Willpower: How It Works and How to Train Your Brain

Woman standing on scale holding an apple and a doughnut

When the festivities of the holidays are coming to an end and New Year’s is approaching, your attention might turn to finding the perfect New Year’s resolution. Maybe you want to cut out sweets, lose weight or run a marathon.

Flash forward to February — are your sights still set on that goal? Unfortunately, it’s common to not only lose sight of New Year’s resolutions but also to completely give up on them. Fewer than 25 percent of people stick with their resolution after 30 days — and only 8 percent actually end up accomplishing them.

So what’s keeping people from achieving these well-intentioned goals they set on January 1 — or any other day of the year?

In many cases, achieving goals comes down to willpower: your ability to resist temptations to reach a set goal. Saying no to temptations can be anything from choosing a salad over cheese fries to obeying your 5 am alarm telling you to go exercise instead of sleeping in. These decisions rely largely on willpower, which can sometimes feel out of your control. 

Willpower may be a mysterious concept, but you use it all the time. You go to work instead of binge-watching TV shows all day, and you try to eat healthy when there’s always the option of ice cream.

“Your willpower is like a muscle — the more you work it, the stronger it gets,” explains Theresa Metanchuk, DO, physician at Penn Family Medicine Southern Chester County.  By strengthening your willpower, you can make healthy changes in your life and actually maintain them.

Here’s a look at how willpower works in your brain — and how you can train yourself to better utilize it.

A Look at Willpower and Your Brain

The brain is the most complex organ in your body. This complicated computer inside your head controls how you interact with the world. Thanks to advancements in medical technology, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), physicians and scientists can look at the brain and how it reacts during various situations, including ones that involve willpower.

“Willpower activates your prefrontal cortex, which is in the front part of your brain near your forehead,” says Dr. Metanchuk.

This part of your brain plays a significant role in making decisions, especially when it comes to your inhibition. Inhibition is the ability to stop yourself from doing something that may not be the safest, healthiest or most productive.

“Decisions get especially challenging when your brain sees the benefit of both choices, which is called cognitive dissonance,” explains Dr. Metanchuk.

For instance, you know you want to lose weight — but you order a pizza for dinner anyway. These two beliefs don’t exactly match up, but your brain finds both of them appealing in their own way.

When cognitive dissonance occurs, it becomes challenging to choose the option that aligns with your goal. Getting to your ideal weight sounds great — but the pizza that’s in front of you right now is appealing, as well. This is when you need to activate your willpower to make the choice that benefits your well-being.

Willpower is a finite resource however, explains Dr. Metanchuk. “If you use your willpower to make a difficult choice, your next decision may be even harder.”

At the same time, it doesn’t completely disappear, and there are simple ways to utilize the willpower you do have left more efficiently, so you can continue to refuse that pizza or other tasty temptation.

How does willpower work

Using and Strengthening Your Willpower

Timing is key when it comes to using your willpower effectively. When you’re feeling particularly goal-oriented, make decisions that will help you in the future.

“If you feel like you might succumb to temptations, try to avoid situations that require extra willpower,” says Dr. Metanchuk.

When your willpower levels feel high:

  • Get rid of temptations, such as junk food or alcohol
  • Plan ahead, such as signing up for an exercise class with a friend or meal-prepping in advance
  • Optimize timing, such as grocery shopping after a meal when you’re not as hungry
  • Take note of how you feel, and remember that you have the ability to resist temptations in the future

When your willpower levels feel low:

  • Wait to make major or risky decisions
  • Distract yourself with something else to focus on
  • Remove yourself from the situation
  • Hide the temptation from your view

Willpower relies largely on your state of mind. For example, your brain benefits from getting enough sleep. Sleep can help improve your self-control and replenish your energy — both of which are helpful to boost willpower.

You can also purposefully put yourself in situations that require you to extend your willpower.

“This will train your brain to know what it feels like to choose the healthy option when both options seem appealing,” explains Dr. Metanchuk.

For instance, you can try meditation, which requires you to keep your mind from wandering to other thoughts. Some people have even tried changing something simple, such as cutting out swearing. If you’re able to refrain from letting out a curse word, you’ll learn to refrain from other temptations, as well.

Believing In Your Willpower and Yourself

Willpower is about mind over matter — the way you view your willpower impacts how much you’ll be able to exert. If you view your willpower as limitless and strong, that may become true and help you resist temptations down the line.

Achieving goals can be challenging, but that’s why it’s also rewarding. Keep in mind: willpower isn’t the only factor in reaching your goals. It’s also important to be motivated and to keep an eye on your behavior as you’re working toward a goal.

Your brain is a strong organ, and fortunately, you have the power to control it. Set attainable goals and remind yourself that you can get there — and eventually, you will.

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