Willpower doesn’t always have the best reputation. Many times, people use the term as shorthand for white-knuckling their way through a situation that often includes some type of deprivation. You steel yourself to avoid eating dessert, for example, or sticking to your fitness goals.
The problem is that if you stumble — which is easy to do when you’re feeling deprived of something — you might make the situation worse by assuming you just don’t have enough willpower.
But what if willpower wasn’t seen as a fuel that easily runs out but instead as a muscle that gets stronger as you develop it? In other words, willpower isn’t a limited resource, it’s a skill you learn and strengthen through practice.
“Willpower is a type of self-discipline,” says David Greuner, MD, head physician at NYC Surgical Associates. “It’s your ability to exhibit restraint, persistence or resilience in the face of difficult situations.”
With that in mind, here are three tips on building those qualities, keeping in mind it takes time — like fitness and nutrition changes do — to get the results you want:
It’s useful to see willpower as just one of your tools toward achieving goals, says Taylor Jacobson, founder and CEO of Focusmate, a developer of productivity and anti-procrastination software. That helps you see you have a whole toolshed of useful tactics.
For example, he emphasizes routine as a way to set new habits and get them locked in — a strategy that can reduce the need to draw on willpower.
“We’re creatures of habit,” he says. “It’s no accident that productive people swear by their morning routines. Those put you on the ‘habit conveyor belt’ from the first moment you wake up and guide you through the rest of the day.”
Anyone who’s started and stuck with a new fitness routine knows Day 1 is extremely different than Day 365. Maybe on that first day, you could do half a pushup, and now you’re doing 20 just as a warmup. No matter how far you’ve come, it’s likely you have a sense of your progress, and willpower is the same, believes Dr. Greuner.
“The more adapted you become to exhibiting discipline, the more your mind will adjust to the new setpoints,” he says. “Much like your body begins to crave exercise once you get used to a certain fitness regimen, your mind will crave that ‘buzz’ that comes from developing self-control.”
It can be helpful to keep a “willpower log” to jot down the moments you feel you showed the kind of persistence and resilience you want to develop. Just as you might track your calories or your training sets, writing down your willpower wins can give you something to reference and let you see how you’re progressing.
As tempting as it might be to overhaul your life at the start of a fresh year — no knocking New Year’s resolutions, they can be a helpful guide to changes you want to make — developing willpower should be seen as a long-term practice.
Rather than thinking you might have a limited capacity for persistence or resilience, consider instead that those qualities can be increased over time, especially if you give yourself some breaks along the way.
Eating that cookie doesn’t mean you lack willpower and need to give up, for example. It might be an opportunity to look at why you wanted it, whether it fits in with your goals, and if you consider it a cue to work on your self-discipline going forward. In the meantime, enjoy the cookie.
“In the same way that you’re training your body to adapt to any new protocol, you should give yourself time and focus on developing consistency,” says Dr. Greuner. “As you see yourself changing for the better, you might become more aggressive with your goals. But starting with smaller, realistic goals that develop your willpower is a great place to begin.”