Willpower: Staying on Track

Posted by | Feb 1, 2013

Many of us live in a world where we can pretty much have anything we want at any point. Hungry? Grab something from the freezer and pop it in the microwave, or have food delivered. Need to do some research? Jump on the Internet. Need to ask a friend a question? Text them now. Want that new pair of boots? Pull out the credit card. The Internet, microwaves, cell phones, fast food, and credit cards are all wonderfully convenient, however, they are adding to a culture of instant gratification, and we may not have the brainpower to deal with it all. As more and more options are immediately available to us, it is becoming harder to exert the willpower to keep us committed to our goals. Kathleen Vohs, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota, notes that "here is research that shows people still have the same self-control as in decades past, but we are bombarded more and more with temptations," and that "our psychological system is not set up to deal with all the potential immediate gratification."

In this context, self-control is defined as goal setting, and willpower is moving from the current place to where you want to go. We are constantly exercising willpower and self-control, but the problem is that willpower is like a muscle and fatigues. Like a bicep, it can only exert itself so long before it gives out.

The brain area that is largely responsible for willpower is the prefrontal cortex, which is located just behind the forehead. Besides willpower and helping us stick to our resolutions, the prefrontal cortex has many other things to worry about. For instance, keeping us focused, handling short-term memory and solving abstract problems. Asking it to make sure we get to the gym, stay off of Facebook and make sure all of our homework is done on time is often asking it to do too many things.

When the prefrontal cortex is overtaxed, willpower weakens. A tired brain, preoccupied with its problems, is going to struggle to resist what it wants, even when what it wants is not what we needs to do.

The assumption that many of us make is that self-control is a character trait. If we are only more disciplined we would be more successful. However, the situation may not be as simple as that. Resent research is suggesting that willpower itself is inherently limited, and that our promises and resolutions fail in part because the brain was not built to handle the constant onslaught of temptations. If we ask our muscles to do too much, they will eventually give out. Tired muscles need rest and time to recuperate. The same is required of the prefrontal cortex.

How can we protect our prefrontal cortex and willpower? Consider the idea that willpower is like a battery. It has a finite amount of energy. We need to ensure that we both feed our willpower, and use the energy judiciously. Willpower requires real energy. The brain needs glucose and calories. If we do not feed our brain well, our behaviour can be negatively impacted. We also need to be selective about using our willpower. Consider how external factors play a role in guiding our behaviour. Habits and systems matter. Habits allow us to bypass our willpower. Once a good habit is developed, we no longer have to think about the behaviour. We are no longer using our willpower, and we have more energy and willpower available to devote to other things. Establishing routines that allow us to move into action without thinking and debating can be wonderfully supportive.

Setting up systems and using automated supports can be very effective. For example, rather than using up our willpower to avoid time-sucking websites (Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest), we can off-load our willpower to a tool made specifically to help us avoid web distractions when we really need to work. Examples include StayFocsed, SelfControl and Concentrate that block our access to selected websites at selected times. Using external controls helps prevent us from having to control our own behaviour. If you feel you check your e-mail too frequently, install a program to shut it down temporarily. Learning to harness the power of habits and external controls will help us achieve our goals with less frustration than if we just rely solely on willpower.


Herbert, Wray. "The Willpower Paradox." Scientific American (2010): Print. Lehrer, Jonah. "Blame It on the Brain: The Latest Neuroscience Research Suggests Spreading Resolutions Out Over Time Is the Best Approach." Wall Street Journal (2009): Print. Tugend, Alina. "Pumping Up the Self-Control in the Age of Temptations." The New York Times 8 Oct. 2010: Print.