Willpower

I thought this might be an appropriate topic as we go into the holidays. I often hear people say that “I just don’t have any willpower and I cannot resist those sweets or treats.”

Actually just what is willpower? Is it something we are born with? Is it something we can have more of? Are we doomed to failure if we don’t have any? Is willpower a negative word? Is it something we can measure? 

The definition of willpower is as follows:
“The ability to control yourself: strong determination that allows you to do something difficult (such as to lose weight or quit smoking)”

Synonyms for the word include:
Restraint, self-command, self-containment, self-control, self-discipline, self-government, self-mastery, self-possession, self-restraint

Research by neuroscientists has revealed that there are two areas in the brain that are involved in willpower or self-control. One is the Frontal Cortex. This is the front and upper portion of the brain and this region is involved in:

  • Planning and executive function
  • Ordering thoughts
  • Avoiding distraction
  • Problem solving

The other area of the brain is the Anterior Cingulate Cortex. This region is in the deeper part of the front of the brain. This region is responsible for the cognitive control of our actions.

Neuroscientists have been able to determine that the amount of willpower that we have is finite, meaning that it can “run out.”  So there is truth to the statement of “I just don’t have anymore will power.” 

Yet, what science has also been able to show is that willpower is like a muscle. It can wear out but it can also be developed.

Activities that seem to deplete willpower include:

  • Trying to resist food or drink
  • Suppressing emotional responses
  • Trying to impress someone
  • Stress
  • Fatigue
  • Lack of sleep

This is oh so familiar. People often experience a stressful day at work and maybe an uncomfortable situation with a colleague or a boss where feelings had to be kept quiet only to go home and eat a carton of ice cream.

Sometimes, the harder we try to resist that candy, the more we want it and go overboard after so many days of denial.

I am sure that you can think of some examples of your own.

Here is a possible way to increase your willpower; this is something that scientists have been able to measure in the lab.

Brush your teeth with your non-dominant had for two weeks. This will supposedly lead to a measurable increase in synaptic plasticity and willpower!

And yet, how do we prevent these things from happening? How do we develop more willpower? The first thing is to remember that it can be counterproductive to work toward multiple goals at the same time. It is very hard to stop smoking and lose weight at the same time. Both require will power, self-control, and self-restraint. Sometimes, there is just not enough of that to go around.

Yet, we can develop more willpower through practice. There is a phenomenon called synaptic plasticity. Synapses in the brain are those sites where one brain cell (neuron) communicates with another. Research has shown that we can actually increase the number, efficiency, and strength of these synaptic connections through practice. In other words, the brain is capable of change.

For example, when you were learning to ride a bike or swim, the task seemed daunting and it was difficult; it took lots of practice. Now, you can probably ride a bike or swim without even thinking about the multiple steps involved to accomplish that particular task. You developed strong synaptic connections and what is called muscle memory.

This can be the same with healthy habits. The more we can practice self-control, the more we are able to resist impulses and delay gratification, thus, the more willpower we will ultimately have!

For example, if you can’t seem to get started on your exercise program, start with a 15 minute walk Monday, Wednesday, and Friday – 15 minutes and no longer. After doing this for a month or more, you may be ready to increase your walk to 20 -30 minutes each time. You have practiced the activity and increased your synaptic plasticity – thus increasing your resolve and willpower to stay with your exercise routine.


Kathleen Baskett, MD is the Medical Director of Weight Management at St. Vincent Healthcare. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Medicine, and the author of “Moving Forward: The Weigh to a Healthier Weight”.