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3 Scientifically Proven Ways to Improve Your Willpower

Willpower. It’s something that many of us wish that we had more of. Willpower is the thing that helps you turn down the cake, go for a walk when you’d rather sit, and give up smoking. In this article, I’ll talk about 3 ways that you can strengthen your willpower.

“I’ll have one more piece of cake and then it’ll all be good. After, all I’ve been good for over a month now.”

“But you won’t stop there! You’ll eat the entire thing before you know it. Why throw away all your hard work?”

Chances are that, like myself, you’ve had these inner conversations, especially in your lean and healthy journey. You’ve had a part of you that wanted to reach your goal, but then also had another part of yourself that seemed to always want to sabotage your goals.  

In this blogpost, I’ll talk about how you can use willpower to reach your goals. Willpower is what will keep you motivated even when you feel like giving up.

But before I get to talking about how you can use willpower to help yourself, let’s talk about what willpower is.

Defining Willpower: Your Two Competing Selves

In the Quran and Seerah (the Prophet Muhammad’s history), a special event takes place. During the battle of Uhud, the Prophet (SAW) told the archers to remain at a specific location near the mountains so that the opposing side couldn’t surround the Believers. However, after witnessing the Believers winning the battle in the initial stage, some of the archers decided to leave their post since they thought that the battle was over. But right at this moment, the opposition recognized a gap, which then led to the defeat of the Believers.

In talking about this incident, Allah (SWT) says:

“when you lost courage and fell to disputing about the order [given by the Prophet] and disobeyed after He had shown you that which you love. Among you are some who desire this world, and among you are some who desire the Hereafter. Then he turned you back from them [defeated] that He might test you. And He has already forgiven you, and Allah is the possessor of bounty for the believers” [Al-Quran, 3:152].

Like the archers who were told to protect the Believers by staying where the Prophet (SAW) had told them to stay, our willpower can sometimes be tested by what seems like a reasonable and obvious choice. That’s because, as many researchers have, unsurprisingly, found, willpower is the managing of two competing inner selves.[1]

Like the archer’s who were told to stand guard, willpower can…

  • be overburdened by having too many things that require its use;
  • shift as you focus on different priorities.

Willpower Can Be Overburdened by Everyday Choices

According to health psychologist, Dr Kelly McGonigal in her book The Willpower Instinct, a lot of things in life require willpower: controlling your anger when someone cuts you off while your driving; your child throwing a tantrum in the middle of a grocery store; your desire to use the phone while talking to your spouse.

These examples are major ones, but there are minor things that we do that require willpower. For example:

  • Running some errands although you’d like to be at home.
  • Choosing to wait in line.
  • Having Stevia rather than table sugar with your coffee.

What this means is that willpower is always present in your life as you constantly have to make choices. You’re also making these choices while having a goal in mind. And yep, each choice also has consequences.

So, every time you use willpower, it depletes. That’s why after a long, stressful day at work, it’s much easier to choose to have a piece of cake than a fruit salad.

But as Dr McGonigal points out, you can strengthen willpower in many different ways. Here are three scientifically proven ways to do so:

#1. Strengthen Willpower by Focusing on Your Reasons  

In Dr Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, Dr Frankl, a pioneering psychologist, talks about his experiences in a concentration camp during the Holocaust. He argues that one of the reasons that survivors of the Holocaust were able to survive was due to having strong willpower. This strong, consistent willpower stemmed from having and finding meaning in life. These survivors also found meaning in the suffering that they had experienced[2].

When it comes to weight loss, processes that help you find your deeper reason for wanting to lose weight will help you strengthen your willpower. Here’s an example of a procedure that will help you find your real reasons for wanting a lean and healthy life.

It’s important that you find your reasons because of the other points that I’ll talk about later in this article.

 #2. Strengthen Willpower by Practicing Mindfulness

One of the best ways to strengthen willpower is by practicing mindfulness[3]. Mindfulness is focusing on the present moment with curiosity. For example, after a frustrating incident at work, you might pause and think about your surroundings, how you feel at that moment, and why you feel that way.

According to Dr McGonigal, there are different ways to practice mindfulness in tests of willpower. For example, she talks about “surfing the urge”, craving, or impulse that could sabotage your goals (233). What this means is allowing yourself to feel the urge to do something that you shouldn’t while being conscious of the thoughts that you have and how your body reacts to these thoughts. Does your heart beat faster? Do you feel more agitated?

By practicing mindfulness and allowing these thoughts to surface, you won’t have the “rebound” effect. The “rebound effect” is when unwanted thoughts becomes stronger due to attempts to suppress them.  

In her book, Dr McGonigal gives the example of a study conducted by researchers on a group of people who were told to not think of white bears. Guess what that group couldn’t stop thinking about? White bears! 

Allowing the thoughts or emotions that you would rather suppress or block out to surface and have their turn will help them soften up as you remind yourself that they’re just thoughts and feelings that you don’t need to act on.

For example, think about having the urge to have doughnut while you’re on a diet. An approach that would encourage the “rebound effect” would go like this:

“I’m trying to lose weight but I really want that doughnut. It’s just so annoying that it’s when I’m on a diet that I want this. Why can’t I ever have self-control like other people?”

But, with mindfulness, you’d explore your desire to have a doughnut:

“Yeah, I really want a doughnut right now. I wonder why? It might be because it’s midmorning and I’m starting to feel stressed out about my workload today. I seem really agitated because my body’s tense.”  

As you practice mindfulness, here are some things that you can do:

  • Ask yourself about the time, location, and events taking place during a craving or desire
  • Do NOT label or judge your thoughts: For example, “I really lack self-control because I keep having the desire to eat whenever I feel stressed.”
  • Remember that you don’t need to respond to a thought just because you have it. This idea is important because it’s totally ok to have these thoughts. Thoughts, however, don’t become actions until we make choices.

With mindfulness, you’ll “ride” the temporary feeling of discomfort in order to reach your goal. You’re doing this by not trying to suppress or avoid an unwanted thought.

#3. Strengthen Willpower by Accepting Discomfort Today (and Not Tomorrow!) 

Another way to strengthen willpower is by accepting discomfort today, rather than tomorrow.

According to Dr McGonigal, one of the ways that people sabotage their goals is by thinking that they’ll tolerate the discomfort needed to reach that goal tomorrow. For example, many people will tell themselves that they’ll skip eating healthy today because they feel like they can always count on tomorrow.

You can accept discomfort by

  • practicing mindfulness;
  • telling yourself that every action you fail to do today because it’s too difficult or burdensome, is also an action that will continue to be difficult tomorrow. So, for example, if I tell myself that I’ll have the piece of cake today because I won’t have it tomorrow, I need to remember that I don’t always have tomorrow. The difficulties associated with this action will also continue to be there tomorrow.
  • incorporating minor changes first rather than focusing on major ones. For example, instead of promising to run for an hour tomorrow, focus on going for a walk today.

As the famous blogger Mark Manson says in his book:

Everything worthwhile in life is won through surmounting the associated negative experience. Any attempt to escape the negative, to avoid it or squash it, or silence it, only backfires.”[4]

So, accept the challenges associated with reaching your goal today!

What You Can Do

  • Strengthen your goals by writing them down, and
  • Practice mindfulness, and
  • Acknowledge the negatives associated with reaching your goals by accepting discomfort.

About the Author: Takwa Sharif is a freelance writer and editor from Salt Lake City, Utah. She holds a Master of Arts in English and also has minors in comparative literature and literacy. She’s a runner and loves cooking.


[1] McGonigal, Kelly. The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It. Avery, 2013.

[2]  Frankl, Viktor E. Man’s Search for Meaning. Beacon Press, 2006.

[3] McGonigal, Kelly. The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It. Avery, 2013.

[4] Manson, M. The subtle art of not giving a f*ck” New York City: Harper. 2016

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