Want Won't Will : Understanding and Enhancing Your Self-Control

We’ve been talking about willpower, and in this post, we will delve into willpower a little deeper from the eyes of Stanford health psychologist and researcher Kelly McGonigal.


The concept of willpower has been a topic of discussion for ages, and for a good reason. Willpower plays a crucial role in our ability to resist temptation, overcome self-destructive urges, and stick to our goals. In this article, we take a closer look at willpower from the perspective of Kelly McGonigal, a Stanford health psychologist, and researcher. McGonigal highlights that willpower is a mind-body response that requires a coordinated set of changes in the brain and body to help us resist temptation and overcome self-destructive urges. She also shares unique insights on the different components of willpower, including willpower, won’t power, and want power. Additionally, she delves into the effects of stress, lack of sleep, nutrition, and exercise on willpower, while providing practical tips to enhance our willpower reserve. Ultimately, this article provides a comprehensive understanding of willpower and the importance of training our brains to exercise more of the frontal regions and less of the cravings and stress of the midbrain.

Kelly explains that willpower is a response from the mind and the body. While stress often reacts to an external threat, willpower responds to an internal conflict. This conflict may involve avoiding unhealthy habits or resisting temptation, such as the urge to eat junk food or skip a workout.

Exercising Self Control

To exercise self-control, the brain and body must work together in a coordinated manner to help overcome these urges. Unlike the fight-or-flight response that triggers an adrenaline rush, the pause-and-plan reaction associated with willpower induces a calmer state of mind. This state sends more energy to the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for decision-making and goal-setting, which enables individuals to overcome temptations and stick to their objectives.

By understanding the connection between the mind and body, we can better comprehend how willpower operates and develop strategies to enhance self-control. In addition, by fostering a calmer state of mind, we can increase the energy our brain directs to the prefrontal cortex, allowing us to overcome obstacles and achieve our goals.

She mentions that most scientists refer to this self-control described as willpower. She studied emotional self-regulation for her doctoral thesis but discovered that she needs to be more for challenging things. It could be easy to follow a diet regime for a week, but sticking to a healthy diet for a long time is challenging. She trifurcates emotion regulation into

Will power - the exercise component

Won’t power - the avoidance component

Want power - the motivational component.

When setting a resolution or goal, you must identify what you want the most. This will help you scale up your motivation and drive to achieve it. Focusing on your biggest desire will make you more inclined to stick to and prioritize your plan. This focus level can help you eliminate distractions and keep your mind on the end goal.

Avoiding unnecessary obstacles is another crucial step in achieving your goal. This might mean making difficult decisions, such as leaving a job that doesn’t align with your goals or cutting out negative relationships that drain your energy. By reducing these unnecessary stressors, you’ll have more energy and focus on putting toward your goal.

Small, consistent actions are vital to achieving any goal. Daily willpower exercises will help you build up your self-discipline and help you stay motivated. It’s essential to break your goal down into smaller, achievable steps and commit to daily action. These small steps can add to significant progress over time and help you develop new habits supporting your goal.

While the prefrontal cortex of the brain does play a role in willpower and self-control, the environment and life experiences also have a significant impact. Mindfulness and meditation practices can help you develop greater self-awareness and reduce stress, giving your brain the rest it needs to maintain self-control. This can be particularly helpful for individuals struggling with various issues, as these practices can help them gain greater control over their thoughts and actions.

Stress and willpower

She says Stress and willpower are inversely co-related. The first focuses on short-term actions; the latter is needed for long-term goals. If there is stress, it will be hard to exercise the will. The urge to act steals away the energy.

Stress can have a significant impact on an individual’s physical health. Stress-induced hormones can cause inflammation and lead to chronic illnesses like heart disease, diabetes, and depression. However, studies have shown mindfulness can reduce these hormones’ production and alleviate chronic stress symptoms.

A lack of social support can also be a significant source of stress. Social support can help individuals manage stress by providing emotional comfort, practical assistance, and guidance. Conversely, the absence of social support can lead to isolation and loneliness, increasing stress levels.

Financial stress is another common cause of stress. Money is a significant source of anxiety for many people, and financial stress can lead to poor physical and mental health. Therefore, it’s essential to manage finances properly and seek help from financial advisors to alleviate this stressor.

Role of Goal Setting

Setting goals can help individuals prioritize and stay motivated, which can reduce stress levels. The key to goal setting is to create achievable and specific goals. Breaking down larger goals into smaller, achievable steps can make them more manageable and reduce stress.

Finally, self-care is crucial for managing stress. Engaging in activities that bring joy and relaxation, such as reading a book, bathing, or spending time with loved ones, can reduce stress levels. It’s important to prioritize self-care activities, as they can help individuals manage stress and improve overall well-being.

The Need for Will

Now that we have a complete picture, let us discuss the need for a will. Our brain has two different modes; the first is focused on

  • instant gratification
  • short-term survival
  • pain avoidance

The second is focused on

  • long-term rewards and bigger goals
  • values of life
  • reflecting on the consequences of action

The first is the “impulsive self,” and the second is the “expansive self.” The impulsive self makes us do things that we later regret and prevents us from taking difficult yet necessary actions.

The impulsive self is based on the mid-brain. This includes dealing with stress, cravings, and the habit system.

The expansive self is located in the frontal cortex and manages attention, motivates positive action, reflects on the future, and regulates the activities of the mid-brain.

The brain is a complex and fascinating organ that influences how we behave, feel, and think. Research shows that how we operate and make choices depends on the relative activation of the midbrain and frontal brain. The midbrain is responsible for our emotions and survival instincts, while the frontal brain controls decision-making, self-control, and planning. Our emotions or rational thinking can drive us depending on the situation. Understanding these two modes can help us improve our self-control and decision-making abilities.

Training the brain to exercise more of the frontal regions and less of the cravings and stress of the midbrain is crucial for developing better self-control. Studies have found that regular exercise, adequate sleep, and mindfulness can disrupt the functional connectivity of the craving network in the brain. By reducing the strength of this network, we can lessen the power of our cravings and impulses and make more rational decisions.

We must recognize that we all have two brain modes and can learn skills to improve our self-control. For example, people who struggle with intense emotions, such as jealousy, depression, or anxiety, may find it challenging to control their behavior and thoughts. However, with practice and patience, anyone can improve their ability to regulate emotions and make more conscious decisions.

You can read more in her book The Willpower Instinct Dr. Kelly McGonigal explains in detail how the brain functions and offers practical tips for improving self-control. By understanding how our brain works, we can take steps to train it to operate in a way that serves us better.

Ten Unique Insights on will-power based on Kelly McGonigal’s research:

  1. Willpower is a limited resource that can be depleted over time and strengthened through practice.

  2. Self-control is the most critical factor in determining success in life, even more so than intelligence or talent.

  3. Our beliefs and expectations about it strongly influence willpower, so changing our mindset can improve our ability to exert self-control.

  4. Stress and lack of sleep can deplete willpower, while exercise and mindfulness can increase it.

  5. People with high levels of self-compassion are better able to bounce back from failures and setbacks, which can help preserve their willpower for future challenges.

  6. Setting specific goals and making concrete plans to achieve them can conserve willpower and make it easier to resist temptation.

  7. Engaging in activities that align with our values can help us tap into a deeper source of motivation and willpower.

  8. Social support can also bolster willpower, as we are more likely to persevere through challenges when we feel connected to others.

  9. Willpower is not an all-or-nothing trait - we can have strong willpower in some areas of our lives but weaker willpower in others.

  10. Finally, cultivating gratitude and positive emotions can help us maintain a more optimistic outlook, improving our ability to exert self-control and persevere through complex tasks.


Kelly states that self-control requires a coordinated set of changes in the brain and body to help resist temptation and overcome self-destructive urges. McGonigal trifurcates emotional self-regulation into willpower, won’t power, and want power. To exercise willpower, one must exercise their daily will, avoid unnecessary obstacles, and scale up to their biggest want to unleash more will. McGonigal explains that willpower can be trained to endure more by exercising the body and the mind through meditation. It is essential to train the brain to exercise more of the frontal regions and less of the cravings and stress of the midbrain. McGonigal’s research shows that regular exercise, sleep, and mindfulness disrupt the functional connectivity of the craving network in the brain, allowing for better self-control. Overall, her insights are valuable for anyone seeking to improve their willpower and self-control in daily life.

That’s all in this edition.

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