A Simple Framework to Begin Building Willpower

Willpower. Perhaps you’ve described yourself or another as having or lacking it. It could have been in relation to any concept that requires the ability to delay gratification and resist short-term temptations to meet long-term goals.

We often think of willpower in terms of exerting some degree of effort to regulate ourselves from something – whether it’s avoiding a piece of cheesecake now for the eventual payoff of healthy weight or saving money now instead of spending it for the reward of a planned trip for pleasure in the future. The American Psychological Association describes willpower as a limited resource, capable of being depleted. And perhaps for some, it may feel like a battery that is never fully charged or runs out of juice too quickly. But it doesn’t always have to feel like a struggle. It doesn’t have to feel like a constantly fatiguing concept or energy-suck.

I recently had a client, whom I’ve been working with for a number of months now, tell me that she identified a newfound strength of hers. Identifying, discussing, and utilizing a client’s strengths is a core piece of the coaching process, and this client, who has achieved a considerable amount of success in her health and wellness journey, now identified herself as someone who has a large amount of willpower. It was like she had been training for it all along – strengthening her willpower muscle until it was something she took pride in, embodied.

I thought of her as I was reading The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. In it, willpower is described as both a skill and a muscle, “like the muscles in your arms or legs”. People begin their day with a finite amount that depletes if overused, leaving less power in the tank for other things.

In the alternative, willpower is learnable and it’s variable to other factors such as the sense of agency or control one has over a situation or their experience. That’s part of the power of changing your behaviors for the better. You’re not only changing the tangible things you can see but the behavioral outcomes that aren’t always visible or seemingly easy to measure or track.

Every time you consciously override an unwanted thought, feeling, or impulse, you are strengthening your willpower. Little by little, day by day. And, in the end, the choices you make for personal reasons – perhaps the ones you find joy in, that hold meaning, or help another person – will always trump the ones you feel you have less autonomy over, the choices you feel you should make or have to make.

Long-term success involves exercising willpower. Willpower strengthens like a muscle, over time and with effort. Willpower drains less quickly when you feel you are in control of your experience, even when things get hard. The more frequently you exercise it, the easier it will become.

A simple framework to begin building willpower is this: Find the meaning. Make your next choice out of love and personal empowerment. Then make the choice again and again.

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