• Though the idea that each of us has a “reserve” of willpower is an attractive notion, current psychological research doesn’t put much stock in the idea. Psychologists are instead asking the question: Does willpower exist? 
  • Believing in willpower is part of ego depletion theory—the belief that without enough willpower, we aren’t likely to feel motivated to accomplish tasks or behave healthily.
  • Experiments have shown that people who successfully implement healthy habits don’t have more willpower, but are instead better at exercising self-control.
  • To exercise better self-control yourself, try talking with a life coach, setting SMART goals, focusing on the long-term benefits of your goals, and giving yourself grace if you initially fail.

Willpower is often thought of as an “x” factor—an unquantifiable, but powerful force that, if only we could capture it, could allow us to conquer our vices and achieve our goals. Willpower is perhaps the most romanticized of all psychological traits, but rarely have we stopped to pose the question: Does willpower exist? Though psychologists used to firmly believe that it did, those long-held views are quickly changing. 

Our current understanding maintains that willpower might actually be a game we play with ourselves—it may only be real if we choose to believe so. This is known as ego-depletion theory, the concept of willpower as a finite resource. This way of thinking creates a losing battle for ourselves: If we believe that we need willpower to accomplish something, we’ll only end up feeling depleted afterward. Instead, psychological researchers are finding out that successful people don’t actually have more willpower. They have another x-factor, one that can be measured: self-control

Ego Depletion Theory, Simplified

When we decide that a task needs willpower to be accomplished, then we’re creating an uphill battle—that’s the essential logic behind ego depletion theory. It was once thought that willpower could be measured: After all, when we fail at tasks that we traditionally view as needing willpower (dieting, exercising, breaking addiction), we assume that we simply didn’t have enough willpower to get the job done. The truth? Self-control may actually be the key to breaking unhealthy habits and accomplishing our goals. 

You might ascribe to ego depletion theory if you: 

  • Use words, thoughts, or anxiety to motivate yourself.
  • Struggle with procrastination, often waiting for the “perfect moment” to start tasks.
  • Feel guilty for not being more proactive. 
  • Think along the lines of, “If I only had more drive and motivation, then maybe things would be going differently.”  

If willpower was like a muscle that could be trained or exhausted, then perhaps it would be rational to ascribe to ego depletion theory. But psychologists aren’t so sure that willpower exists anymore. New studies seem to suggest that it’s time we do away with the idea of willpower—creating the concept of a finite resource that’s required to accomplish everything creates a lot of pressure and undue stress. That’s why research is starting to focus instead on the difference between willpower and self-control. 

Willpower and Self-Control Aren’t the Same 

The Stroop Task, among other tests, was once believed to help measure someone’s willpower in research settings. It’s notoriously difficult—see if you can accurately state the color of the word below: 

RED

If your response was “blue”, give yourself a pat on the back. Psychologists in one study predicted that if given a similar set of mismatched word-color combinations, participants with more willpower would be able to respond more quickly with the correct answer (ex. “blue”, not “red”). But there was little evidence to support that willpower existed, or was linked to self-control—participants who reported having good self-control seemed to struggle with the Stroop Task at similar rates to those with poor self-control. 

The study indicated that willpower had little to nothing to do with self-control. Though there have been studies where willpower has seemed to be able to be measured or defined, even renowned psychological experiments are surprisingly difficult to replicate. This suggests that willpower, if it actually does exist, isn’t something we know how to measure right now. That’s why it’s time to stop waiting for willpower to save us. 

Self-control can be difficult to distinguish from willpower, but here are the major differences: 

  • Self-control is about creating habits that won’t let you down. Self-control doesn’t involve battling yourself; instead, it focuses on eliminating the obstacles in front of you by navigating around them, not trying to bulldoze straight through them. 
  • Willpower is about blindly resisting your temptations instead of doing anything to remove them. The euphemism “work smarter, not harder” underlines the advantage of valuing self-control over willpower. 

Don’t Set Yourself Up to Be Let Down: 4 Tips for Improving Self-Control 

Placing too much emphasis on willpower can lead to lowered self-esteem: When we run out of willpower (because it’s finite, remember?), our ego takes a hit. But there are far less painful options to choose from than relying on ego depletion theory. Consider these suggestions for ways to improve your self-control: 

  • Talk with a life coach: Having a professional to help offer guidance can make setting and achieving your goals much easier. Life coaches can also help you implement helpful habits, which means prioritizing self-control over willpower—one of the best ways to avoid setting ourselves up for emotional exhaustion and failure. 
  • Don’t focus on negativity when you’re feeling tempted or unmotivated: Whether you’ve just begun or are in the middle of something important to you (a project at work, a new diet, quitting smoking, etc.), set your sights on the positive outcomes that will arise from doing that thing. Learning to love what’s healthy for you is a formidable task for anyone, but that path can be made easier by remembering the reason you’re pushing forward. 
  • Set SMART goals: Set your sights on objectives that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely. For example, it might not be realistic to expect yourself to work out every day of the week. But three, four times? That goal may be possible, and can more easily become a habit—instead of a hassle that now requires willpower to accomplish. 
  • Don’t take yourself too seriously, but hold on to your self-worth: We all fail, embarrass ourselves, and make decisions that we regret later. Avoiding this isn’t possible at all times. Try to use setbacks, failures, and mistakes as opportunities for self-growth and reflection. 

Willpower Might Only Be Wishful Thinking

As much as we love to put stock in the power of determination, science says that depending on our iron will alone lead to failure—that’s why putting stock in ego depletion theory isn’t a good idea. To accomplish our goals without letting ourselves down, it’s better to start implementing healthy habits that orient us towards what we’re hoping to get done. Developing self-control relies on SMART goals, maintaining self-worth, focusing on the benefits of healthy habits, and possibly talking with a life coach for more direction. Through these steps, we can eliminate some of the unnecessary stress and emotional baggage that comes along with trying to improve the many different aspects of our lives.

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