Increase Your Willpower

Most people believe that they need to increase their willpower.  How many times have you sat down at the beginning of the calendar year and written down some goals or resolutions that you want to achieve?  We’ve all been there.

How many of these goals have you achieved?  That varies for all of us, but most of us have failed at more than a few too.

How Willpower Works

In the late 90’s, psychologist Roy Baumeister conducted a fascinating experiment on willpower.

College students were first asked to fast from food, and then were put in a room redolent with the smell of fresh baked chocolate chip cookies.   On a table in the middle of the room were two bowls.  One contained the cookies, the other a bowl of… radishes.

The students were divided into two groups.  The first was allowed to eat the cookies, while the second could ony eat radishes.  To up the pressure, the psychologists left the students alone in the room, and then secretly watched them make their choices.  The radish group looked longingly at the cookes.  Some even picked them up and smelled them before putting them back again.

Once they had eated their cookies/radishes, they were ushered into another room to complete a test of their intelligence.  It was a ruse, and was really a test to see how long each group would work on the geometry puzzle they had to solve.

The results weren’t even close.  Cookie eaters lasted 20 minutes on average, while the radish eaters only lasted 8.  You can read more about the experiment here:

This was a landmark insight on willpower because it showed that willpower is a resource that can be depleted.  Resisting cookies when you’re hungry is hard work, and makes you less able to concentrate on geometry.

This (partially at least) explains why you’re impatient with your kids when you’ve had a hard day at work, or why otherwise ultra disciplined, high achieving people may also struggle with their weight, or find themselves unable to quit smoking.  Their willpower gets used up on other things.

Takeaways on how to increase your willpower

  • Do your most important, highest concentration jobs first, before you use up your willpower
  • Eat well so your body is properly fueled
  • Get enough sleep. Why start the day with a drained willpower tank?
  • Don’t make important decisions when you’re hungry, angry, tired, lonely, or stressed
  • Never put yourself in a position of temptation where you’re forced to engage your willpower. Don’t bring the donuts from the meeting home.  Don’t meet that attractive customer for a late night drink at the end of a long day when you’re on the road.  Don’t keep an old pack of cigarettes in the car
  • Win by refusing to bring junk food home from the grocery store

Figure out what tempts you, and how you can kill the source of the temptation before it’s even begun.

The other important insight is that willpower is like any other muscle:  It grows when you use it.  What is hard at first becomes much easier when you have a series of small wins.

So don’t give up.  Set your goals, and set yourself up to win.

The battle is won before the battle is begun.

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Trevor Throness is a speaker, consultant, and author of “The Power of People Skills.”  He is also co-founder and senior instructor at

Find more about “The Power of People Skills” here:

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