⌄ Scroll down to continue ⌄
Last Updated on


What Is Willpower And Is It Essential For Reaching Goals?

Written by Leon Ho
Founder & CEO of Lifehack
⌄ Scroll down to continue ⌄

They say willpower is the magic ingredient, the secret sauce that separates the winners from the rest. But what if we’ve been sold a myth? What if the key to success lies beyond the limits of willpower?

Prepare to discover why relying solely on willpower is like running a marathon on an empty tank.

What Is Willpower?

Willpower can be described as the ability to control or reject desires to indulge in harmful and useless habits. It also allows people to arrive at decisions and then follow them through with perseverance until success has been achieved. Additionally, willpower can help us delay gratification, which as humans, we’re hard-wired to want instantly.

To give you a concrete example of willpower, just think of school. Students need willpower to self-control themselves to maintain attention in class and to avoid breaking school rules to be seen as good students.

What Is Willpower And Is It Essential For Reaching Goals?

    In our modern age, willpower has become known as an important element in success. By has it always been this way?

    How We Came to Believe That Willpower Leads to Success

    What Is Willpower And Is It Essential For Reaching Goals?

      In ancient times we didn’t need willpower. Instead, we followed our natural instincts to survive.

      However, as civilization evolved, humans wanted to put things in order. We started to create rules for people to follow. And only by following these rules could someone get what they want and survive in modern society. Because of these rules, we started to make self-discipline a virtue, and we learned what willpower is.

      In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a Standford marshmallow experiment introduced by Walter Mischel, a professor at Stanford University, proved willpower was the key to success.[1] This experiment was a series of studies on delayed gratification. The study was simple but revealing. It tested children on a choice between the following rewards:

      1. Immediately being able to eat a marshmallow.
      2. Waiting 20 minutes and then being able to eat two marshmallows.

      The results of the study were fascinating. Children who were able to wait for the double reward typically fared better in later life than those children who took the instant gratification route.

      Because of this famous study, more emphasis began to be put on the benefits of strengthening willpower.

      Nowadays, it’s fair to say that willpower controls a lot of what we do – as we see it as something critical to reaching goals and achieving things. And it’s not just about I want power, but also about I will, and I won’t.

      Willpower training has also become big business. There are countless workshops, online seminars as well as best-selling booksTry searching for “willpower boost” on Google, and you’ll find thousands of results for articles that purport to show you the ways to do it.

      The Physiology Behind Willpower

      There’s a lot of similarity between stress and willpower. They both are not just something to feel in the brain but involve the whole body. In unlikely conditions, stress produces a fight-or-flight response in the body. Different chemicals are released in the brain that asks the body to perform certain actions; the same goes for willpower.

      When it’s time for self-control, the body produces a pause-and-plan response. But here, the condition leads the body towards a much calmer state. The prefrontal cortex in the brain receives more energy that helps analyze the situation and control temptation and cravings. As a result, you understand your actions and feel motivated to do the right thing. That’s how willpower works.[2]

      The Limited Power of Willpower

      What Is Willpower And Is It Essential For Reaching Goals?

        However, most people’s willpower remains weak. For them, there’s always some lack of willpower. Some of the reasons for this are:

        • Emotions – which can affect our motivation levels.
        • Our physical condition – which can be impacted by sleep (for example).
        • Previous failures – repeating these in our minds kill our willpower.

        On top of the above issues, you may have noticed that even when you have an abundance of willpower, it has its limits. Every day, in one form or another, you exert willpower. For instance, if you resist eating a tasty piece of chocolate cake offered to you, then you’ve had to use emotional and mental power.

        Willpower is similar to muscle. If we overuse it, we get tired. In other words, willpower is a limited resource.[3]

        How to Reach Your Goals with Limited Willpower

        Willpower isn’t necessary to achieve your goal and it’s a mistake that many people fall into. Your aim is to look for a combination of motivation, consistency, and willpower that will help you to set realistic goals.

        A classic example of overexerting willpower is college students studying for finals. In the final week leading to it, the students muster up all of their willpower to study and find that everything immediately collapses. They will eat anything that they can find, drink to destress, and many are fine with sitting in their sweatpants all day.

        Seeing as willpower isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, what you need is a solid system that keeps you focused and motivated throughout a challenging process. Put systems first and willpower second. Willpower is nearly useless if you do not allow it to work alongside a personal success system.


        What is this system that I refer to? It’s a system that creates the right conditions in your mind and environment, which help make your success a surefire outcome. With this type of system in place, willpower will simply be an extra bonus in helping you to reach success. But to be clear, with the right system, even if your willpower fails, you’ll still keep on the road to success and achievement.

        The idea behind the system is that choice architecture is stronger than sheer willpower. If you are trying to eat healthily, the first thing to do is deal with cravings. This means clearing out your fridge and cupboards of anything that will take you away from that goal. Replace junk food with healthier options. Buy more fruit instead of candy and chocolate. Buy more vegetables rather than popcorn or crackers.

        These are the essential steps to building your own success system:

        What Is Willpower And Is It Essential For Reaching Goals?

          What Is Willpower And Is It Essential For Reaching Goals?

            What Is Willpower And Is It Essential For Reaching Goals?

              1. Know What Makes You Happy

              By knowing what makes you happy, you’ll also reveal what motivates you. This is important.

              Take a look around at others, or delve into your past, and you will find that willpower falters when people encounter failure or come across negative events. This clearly demonstrates that willpower is affected by external factors, thus making it unreliable.

              Knowing what makes you happy is the perfect way to stay motivated to reach your goals – even when your willpower crumbles. This can be through rewarding yourself by watching a great movie (once you’ve achieved a goal milestone), or by simply enjoying the inner bliss you receive when walking on the pathway that keeps you happy, motivated, and successful.

              2. Create an Environment that is Conducive to Success

              Think for a moment about willpower. On its own, it doesn’t place any emphasis on changing your environment, instead, it puts its focus on overcoming your environment. It’s no wonder that when limited willpower begins to fail, people succumb to environmental influences – despite their best efforts to resist.

              As human beings, we are consciously and unconsciously influenced by what’s around us. These could be the news we read, the stories our friends tell us, and even the influence our home has on us.


              The secret is to, where possible, create an environment that helps (not hinders) the reaching of your goals. For example, if you want to stop binge eating snacks, give away all your snacks to others, and make sure you can’t reach any kind of snacks at your workplace or home.

              Your environment can also be used to directly support your goals. For instance, if you want to be a professional artist, surround yourself with professional artists.

              3. Plot Progress

              Knowing what you’ve accomplished will give you evidence that you’ve been successful in the past. When you start doubting yourself, take a look at the progress you’ve made.

              Is There Any Way to Increase Willpower?

              When you know how to integrate the system into your life, you can work on your willpower. Willpower is a limited resource, but you can use it for your own benefit.[4] Using the below-mentioned points will also help you to understand the true meaning of willpower.

              1. Feed Your Brain

              Skipping meals is simply bad for your brain and even worse if you want to learn how to improve your willpower. The brain is our decision-making muscle, and its ability to provide us with the necessary willpower to make correct decisions is influenced by whether it is sufficiently fed.

              We should eat regular meals, ideally low-glycemic foods, healthy proteins, vegetables, and complex carbohydrates. This way, we can avoid a glucose rush (associated with sweets and simple carbs) that immediately plummets.


              You can check out some of the best brain foods here.

              2. Work on One Change at a Time

              Willpower and motivation can be increased, but it is a slow and gradual process (just like increasing muscle mass). We are working with a fixed amount of it daily. We can’t change everything all at once, and we can’t massively change our lives at stressful times. If we want to see real change, we should start small and tackle one long-term goal at a time.

              3. Use Dark Chocolate for an Energy Boost

              Sometimes we are in a position where we need to make a quick decision, and it feels tough when we haven’t yet learned how to increase willpower. Taking a bite of dark chocolate offers a small energy boost that helps our brains with the decision.[5]

              4. Get a Good Night’s Sleep

              Adequate rest improves our self-control and provides an optimal environment for the brain to function. Rest reduces the body’s need for glucose, and it allows the body to make better use of what we have. Adequate rest is generally 7-8 hours a night for an adult and 10-12 hours a night for a child.[6].

              5. Steer Clear of Temptation

              People with lots of self-control don’t need to exercise their willpower as often. They already understand the meaning of willpower. Therefore, when willpower is required, it is strong and in steady supply.

              You can increase your willpower by not putting yourself in situations where willpower is required and by steering clear of those “danger spots” where temptation is present, and willpower is necessary. This way, the strength of willpower will boost and can be used at the right time.


              But it’s impossible to avoid all temptation as you’re working on how to increase willpower. For the cases when you run into it, you need to have a plan in place to help you resist it and avoid making poor decisions. For example, if you know your co-worker always brings in donuts on Fridays, and you’re on a diet, what plan can you put in place to avoid caving to temptation and grabbing two or three?

              Having a predetermined plan can significantly increase our willpower when presented with temptation.

              6. Develop Small but Powerful Habits

              Research confirms that good habits help us as we learn how to increase willpower. Even if we start with something simple, like making our beds, this can have a powerful, positive effect on our willpower. This occurs because these small habits build self-discipline and self-control, spreading to other areas of our life.

              7. Make a Manageable To-Do List

              Everyone has some form of a to-do list, whether it’s on paper or not. We may not realize it, but this ubiquitous productivity tool may actually be increasing our stress and decreasing our willpower.

              When we create endless lists and leave tasks perpetually undone, our subconscious nags us about it, and we end up worrying far more than acting. When we do this, we get in a bad mood, and our emotional state plays into our ability to resist temptation.

              8. Take Frequent Breaks

              It is impossible to exercise perfect self-control all the time. We simply run out of willpower and end up making poor decisions if we don’t supplement ourselves with rest and breaks.

              Take a nap from time to time, grab a (healthy) bite to eat, watch a little TV for a minute or two, and then get back to your tasks and goals as you’re learning how to increase willpower.


              When you do this, you come back refreshed, and you’ll have more willpower to produce better work.

              9. Meditate for 5 Minutes a Day

              Take five minutes and just focus on your breath. Detach for only five minutes from the chaos around you as you work on how to strengthen your willpower.

              Every time your mind wanders, you have to expend energy to get it back on track, tapping into your reservoir of willpower. The simple act of building self-awareness through mediation will help you in your impulse tendency.

              When we become mindful, we are also engaging that part of our brain that we need for willpower rather than just letting our impulses take over.

              Here’s a 5-minute Guide to Meditation: Anywhere, Anytime

              10. Remember Your “Why”

              What is the purpose of changing our behavior and learning how to gain willpower in the first place? What are we trying to accomplish, and what will we lose if we give in to our bad habits?

              When we consistently remind ourselves of the answers to these questions, our willpower is increased to stick to our plans.

              11. Choose a Reward in Advance

              For a given change, if we first determine a reward in advance, our willpower to follow through on our change will be increased.

              Our brain is hardwired to pursue positive rewards when learning how to increase willpower. This can be as small as a piece of chocolate or as big as a vacation. Match the task to a reward in order to make the most of your willpower.


              Final Thoughts

              Willpower is not the be-all and end-all we’ve been taught to believe. While it’s certainly a component of success, it’s nowhere near as important as all the self-help gurus claim.

              As I’ve discussed above, having a system and a goal are much more powerful factors in success than willpower. So, now you know the truth about success, take the steps I’ve suggested, and begin achieving more than you ever thought possible.


              Don't have time for the full article? Read this.

              What Is Willpower And Is It Essential For Reaching Goals?

              Willpower can be described as the ability to control or reject desires to indulge in harmful and useless habits. Willpower has become known as an important element in success recently, but it is overrated.

              A Standford marshmallow experiment, introduced by Walter Mischel in the late 1960s and early 1970s, made people believe in willpower. This experiment was a series of studies on delayed gratification; the children who were able to wait for the double reward typically fared better in later life than those children who took the instant gratification route.

              However, even when you have an abundance of willpower, it has its limits. You must follow a system to reach your goals and dreams, as willpower cannot help you achieve your goals alone. So you have to put systems first and willpower second.

              A system creates the right conditions in your mind and environment which help make your success a surefire outcome. With this type of system in place, willpower will simply be an extra bonus in helping you to reach success.

              To have a success system you need to focus on two things: creating an environment that leads to success and knowing what makes you happy. Both of these things with willpower can take you towards success.

              Featured photo credit: Ev via unsplash.com


              [1]American Psychological Association: The Marshmallow Test: Mastering self-control.
              [2]Stanford Medicine: The Science of Willpower
              [3]American Psychology Association: What You Need to Know about Willpower
              [4]American Psychological Association: Is Willpower a Limited Resource
              [5]Curr Res Food Sci.: Dark chocolate: An overview of its biological activity, processing, and fortification approaches
              [6]Sleep Foundation: How Much Sleep Do We Really Need?
              ⌄ Scroll down to continue ⌄
              ⌄ Scroll down to continue ⌄
              ⌄ Scroll down to continue ⌄
              ⌄ Scroll down to continue ⌄
              ⌄ Scroll down to continue ⌄