control.
    (Examples: Improve your posture; keep track of spending; limit sweets; use your non-dominant hand to brush your teeth, open doors, etc.)

How to strengthen “I will” power

  • Commit to doing something each day.
    (Examples: Call your mother; meditate for 5 minutes; find one thing that needs to be discarded or recycled.)

How to strengthen “I want” power (self-monitoring)

  • Formally track something you usually don’t pay close attention to.
    (Examples: Track what you eat; track what you spend money for; track how much time you spend watching TV or surfing the internet.)

Master your willpower challenge

Thinking about your specific willpower challenge consider these questions. You may want to jot down your answers on a notepad or in your journal.

  • How do you feel (or how did you feel) when you first started on your current goal or objective (Excited? Fearful? Confused? Confident? Enthusiastic? All of the above?)
  • When are you the most highly motivated?
  • When do you hit motivational speed bumps?
  • What has worked for you in the past when you’ve hit a slump?
  • What are some resources (people, places, things) you can draw on in a pinch when you need a motivational or willpower boost?

Now, write a letter to yourself, to the future you who is struggling to stay motivated from the you who is pumped and full of enthusiasm. Or if your motivation has flagged, step back in time to the moment you first started on your goal journey and remember how excited you were. Write the letter you’d like to receive now.

Dear ______________,

When I first started on this goal journey, I felt _________________________________.

I wish I could always feel this way: _____________________________________________.

So, if I hit a motivational slump, such as ________________________________________, I will use these things to help myself get back on track: ________________________________________________.

Signed _______________________
Date ___________________

Put your letter in a convenient spot where you can get to it in the event of a motivational breakdown. Then when you feel stuck, when you have difficulty remembering why you wanted this in the first place, when the pull of old habits is strong, take out your letter for a motivation booster. You can do this! And that is embracing the Excelerated Life!

Excelerated willpower — becoming highly self-regulated — is one step in creating your Excelerated life, a life of well-being, meaning, and purpose.


The Effective Use of Willpower

5 Replies to “Willpower, Won’t Power, and Want Power”

  1. Steve i have just delved into your site. You ask things like how do you feel. Well as for me this moment I’m excited and very proud you are my family. I love this. You got all the smarts in the family and I’m talking mine and Randy’s. Love you very much.

    1. Cathy – thank you so much. I am fortunate to belong to a loving & supporting family (on both sides!).
      We all have “smarts” – just in different ways.
      Love you!

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