Are We Giving Willpower Too Much Credit?

Last Updated:Sunday, May 28, 2023
  • Catherine Morin

Today, most of us associate success with willpower. We tend to consider the ability to resist temptation as the key to eating right, exercising regularly, avoiding alcohol and drugs, overcoming procrastination, saving money, and achieving all sorts of other noble goals.

There is, therefore, a strong assumption that unhealthy habits and incapacity to meet objectives result from insufficient determination. Is that truly the case? Are we giving willpower’s alleged benefits too much credit?

While most people have an intuitive sense of how willpower operates, many lack the scientific knowledge that helps understand its core principles.

A clearer picture of what willpower is

People use different terms to describe willpower: determination, drive, self-discipline, self-control, or self-regulation. The Oxford Dictionary defines it as the “control exerted to do something or restrain impulses.”

Psychologists characterize the concept in more specific ways. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), most psychology researchers consider willpower as the ability to resist immediate temptations with a desire to reach long-term goals. It requires conscious effort and a significant investment of cognitive resources.

For many specialists, willpower also involves the capacity to employ a cognitive system of behavior rather than one based on emotions.

These definitions are linked by the general idea of a conscious, effortful regulation of the self, by the self.

But should making good decisions and managing habits really be that hard?  

“If I had more willpower...”

Many people blame their failure to maintain good habits or reach specific objectives on a lack of willpower. Statements like “I would be able to find a better job/ quit smoking/get healthier if I had more willpower” have become default reasoning.

Conventional wisdom holds that individuals who are good at inhibiting their impulses have a lot of willpower and know how to use it. Popular psychology of self-improvement keeps spreading this deep-rooted thinking, fostering an environment for countless people to believe that their unhealthy life patterns or incapacity to make changes results from insufficient determination.

Seeing some of your friends ignore tasty food or drinks without flinching, always pay their bills on time, and never miss a workout session may give the impression that certain people are gifted with natural, unbreakable willpower.

However, modern psychology increasingly questions the relevance of self-control when it comes to achieving established goals or developing healthy habits.

The “ego depletion effect” proves willpower is a limited resource

While some people seem to naturally possess more willpower than others, most psychology specialists agree that the ability to exert self-control fluctuates based on the circumstances.

Every day, you must exert self-control in one form or another. Whether it is resisting the urge to skip a meeting or class, turning down a second piece of chocolate cake, or biting your tongue when you would like to make an inappropriate remark, your will is continuously tested.

Studies show that using mental and emotional power to withstand repeated temptations may diminish your strength to resist subsequent impulses.

To better illustrate this phenomenon, known as the "ego depletion effect", psychologists compare willpower to a muscle that can lose its strength from overuse and become ineffectual in the short term.

This theory would explain, for example, why we tend to abandon all constructive plans and indulge in relaxing activities as soon as we get back from the office. Even though we know it may be unproductive to binge on snacks in front of the TV, we tend to see this form of leisure as a well-deserved reward for working so hard. Or, we indulge in the act and suffer from productivity guilt later on.

Either way, ego depletion is real and could at times be at the root of what drives you to the couch.

The concept of ego depletion started receiving scientific support in 1998 when psychologist Roy Baumeister at Case Western Reserve University conducted an experiment that gave rise to the modern conception of willpower.

For the study, Baumeister and his colleagues brought participants into a room filled with the smell of fresh-baked cookies. A table before them held a plate of the treats and another plate full of radishes.

Some subjects got to indulge their sweet tooth, while others had to eat the radishes. All participants then had 30 minutes to solve a difficult geometric puzzle.

The researchers found that those who ate radishes gave up on the puzzle after about eight minutes, while the cookie-eaters persevered for almost 20 minutes. It seemed that exerting willpower to resist the cookies drained the participants’ self-control for the following test.  

Since its publication, Baumeister’s work has been cited over 3000 times by academic peers, and multiple studies have built a case for ego depletion.

In a more recent, 2018 experiment, scientists from the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Minnesota asked subjects to suppress their feelings and show no reaction as they watched notoriously disgusting movie scenes. Another group of participants had to view the same sequences but were allowed to express their revulsion.

The researchers found that subjects who had to keep their emotions bottled up showed higher signs of aggressive behavior afterward than those who had shown how they felt from the beginning.

Both experiments suggest that people do not possess a constant, predetermined amount of willpower. The fact that levels of determination fluctuate throughout the day indicates that we cannot rely solely on self-control to create good habits and reach goals.

Self-control and routine sitting in a tree . . .

Recent research suggests that most of our behaviors are not guided by willpower.

In 2015, psychologists Angela Duckworth and Brian Galla performed a literature review and found that across six studies and over 2,000 participants individuals with heightened self-control also tend to have good habits, like sleeping well, eating healthy, and exercising regularly.

“People who are good at self-control… seem to be structuring their lives in a way to avoid having to make a self-control decision in the first place,” Galla explained in a recent interview with Vox’s Brian Resnick.  

Galla argues that people who structure their lives by doing the same activities at the same time each day tend to reach their goals, not because of their willpower, but because having a routine makes things easier.  

These people are solely relying on a solid routine for good habits like fitting in exercise, helping the kids do their homework, cooking healthy meals, or paying bills on time without thinking about it too much.

Duckworth and Galla’s research suggests willpower may be an illusion created by a series of habitual patterns.

Habits are stronger than the will to change

A study conducted by researchers at Duke University in 2006 found that over 40% of the actions we perform each day are not decisions, but habits.

According to Charles Duhigg, reporter and author of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, regular patterns emerge without our consent. To conserve energy, the brain creates a mental routine that looks for a trigger to cue a specific behavior, which helps us operate on automatic mode.

To ensure that our automatic responses are positives, we can set up circumstances that cue us to perform the right actions and eventually turn them into habits.

According to Duhigg, we can completely rewire our brains by creating triggers that associate activities we know we should do with positive experiences.

In an article written for The New York Times, he illustrates this theory with the example of someone who wants to start exercising regularly.

To form a habit of running every morning after breakfast, for instance, you must choose a simple cue (like always leaving your sneakers beside your bed, or going for a jog at the same time each day) and a clearly defined reward. In this case, the reward can take the form of positive results inherent in jogging, like endorphin rush or improved muscle endurance. However, these benefits might not be enough at first.

“To teach your brain to associate exercise with a reward, you need to give yourself something you truly enjoy — like a small piece of chocolate — after your workout,” Duhigg suggests. By eating chocolate after each running session, your brain will eventually link the treat and the workout into one positive experience.

Duhigg does address what you may already be thinking: Given that many people start exercising to lose weight, this idea of eating chocolate after a run may seem counterintuitive. However, as the reporter explains, the purpose is to train the brain to associate a cue with a routine and a reward. He believes eventually your mind will start looking forward to the genuine reward related to regular jogging—the endorphin rush—and you will no longer need the chocolate.

As Duhigg puts it, before you start expecting and enjoying the benefits of your workout,  you need to “jump-start the process.”

We can apply this cognitive trick to many everyday situations. When it’s time for spring cleaning or doing your taxes you can decide to put on music that makes you happy or relaxed and afterward treat yourself with a cold beer (or two) or some other refreshing beverage once you’re finished. Eventually, your brain may link tedious chores to a good playlist and a refreshing beverage.

Employing this association trick as often as possible may help one to develop and, most importantly, maintain good habits.

Committing to objectives may help

In a recent article, Quartz’s Ephrat Livni suggests that writing down our objectives may be an effective way to apply Duhigg’s theory. She explains that committing to an idea by writing it down makes it seem more concrete, which forces our brain to acknowledge the realities we must face and actions we should take.

“We make to-do lists not just because we’ll forget what we have to do, but because writing down goals turns reaching them into a series of satisfying items we can cross off the list,” Livni points out. “It’s a trick we play on our brains, which might otherwise be inclined to cheat by avoiding contemplating the very things that we should face to feel better about ourselves.”    

Identifying the components that form our habit loops helps us figure out what’s behind the curtains of our lousy habits—ie. what desires are we attempting to fill?—ultimately making it easier to establish healthier routines.

It’s all about the beginning of the journey

The common belief is that we must set specific goals to achieve what we want in life, such as having a successful career, getting into better shape, or spending more time with family and friends.

James Clear, a leading expert on habit formation, argues that focusing on the determination to reach goals might not be the most successful approach.

Clear’s recent book Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones exposes a theory in which bad habits repeat themselves not because we don’t want to change, but because we use the wrong system for change.

According to Clear, most people tend to optimize their lives for a finish line. They focus on where they want to go instead of working on improving their current life patterns. But Clear believes we must concentrate on the start of our journey rather than the finish so we can build systems that will take us to where we want to go.

“It doesn’t matter how successful or unsuccessful you are right now,” he writes. “What matters is whether your habits are putting you on the path toward success…you get what you repeat.”

It is not the quest to achieve one perfect goal that makes us better, but the skills we develop by putting consistent work in and learning from our mistakes.

On Clear’s website, he illustrates the above concept with an example of someone who wants to become a great photographer. That person could go on a quest to take one perfect photo each day or decide to take over 100 pictures per day and learn from their mistakes to get better and truly master their craft.  

Clear’s book describes in detail how embracing this philosophy can help us create healthy routines, break bad ones, and quite simply just feel a little bit better every day.

Is willpower overhyped?

While willpower may be necessary to overcome hard situations or avoid falling back into bad habits, research suggests it doesn’t work well in the long run.

People struggling with a diet may represent one of the most eloquent examples of willpower’s limited effect. However, people who pursue a healthy lifestyle shift—practicing a healthy habit, as opposed to a diet fueled by willpower—will experience more success.

Considering that motivation can fluctuate due to diverse factors and that most of our actions are not decisions, we cannot rely solely on willpower when it comes to developing healthy life patterns or meeting objectives.

The strong assumption that exerting self-control leads to success has persisted for so many years that we still tend to confuse failures of inhibition for moral failings. We blame weight gain on a lack of willpower, for instance, even though many genetic and environmental factors are at play. We may also blame addicts for succumbing to their urges even though their dependence has a biological hold on them.

However, acknowledging that certain addictive behaviors or ingrained habits may be beyond the control of willpower marks a significant step toward finding practical solutions for living better.

Defining life goals remains a healthy process, as long as we avoid focusing exclusively on desired outcomes. Concentrating on the work that comes before success, and the habits that will lead us to where we want to go may be the secret to maintaining a healthy and fulfilling lifestyle.