Willpower Depletion: Train Your Willpower Muscle

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Willpower Instinct" by Kelly McGonigal. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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In what ways is using willpower like working out at the gym? Why is self-control highest in the morning? Can you increase your willpower stamina?

The more you use your willpower, the more it becomes depleted, just like your energy when you work out at the gym. Willpower depletion can lead to negative side-effects such as binge eating or spending money. Luckily, there are ways to counter willpower depletion and ways to increase your willpower stamina.

Continue below for research and tips on willpower depletion.

How Willpower Gets Depleted

What is willpower depletion? Every time you use your willpower, it’s a lot like doing a bicep curl with a heavy dumbbell. You can only do so many reps before your arm muscles fatigue completely and you can’t lift the weight one more time. Your willpower reserve is just like that. The willpower “muscle” has limited strength, and once that’s depleted, your best intentions can backslide. 

The research: Studies have shown that if a smoker gives up cigarettes for 24 hours, he or she is more likely to binge on candy. People who are on a restrictive diet are more likely to cheat on their spouses. And people who try to engage in too many self-improvement projects at once—say, giving up sugar and sticking to a budget at the same time—are less successful than those who choose just one project. 

Any time you have to make yourself do something difficult—whether it’s making a presentation at work or choosing between 50 brands of laundry detergent at the grocery store, you’re using up willpower. If your brain is utilizing the pause-and-plan response, it’s going to get weary. 

It’s not surprising that for most people, self-control is highest in the morning and diminishes as the day progresses. Our daily mental challenges use up that precious resource. 

But that doesn’t mean we’re doomed to fail at exercising willpower. It’s possible to find ways to overcome willpower exhaustion. Just like we train the muscles in our body, we can train our “willpower muscle” to become stronger so our stamina lasts longer. 

Willpower Depletes Your Brain’s Energy Budget 

Part of the reason our self-control system tires out easily is that the brain likes to hoard its energy. The brain is dependent on a steady stream of glucose to function, and it’s constantly checking the bloodstream to make sure there’s enough glucose floating around. If it detects a slight shortage, it may decide to stop spending energy and start hoarding it. It cuts out any activities that are energy-expensive, and one of the first to go is self-control. Suddenly you feel like you can’t focus your attention, can’t modulate your emotions, and can’t resist temptation. You’re a victim of the “energy budget” model of how willpower works. 

When your glucose level drops, your brain does the easiest thing: It chooses short-term thinking and impulsive acts. And while it’s true that a shot of candy or a sweet drink can give you a brief willpower and mood-brightening boost, it won’t last long. 

The research: Tempting as it may be to keep your brain energized with a big bowl of M&Ms, studies show you’ll have more consistent energy if you fuel your body with a low-glycemic diet, which keeps your blood sugar steady over longer periods of time. Try a hard-boiled egg or a few bites of cheese instead. 

Willpower Hack: Cultivate One Small Habit

If willpower depletes so easily, what can you do to restore it? Challenge your willpower muscles with a non-taxing exercise regime designed to train your brain for self-control: Start by committing to doing something every day just for the practice of building a habit. It could be as simple as walking around the block before you have coffee in the morning, or doing 10 pushups before you go to bed at night. Since it’s something you aren’t used to doing, your brain will have to make an effort to remember to do it and then carry it out. Small challenges are best because you can strengthen your willpower without exhausting it. 

Devote yourself fully to any small, consistent act of willpower, and you’ll be surprised to find you have more self-control in other areas of your life. By taking on tiny, low-stakes willpower challenges, the brain gets in the habit of pausing before acting. You’re developing the habit of paying attention to your actions and choosing to do the harder thing, not the automatic thing. 

Willpower Hack: Keep Detailed Records 

Pausing before acting is key to strengthening your willpower. Another way to build up your willpower muscles is to keep a written (or digital) record of something you don’t usually pay attention to. You could track your daily spending, or your snacking habits, or how much time you spend texting your friends. The key is to be consistent about tracking it. You’re developing your ability to pay attention to small actions and not behave absent-mindedly. 

Pushing Past Your Willpower Limits 

Inevitably, our willpower gets overtaxed (and some days are a lot more taxing than others). But you don’t have to trust your brain every time it tells you that your willpower reserve is empty. You may have more self-control remaining than you realize.  

The research: Endurance athletes know that it’s possible to push past the point of exhaustion. Exercise and sports science studies have shown that the brain actually deceives the body into quitting by telling it “you’re completely worn out and you’re in pain—you better stop now before you die.” The brain sends this message long before the body actually needs to quit. The body feels fatigued, but this is really just a ruse invented by the brain for self-protection—it’s trying to hoard its energy supply. 

Many scientists believe the same may be true for willpower. Consider this scenario: You’ve had a long, hard day. All you want at 7 o’clock is a glass of wine (or three) and a delicious, calorie-rich dinner. You consider soda water and a veggie plate instead, but your willpower is depleted, so this option doesn’t sound appealing. Before you give in to the big splurge, understand that it still may be possible to muster up your self-control.   

The research: Stanford University psychologists have discovered that some people simply do not believe in feelings of mental fatigue when they experience them. They push on. In a lab setting, most people’s self-control begins to deteriorate after making a series of willpower choices. But not everybody. Some subjects simply refuse to give in, much like the marathoner who refuses to stop when she feels exhausted. 

Research is still in preliminary stages, but it appears it is possible that we have more willpower than we think we do, or that at least it’s possible to push past willpower exhaustion.  

Willpower Hack: Access Your Goal’s “Want Power” 

When you’re in need of willpower, you can access your reasoning skills to help you stay on track. For example, think about your Personal Willpower Challenge, then focus on the motivation behind that challenge. Why is it so important to succeed at this challenge? 

When you’re feeling weak, see if you can summon up that motivation in your mind—and then cling to it to maintain your self-control. Here are a few possibilities that may motivate you: 

  • Consider why you want it. Ask yourself what the payoff will be for succeeding at this challenge. For example, if your goal is to achieve better work habits during the week—be more focused and productive and confine your tasks to regular daytime hours—you know the payoff will be that your evenings and weekends are completely free. You’ll be able to get your work done and also give yourself legitimate time off, instead of feeling like you have to work all the time. Thinking about these benefits may be the motivation to keep you working toward your goal.  
  • Consider who else might benefit from it. Ask yourself if you’re the only one who will benefit when you succeed in your Personal Willpower Challenge. Are there others—maybe your spouse or your kids—who will also benefit? For example, will your kids be happier if they get to share free time with their dad on the weekends? You may be able to motivate yourself to stick to your goal by thinking of your children’s happiness. 
  • Consider that this challenge will not always be so hard. It may seem tough to find the discipline to start working at 8 a.m. and quit at 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Perhaps your odd schedule is deeply ingrained—you’ve always worked whenever you felt like it, and you don’t like the idea of getting up in the morning and going straight to your desk. But can you envision a future in which a regular work week becomes a habit that seems completely natural? If you believe your goal may someday get easier than it seems today, that could serve as your motivation. 
Willpower Depletion: Train Your Willpower Muscle

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  • That willpower isn't a character trait but rather an innate instinct that's wired into our brains
  • How marketers can use "neuromarketing" to influence you to purchase more
  • How you can harness your innate willpower to achieve your goals

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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