Build Your Will Power

Those of us who struggle to resist junk foods or otherwise suffer a lack of will power will be heartened by some good and bad news from neuroscience.

First, the bad news.  A slew of studies suggest that we each have a fixed neural reservoir of will power, and that if we use it on one thing, we have less for others.  Tasks that demand some self-control make it harder for us to do the next thing that takes will power.  In a typical experiment on this effect, people who first had to circle every ‘e’ in a long passage gave up sooner when they then had to watch a video of a fixed, boring, scene. The same loss of persistence has been found when people resist tempting foods, suppress emotional reactions, even make the effort to try to impress someone.

This all suggests we have a fixed will power budget, one we should be careful in spending. Some neuroscientists suspect that self-control consumes blood sugar, which takes a while to build up again, and so the depletion effect.

But the good news is that we can grow our will power; like a muscle, over time the more we use it, the more it gradually increases. But doing this takes, of all things, will power.

As the muscle of will grows, the larger our reservoir of self-discipline becomes. So people who are able to stick to a diet or exercise program for a few months, or who complete money-management classes, also reduce their impulse buying, how much junk food they eat and alcohol they drink. They watch less TV and do more housework. And this ability to delay grasping at gratification, much data shows, predicts greater career success.

This round-up of thinking on will power comes courtesy of Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang, whose new book Welcome to Your Brain details the evidence about will power.  But, writing in the New York Times, the duo pose a puzzle – while it’s clear that will power has limits, what brain mechanisms let us build it up?

That question brought to mind the conversation I had with Richard Davidson, an old friend and a brilliant neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin (the conversation is available from  Davidson’s research these days focuses on neuroplasticity: how our experience shapes the brain throughout life. One surprise: though most of us learned that we have a fixed number of brain cells when we are born, and that we lose them steadily until we die, brain science now tells us the brain makes about 10,000 new cells every day, and that they migrate to where they are needed. Once there, each cell makes around 10,000 connections to other brain cells over the successive four months.

One site that helps us build will power, Davidson’s research finds, is located in the left prefrontal cortex, the brain’s executive center located just behind the forehead. Our plans and goals hatch here, and impulses are executed via this zone. One neural circuit inhibits emotional impulse, and can be strengthened by a range of methods. As Davidson explained to me in our conversation, one kind of training that seems to do this is mindfulness training, a secular form of meditation widely used in settings from businesses to outpatient clinics.

There are ways, it seems, to make it easier to “just say no” when we need to

17 thoughts on “Build Your Will Power

  1. This article further strenghtens the proposition that though we have the ability to accomplish anything we set our hearts and minds to achieve, we obviously cannot do everything!
    The balancing act is in determining which specific (well defined and relatively few per time) activities we would apportion our time, will power and resources to.

    Many do have the belief that they can overcome every single weakness and incompetencies that they have, but that in my opinion is some unrealistic goal.
    What’s critical is finding out or discovering (and not choosing) our areas of natural strength. We must then learn to polish and exploit these inherent abilities for maximum profit.

    For illustration purposes, a 4 x 4 could never outperform a McLaren or Ferrari on a smooth race track, no matter how hard it tries. Reverse the equation by changing the circuit to rough sandy terrain. The speedmasters would hardly move. By their very nature and inherent design, each machine already has competitive advantage as a function of the environment and frame of reference.

    Indeed, we do have will power and as much as we could develop it through constant use, we still do have limitations. Paradoxically, those limitations are to our advantage. A research carried out on different sets of kids exposed to confined and unfenced playgrounds showed startling results. The kids in the well demarcated playground were adventurous and moved about freely through all nooks and crannies of the playground.
    The other kids (in the vast open playground) were less adventurous, stayed put in a small place, and exhibited less creative tendencies.

    I believe the learning point is that we’ve all got limited but sufficient measures of will power to achieve what we are designed to achieve.

  2. I beleive that we should strengthen our will power in order to acheive our goals but still we should stop or put limits to ourselves and remember that we are human beings we should care about our health about our family and ourselves.
    and to remember always there is no perfect person so don’t try to be cause we consume ourselves and we reach to nowhere…

  3. Such an interesting topic.

    As a business coach who herself battles a food addiction and depression, I am fascinated at the theory that we have a limited amount of will power.

    I have lost 187 pounds. left an abusive marriage, left a six-figure job to start my coaching consultancy and have recently written a book. I have accomplished all this in 4 years. I have had to change many behaviors and have a hard time cmprehending a limit on will power in light of this.

    If I were to imagine a finite amount of will power through all of this, I wonder if I would have been able to accomplish all of this. Would I have used my resources of energy, faith, wilingness in different ways? Through all of this I have reached out to my whole community for help. Was I really adding to my will power reserves by tapping into others??

    My Book Who’s Helping Who? due out in several weeks, talks to the topic of going outside of yourself and asking for help as a way to build your own energy, build relationships and hence build intimacy.

    I love the notion of meditation as a way to increase or leverage what we have, yet question the ability to build enough alone. I would theorize that social and emotional intelligence is actually the way to increase personal will power and that of others.

    As you point out we are wired to connect. I would say we are wired to build upon ourselves by connecting with others. We are designed to leverage each others skills and abilities and hence grow stronger together as a community, as creative beings, and as individuals.

    I believe in the sum of the parts. We are about connection, and it is the skills of reaching out for and giving help that will support all of us achieve our potentials.

    Without being able to receive help, we are ill equipped to give it in a healthy way. It is the flow and balance of the Cycle of Help that allows for full expression of everyones gifts and abilities, no less will power and the ability to make meaningful change….

  4. I am absolutely new to blogging, and have recently formed my own website. I am really impressed with the article. Having done my masters in Child Development, I am quite sensitive to the behavior patterns of humans, as well as interactions. Also being a mother of an 18 year old I find this whole concept very intriguing indeed.

  5. Very interesting topic and follow up comments. One of my test with will power was becoming vegetarian. Will power often becomes struggle within oneself if it does not come from inside i.e realization. It was very very hard to stay away from my favorite meat dishes (butter chicken) but I decided that I have to win.

    I’ll give credit to meditation for keeping me focused, it was nothing complex, just few minutes praying in my own words to almighty – saying that I surrender, I let go and you help me control my cravings; and its now over 8 years that I am vegeterian.

    This one victory of will power led to many others. Although, every situation is unique, in my case I think my firm belief, meditation and realization of why I am choosing to be vegeterian helped a lot.


  6. I found this article interesting, too. It seems to me that it’s wrong. It would would be innacurate to say that most people have used up thier limits of self restraint. I think that’s a cop out. In my opinion, anybody can do anything they put their mind to do (within reason). There is nothing stopping a person from achieving their personal goals for growth. The only limits that people have are caused by their own self doubts. The bottom line is that we all have to take responsibility for our actions and live our lives accordingly. Limits are only there until they are tested and broken!

  7. What role does motivation play in increasing will power? For example, one may lack the will power to get up at 2am, or may do so with struggling effort. But if the house was on fire there would be little difficulty in getting up and out real fast. I have seen friends deal with sustained tragedy which requires significant will power to deal with day to day activities which otherwise would seem unbearable, yet the emotional intensity of their experience pushes them through. I believe you can therefore increase your will power, but it requires a deeper connection to the principle that underpins the behaviour. Experience seems to be a great tutor in this regard, but I would love to know how one can independently increase motivation when the heart doesn’t feel the same intensity as the head.

  8. An interesting article. Thanks for the books you’ve written – I’ve enjoyed them all but especially your early books on meditation and mind.

    A question:

    We know that will power / impulse control can be increased. According to New Scientist (13 Sept) we also have evidence that the areas of brain involved in self control overlap those used for working memory and there is evidence that one tires the other. Also we can refuel self control by keeping blood glucose levels up. So, finally, the question: has anyone done any tests to determine whether 5 or 10 minutes of meditation would replenish ones ability to resist impulses?

  9. Hi i have been through very tough life living with an alcholic and procrastinator partner and some people can understand what that means and then……to cut the long story short, i was an emotional wreck and then when coming out of the hospital one day after admiting him in the hospital for liver disease i said to my self there has to another way to deal with situation than crying. I felt there is very little that i have control over and others can not change this situation until he wants to. I thought to my self if it is God who has control over everything and i do my part then i should leave it to him to do what HE has planned. Since then i have almost stopped crying and this thought is giving me the will power to deal with every situation with strengh than weakness. So my thinking is that you do need some to connect to some one either a human being or in my case i chose to connect with the supper power.

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