Self-Control: Why Willpower Doesn’t Work

Could it actually be possible to build up our self-control “muscles?” More “staying power” could make a big difference in so many areas. What if we could increase our ability to:

  • Say “no” to that last piece of pie.
  • Hold our temper a little longer.
  • Save some extra money instead of blowing it on the next cool gadget.
  • Study just a little longer when everyone else is outside having fun.

Why Willpower Comes Up Short

Have you noticed that willpower often comes up short? We tend to over-focus on the things we want to avoid. Here are a few simple examples:

  • For the next thirty seconds do not think about the imaginary pink elephant sitting in the corner of the room… really… stop thinking about the pink elephant. What happens? We cannot stop thinking about the pink elephant. The more we wrestle with ourselves to stop doing something, the more challenging it is to stop.
  • What if you decide to go on a diet and a coworker brings a box of gourmet donuts to the office? You work hard to resist the donuts throughout the entire day. However, your willpower is so taxed that you treat yourself to a large combo plate at your favorite Mexican restaurant. What a frustrating experience.
  • Let’s say that you decide to control your anger. You make a commitment to be kinder to your spouse at the end of each day when you get home from work. Unfortunately, the next workday is full of stressors: your boss yells at you, you miss lunch, and traffic is unbelievably frustrating. Then, you get home, and what happens? The commitment you made to yourself goes out the window and you end up angry with your spouse.

This is a common experience for many of us because willpower is limited. We create our goal, shore up our determination, eventually run out of steam, and end up falling short.

“Willpower, for all its merits, is full of holes. Maintaining it requires not only a good deal of effort but also a conducive environment… Seemingly irrelevant factors like being at home versus being at work, or even the need to make simple decisions unrelated to resisting temptation—(‘Should I wear a white shirt or a blue one?’)—can diminish self-control. The result? People whose willpower is taxed fail to resist about one out of every six temptations they face, even when they try using cognitive strategies to manage their ‘hot’ responses. Willpower appears to be quite finite in supply.” (David Desteno, September 15, 2014, Pacific Standard, The Science of Society).


If willpower and self-determination do not work, what does?

According to a recent review of lab experiments on self-control, four emotional characteristics were shown to boost our self-control (Desteno, 2014).

“These emotions— gratitude, compassion, authentic pride, and even guilt—work from the bottom up to shape decisions that favor the long-term. If we focus on instilling the capacity to experience these emotional states regularly, we’ll build resources that will automatically spring forth in reflexive and productive ways. In essence, we’ll give ourselves inoculations against temptation that, like antibodies in our bloodstream, will be ready and waiting to combat possible threats to our well-being.” (David Desteno, September 15, 2014, Pacific Standard, The Science of Society).

How Can I Cultivate These Emotions?

Over the past few months, Fuller Life has explored self-control and how to cultivate gratitude, compassion, guilt, and authentic pride. The articles collected here are full of information and resources. We hope they offer tools to develop perseverance and motivation to meet the important goals of your life.

There is no need to take on each of these characteristics all at once. You can choose one at a time to gently implement into your life. On average, it takes 66 days to create a new habit. When we slow down and allow ourselves time to create a new habit, the habit is more likely to take shape and become more natural.

When you build resources into yourself that increase self-control, you increase your ability to delay gratification. Check out this video about how delayed gratification is one of the greatest predictors of success in all that you do.

Fuller Life Family Therapy is here to support and encourage those on their journey toward a fuller life.

Desteno, D. (2014) A Feeling of Control: How America Can Finally Learn to Deal With Its Impulses. Pacific Standard, The Science of Society. (

Contributed by

Jennifer Christian, M.A., LPC

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