How Inspiration Will Enhance Your Willpower

The painting above is the earliest published work of a teenaged Leonardo da Vinci. His mentor painted most of the work, but instructed Leonardo to paint the angel that is gesturing toward the Virgin Mary. When Leonardo was told of his assignment, he spent the next several weeks at work, but did not paint a thing. [1]

So what did he do? He studied. He spent countless hours in Venice studying people's faces - looking for one that had enough beauty and love in it to depict that of an angel. He then studied the wings of birds in order to get the correct shape, lines and details so that the wings of the angel would look right. 

After he was did all of this studying, he finally sat down to paint. When he was done, his mentor and the other apprentices were astounded at how life-like the angel looked. In fact, his angel became the focal point of the work, rather than the Virgin Mary like it was intended.

This painting shows how, even at a young age, Leonardo was destined to become a great artist. Not because he was a creative genius per-se, but because of his work ethic and extreme attention to detail. The story behind this painting is my inspiration.


We have all experienced the feeling of inspiration at some point in our lives. It may have been from a story on the news, a story in history, a speech by a great leader, or by someone in our own lives. When we become inspired, we get a rush of energy that we feel can take us to new heights. It's almost as if we get more willpower.

The area of your brain that’s responsible for willpower is known as the pre-frontal cortex. It is tasked with helping us persevere through challenges, resist temptations and make decisions that are consistent with our long-term aspirations.

When we witness something inspiring, the part of the pre-fontal cortex that thinks about the long-term lights up. The neurons in this part of the brain start firing and we feel a rush of energy as we begin to believe in our dreams and goals. This essentially means that by becoming inspired, we give the pre-frontal cortex more power. This specific power is also known as "Want Power" and it is the most powerful motivating force that we have. [2


"Want Power" is a term coined by health psychologist Kelly McGonigal. It refers to this rush of willpower we get when we think about what we really want in life. This type of thinking uses a different part of the pre-frontal cortex than the parts we use to remain focused on our work or resist a food craving. Those parts of the brain require glucose in order to exert willpower, but want power does not. [3]

Instead, want power is fueled by inspiration, self-belief and remembering what we're working for. Simply by keeping what we really want in our minds, and believing we can accomplish it, we can summon the willpower to do it without expending the same amount of mental energy. This essentially makes want power the most powerful ally we have in accomplishing our long-term goals.


There are two practical ways to increase your want power:

1. Set Reminders

Setting reminders for yourself about what you are truly working for is one of the best ways to increase your want power. On the long journey to accomplishing your goals, you can lose sight of the destination very easily. So setting reminders will help you keep your goal in mind and increase your want power. [4]

To get started, write down what your goals and create a system to remember them. It doesn't have to be fancy. Something as simple as having a sheet of paper on your bedside table that you look at every day will help you increase your want power.

2. Be Inspired Daily

We all have different things that inspire us. For me, it's Leonardo da Vinci's first painting. It inspires me to do extensive research, formulate ideas well and always cite credible sources. Yours could be an inspirational speech, a video, a great leader or any number of other things.

Whatever your inspiration is, ensure that you can turn to it on a daily basis. Just like having your goals at the top of your mind is important, so is having your inspiration. This will help you keep going - especially on those days when you feel like you just don't have the willpower to work on your goal. [5]


There is one downside to want power. When we use it to visualize the future, rather than take action, we can fall into a trap. Our brains are so good at visualization that we can see our future selves with the results that we’re trying to get extremely vividly. When we visualize our future selves, we can get a false sense of reward as if it has already happened for us. And when we get that sense of reward we can lose the motivation to actually take action toward it. [6

We are especially susceptible to making this mistake when we first set out to accomplish our goals. Most people get inspired to make a "big change" in their lives, then set an unrealistic plan to accomplish it. They then lose hope when they realize how much work they need to do.

Inspiration serves as a great motivator to keep you going when you're working toward your goals, but can set you up for failure if you're not careful. The most important thing is to make sure that you use your want power to take action.


We all have something that inspires us: whether that is a great speech, a great person, or a great purpose. When we’re in need of extra willpower, looking to these inspirations can actually give us more energy to resist temptations, persevere through challenges, and stick with our long-term goals.

You must make sure that you act on this inspiration. Although it may feel good to be inspired and visualize your future, it’s going to take action in order to actually create it. There is no point in motivation if you do not take action.


  1. Greene, Robert. Mastery. New York: Viking, 2012.
  2. McGonigal, Kelly. The Willpower Instinct: How Self-control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It. New York: Avery, 2012.
  3. Suchy, Yana. "Executive Functioning: Overview, Assessment, and Research Issues for Non-Neuropsychologists." Annals of Behavioral Medicine 37.2 (2009): 106-16
  4. McGonigal, Kelly. "Willpower vs. Habit Design." Habit Design® Workshop. San Francisco. Lecture.
  5. Baumeister, Roy F., and John Tierney. Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. New York: Penguin, 2011.
  6. Fishbach, Ayelet, and Ravi Dhar. "Goals as Excuses or Guides: The Liberating Effect of Perceived Goal Progress on Choice." Journal of Consumer Research 32.3 (2005): 370-77.