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How to Have Willpower

Updated: Mar 31, 2022

Willpower, also known as self-discipline, self-control, or determination, is your ability to control your behavior, emotions, and attention. Willpower involves the ability to resist impulses and put off immediate gratification in order to reach goals, the ability to override unwanted thoughts, feelings, or impulses, and the ability to self-regulate. The level of one’s willpower can determine one’s ability to save for financial stability, make positive physical and mental health choices, and avoid substance use or abuse. You can move towards your goals and build willpower by continuously trying to forego immediate gratification for delayed gratification. This practice will build your ability to control your own impulses, much like exercise builds muscle overtime.

Part 1

Setting Behavior Goals


Evaluate your habits. If you are trying to improve your willpower, it’s likely that your lack of impulse control is adversely affecting some area of your life. Some people struggle with willpower across their lives, while others have one specific “weakness” when it comes to willpower. Determine the area you would like to improve; if you have several different areas to improve, you may want to address one at a time.

o For example, you may find it difficult to have willpower when it comes to eating. This can affect your overall health and quality of life.

o For example, you might have difficulty with controlling your spending habits, making it difficult to save money for “big” or important items or events.


Make a willpower scale. Create your own scale for evaluating your willpower. You might make it a 1-10 scale, where 1 is a complete indulgence in the exact thing(s) you are trying to avoid, and 10 is a stoic adherence to strict rules you’ve set for yourself. Or you can make a simpler scale of “none, a little, more, a lot.” The scale can take on different forms, but it offers an opportunity for you to evaluate yourself.

o For example, if you find yourself hoarding sweets and sneaking to the fast food drive-thru window every day, you may give yourself a 1 or 2 on a 1-10 scale.

o If you impulse-buy items that you do not really need because they are on sale, or if you shop online and spend money on things you don’t really need just because you’re bored, you might give yourself a “none” on a shopping-restraint willpower scale.


Set a long-term goal for change. The first step towards self-improvement is setting a goal for change. Your goal should be clear, specific, and attainable. If a goal is too vague or not measurable, it will be difficult to determine whether you’ve met or made progress towards your goal.

o For example, a too-vague goal related to impulsive eating is “eat healthier.” Healthier is relative, and it will be difficult to know when you have arrived at “healthier.” A more concrete goal could be “lose 40 pounds through healthy eating,” “fit into a size 8 dress again,” or even “eliminate my dependence on sugar.”

o A too-vague goal related to spending is “be better with money.” Again, this is not clear or measurable. A better goal would be “save 10% of every paycheck,” “build up my savings account to $3000,” or “pay off my credit cards to a $0 balance.”


Set shorter-term sub-goals. One of the best ways to work towards a large goal (which may seem overwhelming) is to set short-term guidepost goals along the way. Short-term goals should also be specific and measurable, and they should lead you towards your ultimate long-term goal.

o For example, if you are trying to lose 40 pounds, you may want to make your first short-term goal(s) “lose 10 pounds,” “exercise 3 times per week,” and/or “limit dessert to one time per week.”

o If you are trying to save $3000, you might make your first short-term goal(s) “save $500,” “limit eating out to twice per week,” and/or “have our weekly movie night at home instead of at the movie theatre.”

Part 2

Delaying Gratification


Keep the “big picture” in mind. The best way to “train” yourself to have willpower is to be willing to sacrifice your desire for instant gratification for the sake of a long-term reward. Eventually, your reward can be “living well” or “experiencing financial stability,” but for learning to exercise your willpower, it’s best to have a concrete reward.

o For example, if you are on a weight loss journey, trying to control impulsive eating habits, your end reward may be a shopping spree for an entire new wardrobe in your new size.

o If you are controlling your impulse spending, you can have something costly that you normally wouldn’t be able to save for as your final reward. For example, you may buy a new big-screen television or go on a relaxing trip to a tropical island with a friend.


Forgo instant gratification. This is the essence of cultivating your willpower. When you feel tempted to give in to an impulse, realize that what you really want is that short-lived feeling of instant gratification. If your impulsive behavior is contrary to your goals, you will likely feel guilty after indulging in the instant gratification.

o To resist an impulse for instant gratification, try the following:

§ Acknowledge what you want to do

§ Tell yourself you are just looking for instant gratification

§ Remind yourself of your short-term or long-term goals

§ Ask yourself whether giving into your impulse is worth getting off-track for or jeopardizing your final goal.

· For example, if you are working to control food impulses and you are standing next to a cookie tray at a party:

§ Admit that you want a cookie (or five)

§ Acknowledge that the cookie may satisfy your craving or impulse for right now

§ Remind yourself that you are working towards a goal of losing 40 pounds and a reward of getting to buy a new wardrobe

§ Ask yourself whether the temporary satisfaction of eating a cookie is worth getting off-track with your progress and potentially not getting your new wardrobe in the end.


Give yourself mini-rewards for progress. A motivation or reward system will not change your willpower in the long run, but it can help set you on the road to success. Because a big end reward can take a long time to get to, it can be effective to give yourself smaller “guidepost” rewards for progress.

· For example, if you have one week of making good choices about food, you can indulge in a favorite treat at the end of the week. Alternatively, you can reward yourself with something non-food related, such as a pedicure or massage.

· If you are controlling impulsive spending, you might give yourself a reward for saving. For example, you may decide that for every $500 you save, you get to splurge and spend $50 on anything you want.

Part 3

Monitoring Your Progress


Keep a willpower journal. Write down your attempts to control your impulses, including both successful and unsuccessful attempts at increased willpower. Be sure to include details that may help you evaluate the situation later.

o For example, you might write, “I ate five cookies at an office party today. I skipped lunch to work, so I was quite hungry. There were many other people there, and Sally made the cookies and kept encouraging me to have another.

o Another example is, “I went to the mall today with my husband to buy new jeans for our son, and I resisted buying a dress that I saw, even though it was on sale. I came out with exactly what I went in for and nothing additional.”


Comment on factors that influenced your decision-making. In addition to detailing situations in which you resisted or gave in to impulsive behavior, comment on things that were going through your mind. You may want to include your emotional state, who you were with, and where you were.


Look for patterns in your behavior. Once you have established several journal entries, you should begin to read over your entries and try to find patterns in your behavior. Some questions to ask yourself include:

o Do I make better decisions when I am alone or around other people?

o Are there certain people who “trigger” my impulsive behavior?

o Do your emotions (depression, anger, happiness, etc.) influence your impulsive behaviors?

o Is there a time of day that you find it more difficult to have impulse control (such as late at night?)


Consider making a visual representation of your progress. This may sound silly, but some people respond better to a more concrete visual representation of their progress. If you have something that you can look at to show you how far you have come and how far you have left to go, it can help you stay motivated.

o For example, if you are trying to lose 40 pounds, you could put a quarter in a jar every time you lose a pound. Seeing the level of the quarters grow as you lose weight can give you a concrete idea of how much progress you’ve made.

o If you are trying to save money, you might draw a picture that looks like a thermometer and color in the level of money you’ve saved; when you get to the top, you have reached your goal. (This is commonly used for fundraisers to show fundraising progress.)


Find what works for you. By using your journal or just thinking about your success or setbacks with impulse control, find what works best for you. You may find that giving yourself weekly rewards helps; you may need to have a visual to focus on; you may find that giving each day a written rating of your willpower scale helps. You might find that being alone is a trigger for your impulsive behavior, or that by going to a certain place or being with a certain person can act as a trigger. Tailor your approach to increasing your willpower to your specific needs and situation.

Part 4

Avoiding or Dealing with Setbacks


Be aware that stress may be a barrier to progress. Regardless of your specific goal, stress from work or life events has the potential to derail your progress. You may need to use techniques to reduce stress such as exercise, getting adequate sleep, and giving yourself down time.


Find ways to avoid temptation. Sometimes the best way to resist temptation is to avoid it. If you do not feel that you have the willpower to resist impulsive behaviors, then try removing the opportunity for indulging in an impulse. This may also mean avoiding people or environments that trigger your impulses. This may not be a long-term solution, but it can help you during particularly difficult times, or when you are first starting out.

o For example, if you have trouble with impulsive eating, you may need to purge your kitchen and pantry of unhealthy food. Removing anything that does not fit the requirements of your new eating habits can be given or thrown away.

o If you are working on not spending impulsively, you may find that it helps to carry cash rather than credit cards. You may even want to leave home with no money at all if you are feeling especially vulnerable to impulsive buying. If there is a specific place that is a trigger, such as the mall, avoid going there altogether. If you need one item, send someone else to get it for you.


Use “if-then” thinking. An if-then statement can help you know how to react when you feel tempted. You can “rehearse” how you will react to a given situation by coming up with some if-then scenarios ahead of time. This can help when you know you will be in a situation in which you will experience temptation.

o For example, if you know that you are going to be at an office party with many cookies, you can use the if-then statement “If Sally offers me a cookie, then I will politely tell her ‘no, thank you, but they look delicious’ and move to the other side of the room.”

o If you are working on spending control, you might have the if-then statement, “If I see something that I really like on sale at the mall, then I will write down the item number and price and go home. If I still want to make the purchase the next day, I can send my husband to pick it up for me.”


Seek therapy. If you try on your own to control your impulses and it doesn’t seem to be working, consider seeking therapy. A therapist can offer support and specific suggestions for behavior modification. She may also be able to determine whether an underlying issue is contributing to your impulsive behavior.

o Some therapists specialize in impulse control, and cognitive behavioral therapy can be effective in helping individuals cope with impulsive or addictive behaviors.

o Some types of impulse control or willpower problems may also be aided by a strategy known as habit reversal, which replaces an unwanted habit (such as eating cookies anytime you see them) with another, more desirable habit (such as drinking a bottle of water).


  1. Duckworth, A. L. (2011). The significance of self-control. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, (7). 2639. doi:10.1073/pnas.1019725108

  2. Moffitt TE, et al. (2011). A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 108:2693–2698. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1010076108

  3. Oaten, M., & Cheng, K. (2006). Longitudinal gains in self-regulation from physical exercise. British Journal of Health Psychology,11, 717-733



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