Brain Plasticity, Strengthening Your Willpower, and Improving Your Self-Control

If you find that you struggle to accomplish your goals or are stuck in habitual behavior patterns that make you miserable it will come as no surprise that you need to change. But why are some able to take the necessary steps to implement change in their lives, while others are not? Many factors contribute to this, but one of the most important is your level of willpower. Willpower is required to break bad habits and to initiate the behaviors that lead to positive ones. But willpower is a limited resource meaning that you can only exert so much of it at a given time. However, just as your muscles can be strengthened with exercise, your supply of willpower can also be enhanced. In this article we will look at strategies for achieving this.

What is Willpower?

In his book The Way to Will Power, Henry Hazlitt defined willpower as:

“the ability to keep a remote desire so vividly in mind that immediate desires which interfere with it are not gratified.” (The Way to Willpower, Henry Hazlitt)

As Hazlitt’s definition implies, willpower is directly related to your level of self-control. A strong willpower helps you resist temptations, while a weak or depleted willpower makes it far more likely that you will give into destructive behaviors. The ability to use willpower to properly manage desires is the difference between living a life of your choosing, where you actively work towards your chosen goals, and living a life of frustration where lacking self-control you never take the appropriate actions to change your life. Before looking at how to strengthen your willpower and thus your self-control it will be helpful to briefly discuss the relationship between desires, habits, what can be called the automatic self and the plasticity of the brain.

The Automatic Self

Within us exist a multitude of conflicting desires. Some desires are beneficial to our long term well-being, some are conducive to short term pleasure, and some are downright destructive. Many people, because of their upbringing, cultural values, and genetic dispositions, have a tendency to perpetuate and strengthen desires not conducive to long term success. Over time the repetition of the behaviors engendered by these desires leads to a point where conscious consideration of alternative ways to act largely ceases. Behaviors that are undertaken without conscious reflection – our habits – make up what the psychiatrist Richard O’Connor calls the automatic self.

The automatic self is home to many important good habits, such as brushing your teeth or looking both ways before crossing a street. But the automatic self is also the source of much of one’s self-destructive behavior. As O’Connor explains in his book Rewire: Change Your Brain to Break Bad Habits, Overcome Addictions, Conquer Self-Destructive Behavior:

“Though there can be other causes, most self-destructive behavior is the result of the fact that we have two minds that don’t communicate very well…Put very simply, it seems as if we have a thoughtful conscious, deliberate self, and an automatic self that does most of the work of living without our attention…The automatic self directs most of our behavior, especially spontaneous action. The conscious self is in charge when we take the time to think about our choices, but it can only focus on one thing at a time; meanwhile, we’re making many other decisions, both for good and for ill…we must train the automatic self to do things like make wiser decisions unconsciously, ignore distractions, withstand temptations, see ourselves and the world more clearly, and interrupt our reflexive responses before they get us in trouble.” (Rewire, Richard O’Connor)

Changing the harmful behaviors of the automatic self requires the use of willpower, or in other words the ability to exert self-control to focus on replacing negative habits with positive ones that are more conducive to a satisfying life.

Brain Plasticity and Habits

Neuroscientists have discovered that our habits are encoded in our brain by well entrenched neural pathways. The brain, however, is much more malleable than once believed – a phenomenon which is referred to as brain plasticity. The plasticity of the brain allows us to override the neural pathways which guide destructive behaviors and form new pathways that lead to beneficial and productive behaviors.

If, for example, when we feel stress we habitually act on the desire to self-medicate with food or alcohol but would rather respond by exercising, we must inhibit the strength of the neural pathways which lead to this destructive behavior and increase the strength of the neural pathways which lead to alternative positive behaviors. Initially this will be quite difficult and require a lot of willpower, but the key point to remember is that through repetition of the beneficial behavior, the neural pathways which lead us to exercise will become more entrenched and eventually this behavior will become part of the automatic self and thus habitual.

Strengthening Willpower

An understanding of this process of how we can change our brains to change our habits makes it clear that enhancing your willpower is extremely useful. In the remainder of this article we will outline a few ways to do this.

The simplest and most effective way to strengthen willpower is to make sure not to get too hungry. Roy Baumeister in his book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, stresses that a low glucose level is one of the surest ways to lose self-control. When in the midst of important decisions, or when trying to avoid temptations, it is therefore crucial to have eaten properly.

“To maintain steady self-control, you’re better off eating foods with a low glycemic index: most vegetables, nuts (like peanuts and cashews), many raw fruits (like apples, blueberries, and pears), cheese, fish, meat, olive oil, and other “good” fats. (These low-glycemic foods may also help keep you slim.)” (Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, Roy Baumeister)

An additional method for enhancing willpower is to constantly remind yourself of all the benefits associated with accomplishing your goals. Some people do this by writing a short script describing what success would entail and then periodically rereading it. This helps to deepen the desire for success, and as this desire becomes stronger it will become increasingly easier to resist other temptations. Kelly McGonical emphasized the role that desire plays in strengthening willpower in her book The Willpower Instinct:

“Desire is the brain strategy for action. . .it can be both a threat to self-control and a source of willpower. When dopamine points us to temptation, we must distinguish wanting from happiness. But we can also recruit dopamine and the promise of reward to motivate ourselves and others. In the end, desire is neither good nor bad – what matters is where we let it point us, and whether we have the wisdom to know when to follow.” (The Willpower Instinct, Kelly McGonical)

Another useful thing to note is that when you use your willpower to develop a new behavior in one area of your life, it then becomes much easier to make additional behavioral changes. In other words, developing an exercise habit, for example, will enhance your willpower and make it easier to develop additional positive habits. This knowledge is especially important for those people who believe that there is so much wrong with their life, that they don’t even know where to begin. Instead of trying to tackle multiple problems at once, such people will likely see better results if they begin by just trying to implement a single new habit – such as exercising or meditating regularly. Cultivating this single habit will have spillover effects in other areas of their lives as it will strengthen their willpower and overall self-control. As Heidi Grant Halvorson explains in her book Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals:

“If you want more self-control, you can get more. And you get more self-control the same way you get bigger muscles—you’ve got to give it regular workouts. Recent research has shown that engaging in daily activities such as exercising, keeping track of your finances or what you are eating—or even just remembering to sit up straight every time you think of it—can help you develop your overall self-control capacity. For example, in one study, students who were assigned to (and stuck to) a daily exercise program not only got physically healthier, but they also became more likely to wash dishes instead of leaving them in the sink, and less likely to impulsively spend money.” (Succeed, Heidi Grant Halvorson)

Avoiding Self-Criticism

In the process of strengthening your willpower and making changes to your behavior patterns there will inevitably be times when you give in to temptations and stray off course. When this happens, you should not respond with self-criticism. Multiple studies have shown that self-criticism decreases motivation, inhibits self-control, and is strongly associated with depression.

Instead of self-criticism it is better to recognize that all of us give into harmful desires, and as it is a natural and inevitably human tendency, it should not decrease your self-worth. When we practice self-compassion it is much easier to reignite our willpower reserves and get back on the right path. To conclude, Henry Hazlitt encouraged that we use these moments of temporary setback as learning experiences to strengthen our resolve even further, as he wrote:

“We have seen that, at critical moments, when the craving to do a certain thing threatens, like a great tidal wave, to sweep us helpless before it, it is this desire to become a certain sort of character which throws its weight in the scale with the other weaker desires to balance us; it is this desire which stands like a rock to cling to until the torrent has spent its force. It, too, may be swept away at times. But when it is, we know that it has not been strong enough. It is a warning that the breakwater has been too low and too weak. We must build it higher and stronger. We must strengthen this desire to become a certain sort of character.” (The Way to Willpower, Henry Hazlitt)

Further Resources