How to build willpower

For many people, learning how to increase willpower is perceived as the holy grail of success and personal growth. The logic seems straightforward: If you could only understand how to build willpower, you’d be able to overcome your impulses, master your emotions and make rational decisions that further your goals. While this line of reasoning certainly makes sense, it doesn’t provide a complete picture of what it means to have willpower.

At its essence, self-control stems from your values and choices, and getting to know yourself empowers you to build self-discipline. But to get the full benefits of self-control, you must also create an effective strategy. By understanding how your will, desires and plans work together, you’re able to increase your willpower and harness its power in your life.

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Understanding how to increase willpower

Many people begin thinking about how to improve willpower when they encounter challenges in their lives. Willpower is seen as the solution for compulsions or areas in life that feel out of control. The thinking is, if you could only keep an iron grip on your behavior, you’d be able to take command of your life more fully and overcome temptations that crop up along the way – but this isn’t the full picture of how willpower works. 

Learning how to gain willpower starts with understanding the nature of willpower itself. Self-discipline isn’t a skill, an art or a strategy: It’s all of the above, and it’s far more complex that merely sticking to the rules. Human beings are social creatures with a drive to survive. Our wants, needs and choices are driven by our fears and our desire for pleasure and contentment. These are largely a product of our values, which are often unconscious until we work to discover and define them. 


Your values and decisions work in tandem, influencing each other while shaping the course your life takes. Understanding what drives your choices is your first step in learning how to increase willpower. There is a domino effect that starts with your beliefs – the ideas you hold to be true. Your beliefs are shaped by your life experiences, culture, mentors, education and faith. These influences create a complex system of belief that inspires your values – what you hold as important. If you grew up in poverty with few resources, it’s likely you’ll come to value stability and autonomy. These values then shape your attitudes toward almost everything. You’ll likely be less tolerant of peer pressure and a lack of drive, since those don’t align with your basic desire for security and self-reliance.

nice scenery

nice scenery

Whether or not you realize what your beliefs, values and attitudes are, they will subconsciously compel your behavior. You’ll be unable to escape your craving for stability unless you identify and change the mindset that ultimately spurs your actions.

How to build willpower backed by strategy

Given the complexity of what prompts human behavior, it’s clear why the “iron grip” model of willpower doesn’t stand the test of time. Once you understand what’s driving your behavior, self-control becomes more natural and mastering how to build willpower becomes within your reach. Your next step is to build a strategy for cementing your newfound self-discipline. 

As you work to understand how to improve willpower, think of yourself as a sailboat, with willpower being the wind that propels you and strategy being the rudder that guides you. Your strategy centers on continual self-awareness – investigating your beliefs and being willing to tweak the ones that are not serving you. Humans are holistic creatures, so use your emotions and physical sensations as a window into your beliefs. If you’re feeling sad or anxious, ask yourself why. If there are underlying fears of failure or limiting beliefs holding you back, empower yourself with positive, affirming messages. You’ll find that some beliefs (like casual opinions) are easier to change than others (like long-held convictions). 

To change a belief, surround yourself with powerful references that remind you why you want to change your thinking. If you’re building a healthier lifestyle, surround yourself with healthy, active people who inspire your new goal. Add emotional intensity to your desired belief by finding a triggering event that underscores your reasons for wanting to change. You might find examples of people with health problems resulting from a destructive lifestyle. With your mindset in the right place and external supports to bolster your determination, you’re ready to take action and master how to increase willpower.

The rule of depletion

Psychology Today equates learning how to build willpower with learning to build muscle in that both are limited resources. Even if you’re a world-class body builder, you wouldn’t want to fatigue your muscles just before a match, since your strength would eventually give out from overexertion. Self-control works the same way. When you’re learning how to increase willpower, be realistic and understand that it’s possible to ask too much of yourself. Take time to rejuvenate, and give yourself credit for incremental progress.

Along these lines, don’t deprive yourself to “test” your self-control. Just like dieting, if you make something completely off-limits, you’ll be more likely to crave the forbidden fruit in moments of weakness. This is the tension in learning how to increase willpower: It’s a balancing act of meeting your needs without overindulging. As you become more comfortable in your own skin, your ability to self-monitor increases, and you become more relaxed in your value-driven approach to self-discipline.

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Learning how to increase willpower requires understanding what drives you. Learn which of the 6 human needs prompts your behavior with our quick assessment.