By LeAnn Nickelsen, M.Ed.
It’s no secret that for many teachers, this school year has been the most challenging year they’ve experienced in their professional life. When I speak to teachers, the sense of overwhelm is palpable. Between figuring out virtual learning to asking kids to keep masks on to trying to connect with students all in the middle of a global pandemic, I see teachers approaching a place of burnout. This got me wondering: on our darkest days, is there something that we can draw on from inside ourselves to help us get out of bed, help that one student, post that one last assignment? Based on research, I’m happy to tell you that the answer is yes. Even more, it’s a simple concept that you’ve probably heard a million times: willpower.
Before you recoil, know that I am absolutely not here to tell you to simply try harder. Trying harder in and of itself is not a sustainable strategy. My goal is to share specific strategies and mindsets that you can employ to increase your willpower reserves. Frankly, I gathered the information for this article for selfish reasons: My willpower has decreased during Covid-19, and I don’t like it! Has yours?
What Is Willpower Anyway?
Willpower goes by many names: determination, drive, resolve, self-discipline, or self-control. Several psychologists characterize willpower, or self-control, in these short definitions:
- “The ability to delay gratification, resisting short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals
- The capacity to override an unwanted thought, feeling, or impulse
- The ability to employ a “cool” cognitive system of behavior rather than a “hot” emotional system
- Conscious, effortful regulation of the self by the self
- A limited resource capable of being depleted” (APA, 2012)
Many scientists believe that willpower is limited each day and each person has a finite amount. Some theories say that willpower is connected to a limited reserve of mental energy and once that energy has “run out,” we lose our self-control and willpower. This is called Ego Depletion (Baumeister, 1998), but this famous research study has been challenged many times.
Other researchers believe our level of willpower could be connected to the amount of glucose levels in our blood, with insufficient glucose creating mental fatigue. Furthermore, stressful situations during the day could deplete our willpower “reserves” and leave little self-control for evening decisions. They also find that people with larger support systems (encouraging family and friends, social group, addiction groups, etc.) tend to have more willpower.
BUT! Before you get discouraged, let me share with you the science I find most powerful. There are strong research claims that a person’s basic beliefs about willpower and overall mood can greatly impact their level of willpower (Job, Dweck, & Walton, 2010; Muraven & Baumeister, 2000). My goal is not to prove or disprove any of the theories above but rather focus on these two interesting studies because they give us vision into what we can do to grow our willpower. In other words, we do have some control over our willpower.
Why Does Willpower Matter?
We know willpower is a top ingredient for achieving short-term and long-term goals. In fact, you should share all of this information with your students. Share which strategies are helping you and which ones could help them. Here’s why:
According to Dr.’s Angela Duckworth and Martin Seligman (2005) children with higher self-discipline (as measured by teachers, parents, and the students themselves) experience many benefits in school, including:
- Higher grades
- Increased school attendance
- Higher standardized-test scores
- More likely to be admitted to a competitive high school program
Furthermore, having strong willpower doesn’t just benefit students during the K-12 years! Dr. Terrie Moffitt and her colleagues at Duke University conducted research on 1,000 people, tracking them from birth to age 32 (2011). They found that those with high self-control in childhood (as reported by teachers, parents and the children themselves) grew into adults with:
- Greater physical and mental health
- Fewer substance-abuse problems and criminal convictions
- Better savings behaviors and financial security
Even more, Walter Mischel learned in his famous Stanford Marshmallow Test (1972) that over the long term, children who delayed eating the marshmallow experienced greater overall “life success,” defined as:
- Higher achievements in education
- Better performance at work
- Increased health markers
Now that we understand the incredible benefits of willpower, let’s discuss how we can help foster it.
How Do Moods, Beliefs, and Hope Impact Willpower?
Willpower does not exist in a vacuum: it’s impacted by other internal and external factors. Here’s what science says they are:
- Elevating mood (via comedic videos, surprise gifts, encouraging words, connecting with a friend, doing what you love, walking in nature, meditating, exercising, listening to uplifting music, etc.) can overcome some of the willpower-depletion effects normally seen after exercising self-control (Muraven & Baumeister, 2000).
- Simply believing that willpower is not-so-easily exhaustible creates a buffer effect where willpower decreases more slowly (Job, 2010).
- In the award-winning book, Hope Rising: How the Science of Hope Can Change Your Life (Gwinn and Hellman, 2019), the authors explain how willpower and waypower bring about hope so a person can achieve their desired goal. They define hope as “the belief that your future can be brighter and better than your past and that you actually have a role to play in making it better.” Psychologist Rick Snyder, the first “hope scientist,” said there is an interaction of 3 concepts that define hope: desires (goals based on beliefs), pathways (waypower), and agency (willpower) (2000). Pathways are the baby steps to approaching the goal: things you might place on your daily calendar, little strategies that build up to something bigger to accomplish the goal, and/or researched tools that help you achieve what you desire. Once goals and pathways for achieving those goals have been identified, one must have the agency or willpower to get there. Agency is the motivation, capacity, and confidence that you can get to your goal by making decisions that align with it. Bottom Line: Willpower and waypower produce hope! Willpower will diminish over time if we don’t have pathways.
Bottom Line: Willpower and Waypower produce hope!
Willpower will diminish over time if we don’t have strong pathways.
So, What Can We Do to Increase and Train Our Willpower?
#1: Change Your Belief System
Remind yourself – I can build up my willpower every single day! I do not have a limited amount. I will need to be strategic in a plan to build my willpower from day to day even amidst stressors and unknowns. Create a mantra, for example: “I have a strong will. I am someone who does what must be done.” Write it on your mirror. Say it and believe it every single day.
#2: Create Pathways
Have pathways for your goals that are based on your beliefs so that you can truly exercise your willpower to accomplish great things that are in line with your beliefs and talents. Get advice on the best strategies to use to accomplish your goal. Set goals with do-able dates and strategies, then share with a support group or friend. By the way, the goal could be just to get out of bed that morning! It’s a tough time… have some grace with yourself and others.
#3: Exercise Your Willpower Muscle (little by little – not gigantic steps)
Consider willpower a muscle that can be exercised to get stronger. Don’t overwork your “muscles” but rather use them strategically. Have a balance of working hard at certain times and then resting so as to restore energy levels. During this pandemic, create a schedule of “on moments” (when you’re working, actively parenting, exercising willpower, etc.) and “off moments” when your brain is relaxing, enjoying nature, meditating, enjoying life, etc. Willpower must have some downtime to recharge. Also, create little habits in your life that exercise your willpower, like making your bed, cleaning up the kitchen before going to the office, replacing a cookie with a fruit, adding a vegetable to your dinner plate, etc. Little things add up to something bigger. Just don’t take on too many little bitty willpower projects at the same time.
#4: Exercise Your Body
After exercise, the brain and body are rewarded with endorphins and dopamine, both of which can give us a high in mood, energy, and satisfaction that we accomplished something big. These hormones can leave us feeling good for quite some time! For many of us, it has been hard to exercise during the pandemic. If that’s true for you, try this: create your own reward system. Break your exercise goal into smaller goals. Assign value, or a reward, for each step you took because each step helps lay a pathway for future success. Celebrations could be: a hug from a loved one, listening to your favorite playlist, using positive self-talk, sharing on social media… or anything that gives you a little rush of joy!
#5: Check and Change Your Mood
We have more control over our daily moods, actions and choices than many people realize. Often our actions stem from thoughts and attitudes, so if we can manage those, we can set the stage for more helpful actions. How can we do that? By catching the ANTs in our life! Dr. Daniel Amen teaches us about ANTs: Automatic Negative Thoughts. He suggests we recognize when they enter our brain, determine why we were thinking that way, make a decision to replace that thought with a positive one (say what you are grateful for or looking forward to), and change that pattern of thinking. Consider this example: you just got some less-than-stellar feedback from an administrator and your brain defaulted to thinking, “I’m not a good enough teacher!” Instead of just believing that thought, pause, recognize that it is just a thought (not reality), and try to think of it in another way such as, “This feedback is a gift that gives me the opportunity to grow into the best teacher I can be.” The actions that stem from each of those thoughts will be drastically different.
#6: Take Baby Steps Towards an Action Plan That You Design for YOU!
One of the best kept secrets about willpower is the importance of starting small. Break your goal down into the smallest steps possible and take time to build up your capacity for each of those small steps. For example, if your goal is to work out for an hour 5 days a week you might think the first step is working out for an hour once a week… but that’s too big of a step! The first step is putting on your workout clothes. Get used to doing that at the same time every day first. Then, build from there. In this way, behaviors that used to feel overwhelming slowly become habituated and start to feel like nothing. This fools your brain into thinking that nothing “new or drastic” is really happening (Tunikova, 2018).
Be full of grace on yourself and others. This pandemic may have affected your willpower for the worse, but you can still control your belief system and overall mood/attitude, both of which impact your willpower. It will take the six action steps above to help you self-motivate to accomplish what you really desire to do. I’m grateful for this collected research about willpower and the action steps that teach me the smartest ways to work towards my goals… even in a pandemic!
American Psychological Association (APA). (2012). What you need to know about willpower: The psychological science of self-control. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/topics/willpower
Baumeister, et al. (1998). Ego depletion: Is the active self a limited resource? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 1252–1265.
Baumeister, et al. (2007). The strength model of self-control. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16, 351–355.
Baumeister, R., & Tierney, J. (2011) Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. New York: Penguin Press.
Duckworth, A., & Seligman, M. (2005). Self-discipline outdoes IQ in predicting academic performance in adolescents. Psychological Science, 16, 939–944.
Gwinn, C., & Hellman, C. (2019). Hope Rising: How the Science of Hope Change Your Life. Morgan James Publishing.
Job, V., Dweck, C., & Walton, G. (2010). Ego depletion – is it all in your head?: implicit theories about willpower affect self-regulation. Psychological Science. 21.(11), 1686-1693. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0956797610384745
Mischel, W., & Ebbesen, E. (1970). Attention in delay of gratification. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 16 (2): 329–337. doi:10.1037/h0029815.
Moffitt, T., et al. (2011). A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108, 2693–2698.
Muraven, M., & Baumeister, R. F. (2000). Self-regulation and depletion of limited resources: Does self-control resemble a muscle? Psychological Bulletin, 126(2), 247–259. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.126.2.247
Snyder, C. R. (2000). Handbook of hope: Theory, measures, and applications. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
Tunikova, O. (2018, March 19). The science of willpower: how to train your productivity muscle. Medium. https://medium.com/@tunikova_k/the-science-of-willpower-how-to-train-your-productivity-muscle-8b2738ce745b