If you struggle with resisting temptation, you are not alone. As consumers, we have been conditioned to always choose the easy option. Get that Double Big Mac meal. Make another impulse buy on Amazon.
Fortunately, this process can be reversed. You can learn how to increase willpower. Once you do, all areas of your life will dramatically improve.
Learn why willpower is akin to a muscle, how you can increase it, and at what times of the day you will have the most willpower available.
What Is Willpower & Why It’s Important
Willpower is a superpower. It allows you to override your emotional impulses with your rational mind. This way, you can resist temptations and achieve your long-term goals.
Let’s say you want to lose weight. So, instead of getting your customary donut on your way to work, you buy an apple. This decision goes against everything that your limbic system wants you to do. It is telling you to get that Bavarian cream treat and ride that sugar high. Damned be the consequences.
The only thing standing between you and another uptick on the scale is your willpower. Your rational mind has the power to stay your hand. So, you exercise your willpower — you pass the Krispy Kreme store and you walk inside a healthy Deli.
Without willpower, you have nothing. You are now a plaything of your impulses. One minute you want to stuff yourself. The next minute, you want to buy something expensive that you don’t need. Then you feel like having unprotected sex. Then you wonder what crack cocaine would feel like.
This might sound overly dramatic — but it is not. What I just described is the reality of most people alive today in the West. That is why obesity, consumerism, STDs, and drug abuse are running rampant. As a society, we have unlearned how to access our willpower.
Why Willpower Gets a Bad Rep
In our current culture, willpower gets a bad rep. We are supposed to not force things. “Go with the flow.” “If it’s not fun, stop doing it.” That kind of thing.
Don’t fall for this nonsense.
Willpower is the key to getting anything done, including your passion projects. No matter how excited you are about a project, there will be aspects about it that you don’t like. To succeed anyway, you will have to push through.
It is this combative spirit that makes willpower suspect to the current vanilla zeitgeist. The notion of fighting — even if it’s just yourself — has a negative connotation. It’s too aggressive, too masculine, and too uncooperative.
Do not let this deter you. You either become friends with managing your willpower, or you will lose out. It is the rocket fuel that you will need to make your important projects take off.
The Mechanics of Willpower
The first thing we need to understand about willpower is that it’s a limited resource. It works like the battery of your smartphone. Once it is used up, you are done for the day.
What depletes our willpower:
- Restraining from something. Not eating that donut or not having that beer — especially if everybody around you is indulging — will cost you.
- Controlling your temper. When someone is acting annoying and you stop yourself from lashing out at them, your willpower is being depleted.
- Ignoring distractions. Try working at the library with the people next to you having a noisy conversation. Your willpower is going down.
- Making decisions. Whenever we have to make lots of decisions, e.g., about an upcoming event or project, we will have less willpower left.
- Doing work. Any kind of physical or mental work uses up willpower. The cost goes up the more complex the project is.
Do any of these for long enough, and your willpower battery will get used up. You won’t get any more productive work done until you recharge, typically after a full night of sleep.
This is a truth that most people do not want to acknowledge. Because if we have a limited amount of willpower, it means we can only accomplish so many things. That would mean having to choose.
This we cannot have. We don’t want to miss out. We want to have it all. If that means pretending willpower is limitless, so be it.
But willpower doesn’t care. It’s a limited resource either way. If you kid yourself about its nature, you will just end up spreading yourself thin, accomplishing nothing.
If you chase two rabbits, you will not catch either one.Russian proverb
I cannot tell you how often I have encountered this in my coaching practice. Clients will come to me explaining how they want to build that super successful business, get ripped, date the model girlfriend, travel the world, etc.
When I explain to them that willpower is a limited resource and that they have to choose one or two of these things, they refuse. “I am so driven, you will see.” So, we try it their way. They borrow against their willpower until they run out and must admit defeat. Then we do it the right way. Which brings me to my second point.
Willpower is a muscle that can be trained. If you gradually overexert your willpower muscle, it will adapt. It will become more powerful. The trick is to go small. You must only stimulate the muscle enough to provide a stimulus for growth, but not so much that you break down and stop functioning (which is what everybody does).
Do this, and you can indeed accomplish much more in life than the average person. If everybody else’s willpower battery stops charging at 40 percent, but yours goes up to 80 percent, this will give you a massive edge. You will make more of these smart decisions during a typical day than everybody around you. Over time, these smart decisions will compound and pay massive dividends. You will be almost impossible to catch up with.
It is important to note that training your willpower muscle is skill-specific. So, if you discipline yourself to go to the gym each day for two hours, it doesn’t automatically mean you will also sit down to practice the piano for two hours. That’s a new skill and you’ll need to expand your willpower reservoir for that skill specifically.
However, having gone through the process once will help you with doing it again in a new context. That’s because the general principles and best practices for managing your willpower stay the same. You at least take that knowledge with you.
Let’s look at what these best practices are.
How To Increase Willpower in 14 Steps
Here is how to increase willpower, so you can accomplish more in life.
1. Manage Your Sleep
Sleep is how we replenish our willpower. If you always feel well-rested, your willpower battery will be fully charged at the beginning of each day. You are much more likely to make smart decisions. But if you miss out on sleep, the reverse effect takes place. Your battery will only be partially charged. Your bad decisions will compound quickly.
Understand — you cannot borrow against sleep. No one can. The more you try, the more useless you become.
To always get deep, restoring sleep, pay attention to these best practices:
- Always keep the same bedtime, even on the weekends. Your body needs that regularity. You will fall asleep faster, sleep deeper, and potentially even need fewer hours per night to feel truly rested.
- Always get plenty of sunlight during the day. This is to calibrate your circadian rhythm as well as support important immune functions, like the production of vitamin D.
- Don’t look at any screens for at least an hour before you go to bed. Exposing yourself to blue light close to your bedtime will mess up your circadian rhythm. Consuming social media and the quick dopamine hits that come with it will further diminish the quality of your sleep.
2. Eat Right
The relationship between food and willpower is a curious one.
In a world where fast food is omnipresent, it takes a lot of willpower to stay away from it. If you are used to processed foods, not getting that slice of pizza or not eating that donut will take a Herculean effort.
But keep eating healthy for long enough, and it eventually becomes effortless. You have successfully reprogrammed your taste buds. Now your body craves grilled salmon, steamed broccoli, and fresh fruits.
As a result, you have more energy. No more sugar crashes. No more afternoon slumps. No more restless nights. And more energy means more willpower, which in turn makes it even easier to keep eating healthy. It’s a virtuous cycle.
But the opposite is also true. The less willpower you spend resisting unhealthy food choices, the less willpower you will overall have. You will constantly feel tired and irritable, negatively affecting your food choices and every other decision. It’s a downward spiral.
3. Use the Time After a Meal
The best time to get important work done or make difficult decisions is in the mornings. You just woke up and your willpower reservoir hasn’t been depleted by anything else yet.
The second best time is after lunch. Eating is a pleasurable and oftentimes social experience. It takes our minds off things. Also, it literally infuses us with energy (= calories to burn). For these reasons, we tend to have a second willpower spike right after lunch or dinner.
Plan for this. If you have a busy day ahead of you, schedule your most important and/or challenging tasks right after waking up or right after a meal. Make use of your biological willpower rhythm.
4. Do Quick Recharges
The number one way to recharge your willpower battery is sleep. Get a good night’s sleep, and you will make better decisions again.
Having said that, you can at least partially recharge your willpower battery throughout the day:
- Take a nap. The second-best thing after regular sleep. A good nap will give you some willpower back.
- Meditate. The next best option. If you get good at this, you can quickly throw off anxiety, decision-making fatigue, etc.
- Taking a walk. Great for clearing your head. You look at problems more objectively again afterward.
5. Create Processes
Every little decision you need to make eats away at your willpower. Some examples include:
- “What should I wear today?”
- “Where should I eat today?”
- “What kind of workout should I do today?”
- “What important to-dos should I tackle today?”
By itself, each of these decisions is miniscule. But they add up. Over the course of a typical day, we have to make dozens if not hundreds of these trivial decisions. In sum, they will leave you feeling exhausted.
That is why you must create processes. If you have automated procedures in place, you will free up willpower. This willpower can now be invested in projects where it can really make a difference.
Here are some ideas from my own life:
- As an extreme minimalist, I wear the same outfit every day. No mental bandwidth is wasted on choosing clothes, shopping for new outfits, or decluttering my wardrobe.
- I cook the same half a dozen paleo meals a day. This simplifies both food prep and shopping; I am in and out of the supermarket in 10 minutes.
- I do the same minimalist bodyweight workout routine every week. No need to travel to the gym, no need to choose from all the machines and other equipment.
- I organize all my to-dos in one central, GTD-inspired system (read about it here). One look at my lists, and I know what the most important or urgent task is.
6. Clarify Your Goals
If you only have a vague notion of what your goals are, you will waste time and willpower. But the more clarity you have about your objective, the more willpower can do its magic.
To clarify your goals, you must write them down. The simple act of putting pen to paper will force you to listen to your inner voice. You will have to articulate your ideas and feelings about what your ideal life should look like.
Be as specific as you can. “Become successful,” is not very specific. “Start a media agency and grow to 7 figures in 5 years,” is more specific.
7. Tackle One Goal at a Time
It is okay to have more than one goal. For example, you might want to build a media agency but you might also want to compete in a strong-man event.
However, it is usually not a good idea to tackle more than one major life project at a time. So, if you are currently working 10 hours a day to grow your agency, don’t sign up for that competition next month. Remember, willpower is a limited resource. By halving your focus, you are more likely to fail at both endeavors.
8. Build Habits
Habits are a way to make a certain activity less costly to you in terms of willpower.
Let’s say you are trying to establish a writing habit — every day, you would like to write 500 words for your blog. When you first start with this habit, you will encounter a lot of inner resistance. The first few times might actually be alright, as you are riding a wave of initial enthusiasm. But this will soon vanish. Now, writing your 500 words becomes a slog. You will dread it and come up with countless excuses. “I don’t feel inspired today.” “I have a headache.” “I should really clean the apartment right now.”
To overcome this resistance and do your daily writing, you need to invest a tremendous amount of willpower. On a scale of 0–100, you might have to spend a 70 on average. That’s a lot. You won’t have much willpower left for anything else.
But something curious happens the longer you keep at it. Very slowly, the willpower cost goes down. You might not even notice it at first. You go from 70 to 65, then to 60. Six more months go by and you are now at a 50. Another year passes, and you are now at a 30.
This is the magic of habits — eventually, they become almost effortless. They are just something you do every day, like brushing your teeth. The willpower cost to you is almost negligible.
Ideally, though, you don’t start with 500 words. You start with 5, then you slowly build it up. This way, you don’t risk falling off the wagon before the habit becomes automated. We’ll talk about this next.
9. Take Small Steps
What everybody does is start big. They sign up for the gym and start going there every day for two hours. They start a reading habit and commit to reading 50 pages a day.
In the beginning, when you are still high on enthusiasm, this works. But as the energy wears off, you start to slip up. Then you slip up more often. Then you stop altogether. You have run out of willpower.
To succeed, you must do the opposite of what everybody is doing — you must start small. Start so incredibly small that the willpower cost is almost nothing. Do one push-up a day. Read one paragraph in a business book.
Keep doing this every day for a week, no matter how silly this feels. In week two, go up to two push-ups or two paragraphs. In week three, three push-ups or three paragraphs.
At the end of the year, you will be doing 50+ push-ups per day or reading 50+ paragraphs per day. That is significant. Keep with these habits, and they will change your life.
Yet, people refuse the “start small” approach. That is because they think short-term. They want results, and they want them quickly.
This is a surefire way to not get them.
When you overtax your willpower, eventually, you will break down. It might take two weeks or it might take two months. But eventually, it will happen.
Nothing is accomplished this way. Yes, you had some quick wins. But now that you quit your workout habit again or stopped reading those business books, you will soon be back to where you started.
Understand that willpower works like a muscle — the more you train it, the more it adapts. When you start small, you give your willpower muscle the time it needs to grow. Now you can gradually take on bigger workloads without breaking down.
If you want to learn how to increase your willpower, go small.
10. Use Healthy Rewards
Reward yourself when you use your willpower wisely. This will reinforce the good behavior and increase the likelihood you will make the same choice again.
However, make sure to use healthy rewards. There is no point in rewarding yourself for working out by smoking a cigarette afterward.
For example, I might reward myself for working on my most important task first thing in the morning by getting a quick massage afterward. Or maybe I will go to the beach and splash around in the water for half an hour.
11. Use Punishments
In our vanilla world, we shy away from punishments. There should only be encouragement, never any negative consequences.
Don’t fall for this nonsense. When used correctly, punishments are highly effective. You can incentivize the wise use of willpower, and eradicate wasteful behavior.
As a thought experiment, imagine someone put the proverbial gun to your head and told you, “From now on, you have to work out every day, or I will come find you and shoot you.” How many more workouts would you miss for the rest of your life? Zero. You would be there every day, first thing in the morning, no matter if you felt like it or not.
The real problem with punishments is administrating them. “Unfortunately,” there is no enforcer who follows you around with a gun.
There are some workarounds, though:
- Make your intent public. Tell everybody about your plan to practice the piano daily for an hour. Then do daily check-ins. Invite people to ridicule you if you miss your target.
- Get an accountability coach. Same idea, but even more pressure. You are essentially paying someone to kick your butt. Every time you don’t check in with them, they will call you out and shame you a little bit.
- Use money as a punishment. Sign up with a service like Stickk.com. They will ask you to put down a certain amount of money beforehand. Now, every time you don’t practice the piano, you will have to pay a fine.
- If you want to take it to the extreme — find somebody to slap you. If you don’t execute on habit X, they get a free slap. I know it sounds silly, but it works. Obviously, make sure to not seriously injure each other.
12. Remove Triggers
Always try to avoid spending willpower in the first place. It is too precious of a resource. That means removing triggers from your environment where you can.
If you know you are prone to snacking, throw out all the sweets at home.
If you know you like to get drunk, don’t go out on a Saturday night with the boys.
If you know you always end up in an argument with Aunt Lily, don’t attend the family dinner.
This is the litmus test you should apply to your world — “Will this activity eat into my willpower without accomplishing anything?” If the answer is “Yes,” stay away from it.
13. Cut Out Social Media
In the digital age, one of the biggest willpower wastes is social media. Any time you feel tired or bored, you reach for your phone when you feel tired or bored. “This will cheer me up again!” you think. But then you doom scroll Instagram or TikTok for half an hour and afterward, you don’t feel better, you feel worse. You have depleted your willpower reserves even further. Now you are even more likely to keep procrastinating, make bad food choices, or stay up late.
We are not even aware of how much social media eats into our willpower until we finally drop this addiction. But when we do, your world suddenly clears up. You feel anxious and less stressed out for time. You suddenly have the mental bandwidth to take care of your important tasks. It feels a bit like a rebirth.
Getting there is a challenge. Ironically, to get that extra willpower, you first have to invest a lot of a lot of willpower. Getting over your social media addiction is tough; I know, because I regularly help my coaching clients with that project, and boy, do they struggle. Almost no one gets it right the first time.
From my experience, what works best is to wean yourself off gradually. Start easy. Don’t look at your phone until one hour after you wake up. So, if you typically get up at 7 am, don’t look at it until 8 am. Once you can manage that, go up to 9 am. Then 10 am. And so forth.
This tends to work better than going cold turkey, especially if you otherwise lead a busy life. Quitting social media from one day to another will be too costly in terms of willpower if you also have a job, a family, or other commitments.
14. Make Accountability Work for You
Having someone to hold you accountable is the closest thing to a willpower “hack.” A study by The American Society of Training and Development (ASTD) found that if you have ongoing accountability meetings with a person, your chances of succeeding with a goal are 95 percent.
Think of accountability as outsourcing your willpower to somebody else. It is now their job to kick your butt. You can focus on the execution.
Obviously, this is where I would like you to hire me as an accountability coach. But even if you don’t, find somebody else to check in with you daily.
So, if you committed to a daily push-up or reading habit, every day, without fail, send a message to your accountability partner — “Did my 5 daily pushups today.” / “Read my 5 paragraphs.”
If that message doesn’t come, your accountability buddy should inquire about what’s going on. Essentially, it should be impossible for you to weasel out of your commitment.