Flex Your Willpower Muscle

This article was originally written in 2008 for Wfighter.Com a site that doesn’t exist anymore, so I am republishing it here. Edited and updated with lots of sources. I noticed (thankfully) that my writing has improved since this piece was first written and I also saw I did a horrible job of linking to studies and references. So I researched again and added the goods 🙂

If this topic interests you I suggest the book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney (Aug 2012) as recommended additional reading on this topic.

If you are interested in health and fitness, you know the importance of willpower. We use willpower to get us to the gym, to run that extra 10 minutes, to choose carrot sticks over cookies, to get to bed early, to pass on a second cocktail, even to hold off on telling off our boss.

If we can understand how willpower works, we can conquer many of the demons that prevent us from optimal success. We will train harder, eat healthier, and be calmer. We can unleash a powerful, disciplined fighter in us all.

Fighters are notoriously disciplined, training 2-3 hours a day, following a careful diet, sacrificing social activities for the sake of a good night’s sleep. No fighter is perfect; we all have areas we would like to improve on. However, the world’s top fighters are inspiring because they have an enormous amount of willpower and discipline

In the last ten years, scientists have made some exciting discoveries regarding human willpower. First, it’s important to note that willpower is a mind-body response, which means that when we exert willpower, it affects our physical state and when our physical state gets altered a certain way, it will change how we can use willpower. Willpower is an evolutionary characteristic we developed to help us ignore instinctive instant gratification and focus on long-term goals. Willpower has helped us become the educated, career-focused society we are today and where it gets interesting is in the details of how it works.

One of the pioneers of willpower was psychologist Roy Baumeister he coined the term “ego-depletion” and studied willpower and self-regulation extensively. According to Baumeister’s research when we use willpower, there are changes in our nervous and cardiovascular system, but what is most interesting is exerting willpower fatigues the body by using up blood sugar. It takes real physical energy to exert willpower! So if willpower is a limited resource and since it needs glucose (blood sugar) to function optimally, if we are hungry or experiencing a sugar crash we have very limited willpower. If we are to exercise self-control in our lives, we must eat balanced, regular meals containing protein, veggies, and healthy fats to keep blood sugar levels stable and our brains nourished.

One of my vices: ice cream

“I generally avoid temptation unless I can’t resist it.” – Mae West

Baumeister also found that willpower has a limit.  It works much the same way that muscular strength and endurance works. You have enough in your willpower “gas tank” to complete a few acts of restraint a day, but with each exertion, willpower strength decreases. Marketing and Communication researchers also found this knowledge useful – go figure!

The theory works like this: If you turn down pastries for breakfast you may have more trouble motivating to go to Muay Thai class at night, or it might be harder to refrain from nagging your boyfriend about the socks on the floor. Or as the marketing study suggests you might splurge on that pair of shoes, you don’t need. I know, I know girls – you always need more shoes, but do you need another black pair?

The strength model of self-control failing would be like performing a hard upper body strength workout, then trying to spar five rounds of boxing right after. Just as untrained muscles will fatigue, untrained willpower muscles fatigue too.

Even attempting to remember a simple task can affect willpower. In one study, by professor Baba Shiv at Stanford University, students were divided into two groups. One group was given a two-digit number to remember, while the second group was given a seven-digit number. Then they were told to walk down a hall, where they were presented with two different food options to choose 1) a slice of chocolate cake or 2) a fruit salad. The students with seven digits to remember were nearly twice as likely to pick the chocolate cake as students given two numbers!

This study supports my suggestion to all clients that they keep a meticulous calendar and to-do list at all times. Merely being super busy and trying to remember little things all day can affect your ability to make good decisions. Write it down, get organized and plan!

So how do you restore your willpower reserves?  Sleep! That’s right! A full night’s rest (ideally 8-9 hours) will refresh us so we can make those small sacrifices again and focus on long-term success. If you don’t get good sleep, you could have the same self-control that you do drunk on booze! Yup, that’s right, “Getting less than 6 hours a night can affect coordination, reaction time and judgment.” So make sure you hit your pillow hard every night. Get a minimum of 7 hours. Not only will you get the muscle recovery you need, but you will make better choices the next day.

The good news is willpower, like muscles, can be trained to perform more frequently, increasing strength and endurance.


Aumeister and other researchers support this theory. Fighters are familiar with how physical muscle training adaptation works. When fighters who first try to train two to three times a day, five to six days a week, it’s hard at first for their body to accept the workload. Soreness and fatigue are typical, but if the training is ramped up slowly, progressing in intensity and volume over time and the fighter gets proper nutrition and rest, their body adapts and gets stronger allowing the athlete to train at a higher work capacity than before. It is the same with willpower. If you flex your willpower muscles daily without taking too much on at once, tasks that used to feel hard like making your bed, turning down dessert, or quitting smoking, will become easier.

Some researchers found that people who worked on using willpower to achieve fitness goals also had improvements in other areas of their life like anger management, eating healthier, moderating alcohol and curbing spending. This finding means if we use our willpower in one way we can naturally learn to use it in other ways. Our intelligent brain learns how to use it’s willpower muscle and can apply it to many areas of our lives.

This concept has implications far beyond fitness and health. A study by Duke University researchers of more than 1,000 young adults who were followed from birth to 32 years old found that those who scored high on tests for self-control when they were 3 years old were far more likely to be healthy and financially prosperous as adults than those who did poorly on the self-control tests at three!

How can we apply all this research into our lives to make us better at fitness, nutrition, goal setting, athletics and a healthy, happier lifestyle? My first recommendation would be to adopt a realistic goal. A topic I have discussed before. If we see life as a battleground where many things are off limits, and we hold ourselves to impossible standards, then we will use up all our willpower fuel before mid-day. However, if we prioritize, focus and pick our battles, we will be calmer and happier.

Choose one realistic goal to tackle at a time and see fitness and health as an ongoing journey of self-improvement.

If you currently eat fast food and don’t workout at all, telling yourself you are going to go to the gym five times a week and eat only 1200 calories a day will set you up for disappointment and failure because that level of self-control has not been developed. Instead start by working out three times a week and setting small weekly nutrition goals like drinking more water, and eating organic veggies, one at a time.

It’s important though that we have enough self-realization to know when we are too easy on ourselves and just making excuses, versus giving ourselves a deserved break and being realistic. For this reason, it’s helpful to have a trainer, coach, therapist, or even a good friend who you set goals with and who can put you in check with your willpower and habit-forming progress.

It is also helpful to plan and organize our days, making fitness and health decisions ahead of time like packing your gym clothes the night before, making plans to meet a friend for training and knowing what you will make for dinner before you get home. That way you are not faced with a decision that requires drastic willpower implementation, you have to plan it, commit to it, and show up to put in work.

This topic reminds me of a magnet on the cable cross-over at one of the gyms where I worked. It said, “Do one thing each day that scares you.” I like that idea… when it comes to willpower try to think of it this way:

Do one positive thing each day that requires effort.

Keep doing that thing, making it a habit until it’s no longer an effort and then tackle a new, positive task in your life that requires effort. In this way, you will build willpower strength, and step by step create more success than you ever dreamed possible.

The photo above is of my beautiful grandmother. She taught me so much about willpower and creating healthy habits. She walked every day, until she couldn’t, never overindulged in food or drink and always wrote to-do lists. She passed away at 101 years old and lived a full, happy life.