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 more profoundly from the eyes of Stanford health psychologist and researcher Kelly McGonigal.


This article explores willpower, how it works, and how to strengthen it. It argues that willpower isn’t just a mental fight, but a mind-body response involving the brain and body working together. We delve into details of will power research of Prof. Kelly McGonigal, based on online publications into the different aspects of willpower and offers tips to improve it through stress management, sleep, diet, and exercise.

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.

Pick your biggest dream! Knowing what you really want will give you the power to reach it. It will help you stay focused and avoid distractions.

Clear the way! Get rid of anything that makes it harder to reach your goal, even if it’s tough. This will free up your energy.

Small steps, big wins! Do a little bit every day to move closer to your dream. This will build good habits and make it easier to succeed.

Be kind to yourself! Everyone finds it hard to focus sometimes. Taking breaks and relaxing can actually help you reach your goal faster.

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

There are two parts to your brain: the impulsive you and the thoughtful you.

The impulsive you, in your mid-brain, makes you act without thinking and avoid tough stuff. It’s like your body’s first instinct.

The thoughtful you, in your front brain, helps you focus, plan ahead, and control your urges. It’s the voice of reason.

These two parts work together to influence your choices. The more you use your thoughtful brain, the better your self-control.

Things like exercise, sleep, and mindfulness can strengthen your thoughtful brain and weaken your cravings. This makes it easier to resist urges and make good decisions.

Everyone has these two brain modes, and anyone can learn to control their impulses with practice. Even strong emotions can be managed with effort.

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.


This article says self-control is like a muscle you can strengthen. You can do this by exercising, getting enough sleep, and calming your mind. By training your brain and taking care of yourself, you’ll be better at saying no to treats (and other temptations) in the long run.

That’s all in this edition.

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