How to Increase Willpower and Be Mentally Tough?



Many people sometimes fail to achieve their goals and dreams due to a lack of willpower. While some have more than what is required, some people have a low willpower level that makes it more difficult for them to sustain the energy necessary to accomplish goals during life, small as big ones.

Not achieving goals, or in other words, giving up on achieving goals due to a lack of willpower, can lead to further behavioral issues such as lack of confidence and persistence, high-stress levels, unwanted thoughts, and more negative side effects that can further damage the ability to achieve goals in life. 

A person with lower willpower might find it, for example, challenging to manage his time, and eventually, this might reflect on his ability to stay motivated, which in its turn, can further damage his ability to function properly.

So whether you wish to quit smoking, stop drinking, eat healthily or adopt other healthy habits, and more importantly, if you ever aspire to become the persona you always dreamed of being, then knowing how to build and maintain willpower is not a choice for you, but rather a must.

However, do not worry. Willpower has a learning potential (like muscles have) that may increase through the practice of certain good habits. 

This article will share some fundamental insights on how to increase willpower and become mentally tough and tips to enable anyone to take their first steps towards strengthening their willpower and achieving goals in life.

Willpower meaning and how it works in the brain?

What is willpower?

Although people use various definitions to describe willpower depending on the goal they want to achieve; willpower can be referred to as the ability or capacity to attend to tasks until they are completed.

This capability consists of many other “sub” abilities or qualities, such as patience, persistence, controlling emotions, the capacity to override unwelcome thoughts, and more. All of which should be taken into account when working on strengthening willpower.

Is the brain responsible for the creation of willpower?

Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., author of The Willpower Instinct, believes that the brain can produce willpower. So is this true?

Well, it turns out that the frontal area in the brain (just above our forehead and eyes), sometimes referred to as the prefrontal cortex, is in charge of higher mental functions and executive functions such as concentration, planning, judgment, and decision making. This part of the brain functions to regulate our behavior, such as emotion and impulse control.

Since self-control and willpower fall within these categories, one can assume that this part of the brain handles willpower and that McGonigal’s beliefs are correct.

Remember, successful people achieve their goals by applying willpower regardless of unwanted emotions.

Is willpower a limited resource?

Well, the answer to that is both yes and no. While one can tap into this psychological resource repeatedly, over-usage, on the other hand, might cause what in Psychology is known as willpower depletion. This means a level of willpower that depletes through time and use until it lacks the minimum energy levels required to attend to and complete tasks.

According to the Ego-Depletion concept, once willpower is used successfully, and one experiences the joy and satisfaction associated with the success, the more likely he will use willpower again in the future. However, since the body’s physiological resources are limited, the more one attempts to use more willpower, the harder it will get for him to exploit it effectively.

The metaphor that scientists and others often use for this resource is a container that has a limited size, like a gas tank. As it is hard to get more gas out of a depleted tank, it is hard to extract more willpower from the mind once the limited amount of energy is expended on other tasks.

Willpower seems somewhat of a strategic reserve that gets called into action when required. If, for example, someone requires self-control during the workday but had to tap this resource by making difficult decisions the previous evening about an unhappy relationship, he may find willpower more limited today.

The apparent conclusion that comes to mind is that, as with any other resource at our disposal, we need to use the willpower “muscle” wisely and consider not only using it but also its availability. Meaning how much willpower is really available for our disposal.

The causes for lack of willpower?

As explained above, one reason for the lack of willpower is willpower depletion. It is similar to a body muscle that is not strong enough to execute a specific task due to exhaustion from previous tasks. In the same way, the excessive exercise of willpower can cause exhaustion of this ‘muscle’ resulting in a lack of will or willpower failure.

Another reason for lack of willpower can be life circumstances, which sometimes lead to a negative conception of matters in life or even of life itself that weakens the desire to achieve accomplishments. A pessimistic point of view is certain to affect their capability to engage their power of will and resist short-term temptations.

Other reasons that might stand in the way of having high willpower can be in the form of stress management. A lack of ability to manage stress might lead to a stressed mindset that makes it harder to develop willpower yet sustain it over time.

Further reasons can be a lack of self-discipline needed for consistency over time, specific mental health issues and disorders like depression, low desire for self-improvement, and lack of positive habits that keep the willpower ‘muscle’ fit and ready for action, amongst other reasons.

How do I build willpower and self-discipline?

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So what can you do, in light of all this information, to overcome the willpower challenge and build a strong one?

Let’s go over some of the solutions one by one.

Develop Self Awareness

As with many things, a crucial place to start would be developing awareness of the issue at hand. If you are reading this article, you’ve already begun building your awareness. Keep it going, whether here or with any other available resource. The more you engage in this issue, the more you will be aware of its importance and the more you can allocate your resources to building willpower.

No less important is to think about how you want to perceive yourself in life. What do you wish to accomplish for yourself? Ask yourself where you stand now in your life and where you imagine yourself 10 years from now.

Think about which goals from your list you connect to the most. Which goals are most important for you to achieve and which ones you desire the most, and set them as your primary goals out of awareness of their importance to you.

Maintain Self Discipline

Self Discipline is a crucial capability that individuals use to accomplish their goals. It is not something given to us by others, but rather it comes from within us. It is a critical element for success.

The biggest problem when developing self-discipline is finding out what works best for you. Some methods might work for you better than other methods, so invest the time to find what works for you.

Apply self-regulation and constantly examine yourself. Check whether you are on the tracks you set out for yourself, and avoid investing efforts in matters that do not truly assist your primary goals. Stay focused on your targets and avoid wasting time and resources on side issues that do not promote your goals.

There are many areas in which self-discipline can be developed, but there are three core areas where everyone can start from:

  1. Decide what you want and why – you must ask yourself why you want something, and not only what is that something that you want. If your reasons for wanting something are strong enough, it can help you keep going, and the how will come naturally by itself.
  2. Keep good company – avoid hanging around people who have a bad influence on you and who might lead you to miss your goals. Surround yourself with like-minded people who share the same desires as you do and who will be more likely to push you when needed.
  3. Keep yourself accountable – self-discipline is developed through self-motivation, which comes from within you. So if someone else is motivating you, it might be temporary only until that person is no longer there or until he’s distracted from boosting you further. So remember that it is best and safest to depend on yourself only if you wish to build yourself for success.

Deploy self-control

Self-control is a capability that most people work on developing their entire life. It is very easy these days to get carried away by the broad freedom we have to explore so many things. Whether it is other opportunities, occupations, interests, desires, and so forth. But that can quickly drain your resources and, most important, derail you off track.

Don’t let yourself lose control of your actions and advancements within the path you set out for yourself. Refrain from poor habits that stand in the way of maintaining self-control.

Develop small but powerful habits

Research shows that there are habitual patterns that can be used to improve willpower. Even if we do something simple such as making our bed, it may actually affect our willpower. These habits can build self-esteem and confidence that spread positive energy to the entire body. Find ways that help you create good habits and break bad habits you notice once you spot them.

Some such habits you can adopt are essential health and well-being habits you’ve been hearing your entire life:

Feed Your Brain

Whether for strengthening your body or your willpower muscle, healthy eating is a must, of course. Skipping meals can cause a bad mood in our bodies and minds, which might interfere with our efforts to improve willpower. The brain makes decisions, and it can supply us with wriggle power for making correct decisions, depending on if it is adequately fed.

Get a good night’s sleep

Adequate night sleep improves mental stability and helps maintain a healthy brain. Good rest is usually between eight hours each night for adults and up to 12 hours for children. So making sure you get enough sleep is essential for keeping your body healthy and your overall mood upbeat.

A bad attitude will deplete your overall energy and make it much more difficult to deflect the necessary energies needed to maintain your willpower.

Physical Activity

Exercise daily. Thousands of people promise themselves they will exercise every day. With good intentions only, they pay for gym memberships, stay committed for a few weeks, and then quit. In nearly all cases, the lack of self-discipline is to blame.

Commitment to sport requires willpower, making physical activity a great way by itself to train your willpower muscle. The trick, however, is to start small and build up. If your willpower is limited, you have to fool your brain into thinking nothing is really happening.

Regular exercise is crucial for your daily physical and mental well-being. So if you haven’t done so until now, consider adopting habits such as daily exercises that will make you feel better and strengthen your willpower. It is much better than eating chocolate while watching TV to have some instant gratification and temporary reward sensation.

Meditate for 5 minutes a day

Detach for a few minutes from everything surrounding you to concentrate on yourself and develop your will. Every time our mind wanders, our minds need to be fuelled with new willpower and energy.

Focusing on knowing and understanding yourself and your capabilities will help you stay on track and overcome momentary impulses. When we become conscious, we tend to engage the part of our brain that requires willpower rather than simply allowing our instincts to control us.

Make a manageable to-do list

Successful people all over the world maintain to-do lists whether in paper form or not. When we forget the things we must do to accomplish our goals, or if we set unmanageable targets or keep tasks unfinished, our subconscious worries us. Causing an internal conflict that consumes energy we need for maintaining thoughts, such as creating willpower. Our mood gets distorted, emotions impact our ability to resist temptations, and from there, the road to derail off tracks is fast.

Being mentally strong is crucial for success. The brain is responsible for our actions and achievements, so avoid placing unnecessary pitfalls in its way, like bad habits that distract it and lead to unaccomplished goals.

Set realistic goals and milestones on your list and not your dreams. Your dreams can be your end goal, but your to-do list should concentrate on the set of actions you need to take to accomplish them.

Adopt small changes and create new habits

Every time we modify a routine, we exert some extent of self-control. The more self-control we have, the more strength we possess.

Adopting new habits and consistently executing them is actually a good exercise of self-control by itself. Start small, for example, with the idea of brushing your teeth, eating your food, or opening the door with your non-dominating hand. Doing so can improve your ability and commitment to engage yourself in tasks you set out, which today might be small but tomorrow might be more extensive. When small changes become easier, significant changes have a better chance of being effective. Initially, the idea might sound strange, but it can actually help improve your willpower.

Work on one change at a time

Willpower and motivation can increase, but it takes time, and results come gradually (similar to increasing muscle mass which takes time and hard work). So as mentioned previously, it is crucial to set realistic goals and not overload yourself with multiple changes at once. Adopting one new habit each time and practicing it for a while, and then gradually adding a new habit/task is preferred to engaging yourself simultaneously in various new habits without completing any of them due to systems overload.

Working hours are not an unlimited resource, whether at the office or at home. It is essential to reserve time for daily routines that improve your well-being and for maintaining high energy levels and steady willpower.

Choose a reward in advance

When establishing a reward plan in advance, we can improve willpower by motivating it. It takes hard work to achieve some goals, but if there is a nice reward waiting at the end, the entire process can be easier and friendlier.

The reward can be tiny as a chocolate cake or big as a vacation, depending on the magnitude of the goal. Match a suitable reward to your task to motivate yourself further and increase your willpower.

The willpower muscle

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Like any muscle in the body, willpower can be strengthened with proper practice and attitude. By now, you should understand the many advantages of treating willpower like a muscle.

Think about training your willpower muscle like training for a marathon. When you first train, you wouldn’t do the entire 26 miles or close to that. You would start small and gradually build up as your muscles get stronger. So choose only one of the solutions in this article to add to your daily routine while ensuring you have the best tools for implementing it successfully. Prefer the one that seems most practical and suitable for your personality and that has the highest chance of working for you consistently.

After it becomes part of your morning routine, advance while keeping track of your achievements so far to add more solutions that help build up this muscle. 

Try to remember this guiding principle – to strengthen a muscle, you have to exercise. When you over-exercise, the muscle gets tired and will need time to recover. Putting this into the context of willpower and self-control means training our willpower regularly while allowing it to relax from time to time to restore its energy.

Boosting willpower is not necessarily about pushing harder but understanding its nature and using it to hack your system and exit the willpower challenge with the upper hand.

Building something takes time and patience. It will never happen overnight. So, if you notice your brain power fading, then avoid short-term temptations and take a little break until your stamina returns. Be aware of how much strength you have left before making difficult choices or signing up for tough challenges. This way, you will avoid wrong decisions in big junctions such as quitting your job or ending relationships.

The marshmallow test and capacity to resist temptation

Sound familiar? Maybe that’s because you’ve heard of the famous experiment in social psychology to measure self-control that used marshmallows to test children’s willpower. Conducted in the 1970s by Walter Mischel, Ph.D., studying self-control in children.

Using simple but effective methods, the tests provided insights into how the children avoid temptation, resist temptation, and resist short-term temptations, and identify and assess willpower characteristics.

These experiments based on the Marshmallow test laid the foundation of today’s research in self-control. In this test, Mischel presented children with a choice between one small reward provided immediately (in the form of a marshmallow) or two rewards if they waited for a short time of approximately 15 minutes, during which the tester left the room and then returned.

It was concluded that children who waited 15 minutes for the second marshmallow to appear before they ate the one in front of them were more internally motivated and had a stronger sense of self-control.

Since this experiment, many other researchers have been spending time with further scientific studies to test children’s capacity to delay gratification at various ages.

Final thoughts

It is essential to build greater willpower one step at a time. You can never grow muscles overnight. You need to dig deep to build up willpower and create lasting positive experiences that will walk you through life in a successful manner.

Once you get there, however, you will enjoy capabilities that will assist you in resisting temptations more quickly, staying on track, and maintaining control over your actions and achievements to pursue your goals.

Remember always that building stronger willpower is up to you only. So don’t hesitate to take care of yourself and provide yourself with the best you can come up with. No one else will. Once you realize this, you will understand what being mentally tough is all about!

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Disclaimer – The information in this article is intended purely for educational purposes and does not constitute and is not a substitute for psychotherapy or any other official medical treatment. If you feel you need urgent help, please do not hesitate to take care of yourself and call the local crisis hotline listed on your local government website. If you want to locate a psychologist near you, please use the American Psychological Association (APA) Psychologist Locator on the APA website.