Willpower - How to Train Your Brain for Better Decisions

Willpower - How to Train Your Brain for Better Decisions

“Willpower is the key to success. Successful people strive no matter what they feel by applying their will to overcome apathy, doubt or fear.”- Dan Millman

People will use different definitions to describe willpower: drive, determination, self-discipline, self-control, self-regulation, effortful control.

We rely on willpower to exercise, diet, save money, quit smoking or drinking, overcome procrastination and ultimately accomplish our goals. It impacts every area of our lives. 

Most people have an intuitive sense of what it is, but many of us lack the knowledge that can help understand what undermines it and how we can work with, instead of against it. 

At the core of willpower is the ability to resist short-term temptations and desires in order to achieve long-term goals. It’s the prevailing of long-term satisfaction over instant gratification.

When we consider definitions for Willpower, a key underlying theme relates to self-regulation. Studies show that people scoring high on self-control are more apt at regulating behavioural, emotional and attention impulses to achieve long-term goals when compared to more impulsive individuals.

Many may be familiar with the now famous “Marshmallow experiment” where pre-schoolers were presented with a plate of marshmallows. Each child was told that the researcher had to leave the room for a few minutes. If they waited patiently until they returned, the child could have two marshmallows. However, if the child couldn’t wait, they could ring a bell, the researcher would immediately return, but they could only eat one marshmallow………Years later, the research team followed up with these kids and found that the children who waited for the second marshmallow were generally faring better in life, scoring higher SAT’s and lower body mass index (BMI), 30 years after the initial test.

It would seem that self-control is actually a better predictor of academic achievement than intelligence, a stronger determinant of effective leadership than charisma and, brace for impact, more important for marital satisfaction than empathy. People with greater willpower are happier, healthier, more satisfied with relationships, progress further in their careers and are better able to manage stress, and deal with conflict. Go figure!

Point being, we all have it, we all use it to some extent, and most of us would be better off if we improved our willpower.

As simple as it is, science has shown that most of our choices are made on autopilot, without any awareness of what’s really driving them or the effects they will have in our lives. So, the first step to changing any behaviour, is self-awareness.

Self-awareness is the ability to recognise what we are doing as we’re doing it. Our thought processes, emotions and reasons for acting are an important part of making better choices.

With our fast paced lifestyles filled with constant distraction and stimulation this is even more important. Studies have found that distracted people are more likely to give in to temptation. For example, distracted shoppers are more sensitive to in-store promotions and more likely to end up with items not on their shopping list.

One thing you can do to increase your self-awareness is to keep track of all your choices in a given day. Then, by the end of the day analyse which ones supported your long-term goals and which ones didn’t.

Mindfulness is also one way to manage your Willpower.

Over the last decade science has made remarkable progress. Neuroscientists now know that the brain is incredibly responsive to experience and it actually changes based on what you do. So when we practice a certain behaviour, you’re strengthening the neural connections for that behaviour, making it more accessible and more likely to occur.

Practice worrying, and you get better at worrying and the brain region associated with that will grow denser. Practice concentration and you’ll get better at it and your brain will respond accordingly.

So in this way, we have the ability to train our brain for better self-control. Mindfulness has a powerful effect on a wide range of skills that relate to self-control including attention, focus, stress management, impulse control and self-awareness. When you are being mindful, you are training your brain to focus on a particular given point (your breath for example).Paying attention and observing thoughts, emotions and impulses without identifying or acting on them. You are literally training multiple important skills at once. So if you have never tried mindfulness before, it could be a significant opportunity you can embrace to improve your stress, manage your emotions, and improve attention and self-control.

Interestingly, exercise is one of the best tools you can use to strengthen your willpower?

Megan Oaten and Ken Cheng devised a study of a new treatment to enhance self-control. The participants were 6 men and 18 women, their ages went from eighteen to fifty years old. After two months of treatment these people were: eating less junk food, eating more healthy foods, watching less television, studying more, saving more money, procrastinating less, less likely to be late to appointments.

The treatment? Physical exercise. These participants were given free memberships to a gym and encouraged to use it. They were not asked to make any other changes.

While we need to consider what will increase our Willpower, we also need to consider what will also undermine it. We recognise that one of the biggest obstacles to self-control is stress, another significant hindrance is self-criticism.

Study after study shows that self-criticism is correlated with less motivation and worse self-control. In contrast, self-compassion – being supportive and kind to yourself, especially when confronted with failure – is associated with greater motivation and self-control.

Attentional control is also an opportunity to focus better and for longer and avoid distraction which often leads to us being tempted.

We can enhance our focus through dedicated practise. We can use routines to reduce our cognitive load, set clear and realistic goals, minimise distraction, manage stress and fatigue and use tools and techniques to enhance our attentional control.

So what are these tools you ask? They are often fun and easy and just a few minutes a day can help to “train your brain”. For example try a “Stroop test”. This typically consists of grids containing words that describe a colour. Each of the words is in a different colour, but only one to two words are in the same colour as that described by the word. The better your ability to focus, the better your ability to identify correctly the words that are in the same colour they describe.

Stress and self-criticism are some of the biggest obstacles to willpower. Mindfulness and kindness to self and managing our thoughts and our attentional control can be our greatest allies.

Training yourself to notice when you’re making a decision rather than acting on autopilot can be a very effective strategy, while including exercise, healthy eating, mindfulness and attentional control into your life are great ways to activate your willpower.

The essence is to train your brain to pause before you act. 


Lino, Catarina, (2016) The Psychology of Willpower: Training the Brain for Better Decisions

Clogh., Strycharczyk (2014) Developing Mental Toughness.

Duckworth, A. L. (2011). The significance of self-control. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

How to boost your willpower. (1991). https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/good-thinking/201306/how-boost-your-willpower

Mischel, W., Cantor, N., & Feldman, S. (1996). Principles of self-regulation: The nature of willpower and self-control.

What you need to know about willpower  from http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/willpower.aspx