Willpower - The Art of Self-Control



We’ve all been there; It’s early in the morning and the alarm goes off, signaling it is time to wake up and get ready for work. 

But, no matter how packed our days are, it takes a lot of energy to resist hitting that 'snooze' button. In moments like this, we rely on our willpower - a special kind of energy that motivates us to do what's important.

What is Willpower?

We need a specific type of energy or self-control to say 'yes' when something needs to be done and 'no' when something should be avoided. But, to reach our goals and do what matters, we need the third type of energy: the ability to remember what we really want to accomplish. 

Our willpower is reflected in the perfect alignment of these three types of energies.

But, how come it’s so hard to say ‘no’ to a delicious piece of cake, and ‘yes’ to rise and shine at 6 a.m.?

It all comes down to the two parts of the brain - the older part, also known as the 'reptile brain,' and the newer part. The older part, sometimes referred to as the 'monkey brain' as well, is our evolution legacy and is responsible for satisfying the urges, short-term thinking, emotions, reacting to immediate impulses, and others. This part of the brain tells us to satisfy the need we have immediately. Early on, when we were cave dwellers, it served us greatly and helped us survive. It can also serve us today in certain situations, such as reacting quickly in traffic.

However, we also have a part of the brain that’s called the prefrontal cortex, located just behind the forehead and eyes. It's responsible for imagination, managing complex cognitive behavior, decision making, and analyzing. Scientists believe that we use this part of the brain to force ourselves to do the more challenging things. In other words, it's responsible for our willpower.

Depending on the situation we are in, we use both parts of the brain during the day. We need willpower when conflict occurs between the two parts and when it’s necessary for the prefrontal cortex to somehow "beat" the monkey brain, allowing us to do something that will bring satisfaction in the long run and helping us stay on track with our goals.

Let's go back to that delicious piece of cake. Imagine your colleague is celebrating their birthday and offers you a slice. The monkey brain is screaming for it, telling you to have a piece of that deliciousness. However, you want to lose weight, and your prefrontal cortex is telling you it would be better not to eat it and calls upon the willpower to help you resist it.

Is Willpower a Limited Resource?

According to the social psychologist Roy Baumeister, we all have a limited amount of willpower, which becomes depleted as the day passes by, and we use the same willpower supply for all types of tasks. To prove his point, Baumeister and his team did the infamous 'radish experiment.'

In the trial, two groups of hungry students were presented with two bowls - radishes in one of them and chocolate in the other. The first group was told to eat only radishes, and the second group was allowed to eat the chocolate. After this torturous endeavor, both groups were given an unsolvable puzzle to solve. The researchers wanted to test how long the students will work on it before they give up. 

The first group that was allowed to eat only radishes gave up much quicker than the chocolate-eaters. They used up a significant amount of willpower fighting the urge to eat the chocolate, leaving them exhausted and unmotivated to solve the puzzle. This state is known as ego depletion.

The experiment goes on to show that we only have so much willpower in our tanks and that we use this same supply for pretty much everything. No matter if we exert our self-control to resist tempting food, or deal with annoying neighbors or demanding colleagues, we use the same reservoir of energy. 

Once we've used it up, it's highly likely that after a long and stressful day at work, we'll opt for the easy thing and sit back and watch Netflix instead of exercise.

Practice Makes Perfect

Just like a muscle, willpower can get stronger with exercise. And just like any other skill, you can get better at it if you regularly practice it. One way to do this is by exerting self-control in day-to-day activities. The secret is in ‘fighting’ our monkey brain and trying not to react instinctively in certain situations. By exerting small amounts of self-control in everyday situations, we increase our willpower in the long run.

Baumeister suggests these tricks:

Use the opposite hand: We tend to use our dominant hand for all the tasks. If we try to open doors or eat with the opposite hand, it requires willpower and builds it over time.

Adjust the posture: Whenever we realize we started to slouch, we should try to correct it and sit or stand up straight. Since it doesn’t come naturally to us, it also requires willpower.

Stop swearing: We're inclined to use swear words daily when something doesn't go as we planned. It takes effort and willpower to resist this inclination. 

Baumeister's studies show that exercising self-control in these situations improves overall willpower. By performing these small tasks, you are less likely to experience ego depletion and are more likely to complete harder tasks effectively.

How to Properly ‘Spend’ Willpower?

In addition to being able to increase willpower, there are certain things we can do that will help us not to waste it.

First and foremost, instead of trying to resist certain temptations, we need to make sure not to expose ourselves to them in the first place. Therefore, instead of resisting fast food and sweets, we shouldn’t buy them and bring them to our home. If we want to have a regular physical exercise, paying for a gym membership in advance may motivate us to actually do so. If we know a colleague is bringing a cake to work, we could simply leave the office - Far from the eye, far from the heart.

Another way to save willpower is to develop rituals and routines. Suppose we get used to getting up every day at 6 a.m. or visit the gym after work on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. In that case, these activities will become natural to us, and we will need less willpower to execute them. 

And finally, we should try to reduce the number of decisions we have to make during the day because decision making is strenuous work and takes a lot of effort. By planning the night before what we're going to wear to work or eat the next day, we'll save the precious willpower and get off to a good start of the day.

The link between willpower and decision making works both ways: Decision making depletes your willpower, and once your willpower is depleted, you’re less able to make decisions.

- Roy Baumeister

By pre-committing ourselves, developing rituals, and planning beforehand, we're putting ourselves on the right path toward reaching our goals. If we can decide in advance what we will or won't do in particular situations, we will be able to save enough willpower to achieve what we want.


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