The 3 Types of Willpower - And When To Use Them

What is willpower, really? We talk about the concept a lot in passing, always wishing that somehow we could have more of it to summon in certain situations. Recently, researchers have begun to define willpower as a muscle. One that can be weakened from overuse, but also one that can be strengthened with practice.

But if you are like most people in our high-pressure society, you don’t want to wait weeks or months to build up a strong muscle, you need to summon it tomorrow morning to hit the gym! Heck, you need to summon it tonight to turn off your many electronic temptations and go to bed. So what can you do now to increase your willpower?

Well let’s first come to understand the 3 types of willpower we have at our disposal:


The power we use to do those tough things to accomplish our goals. This is what we use to workout, clean our homes and follow the dentists’ orders to floss.


The power we use to resist the various temptations in our lives. This is what we call upon to resist those late-night cravings of chocolate and Netflix as well as holding back our true feelings from rude clients. 


This is the most important part of our willpower muscle. It’s the part of the brain that remembers our long-term goals, dreams and desires. What we really want. It comes to help when we need to remember why we are resisting that donut or why we are on that treadmill in the first place. [1]

So how can you use this information to make it to the gym tomorrow morning? The answer is to give as much fuel to your “I Want” power as possible. I Want power is the best motivation that we have. When we start to think about why we are resisting the temptation in the first place, the neurons in our pre-frontal cortex – the area of the brain that is responsible for self-control – begin to activate [2]. When we activate this part of the brain, the motivation to resist the temptation comes more naturally to us, and our cravings become less powerful.

The easiest way to give fuel to our “I Want” power is to increase our level of self-awareness [3]. Doing something as simple as writing down that you will be skipping the gym today is enough to trigger your pre-frontal cortex to say “Wait! But we’re getting in shape for the beach this year, remember?!” This is why keeping a food diary has been proven to be the number one way that dieters lose weight and reviewing your goals everyday is the best way to make sure you stick to them. [4]


Tomorrow morning make a list of all of your goals and keep it where you can review it every day. Or choose a willpower challenge that you’re currently struggling with and simply take a note of whether or not you succeeded at it. The rush of motivation you get from your newfound I Want power may surprise you!


  1. 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.
  2. Segerstrom, Suzanne C.; Hardy, Jaime K.; Evans, Daniel R.; Winters, Natalie F. Wright, Rex A. (Ed); Gendolla, Guido H. E. (Ed), (2012). How motivation affects cardiovascular response: Mechanisms and applications. , (pp. 181-198). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association, xiv, 424
  3. Hölzel, Britta K., James Carmody, Mark Vangel, Christina Congleton, Sita M. Yerramsetti, Tim Gard, and Sara W. Lazar. "Mindfulness Practice Leads to Increases in Regional Brain Gray Matter Density." Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging 191.1 (2011): 36-43
  4. Hollis, Jack F., Christina M. Gullion, Victor J. Stevens, Phillip J. Brantley, Lawrence J. Appel, Jamy D. Ard, Catherine M. Champagne, Arlene Dalcin, Thomas P. Erlinger, Kristine Funk, Daniel Laferriere, Pao-Hwa Lin, Catherine M. Loria, Carmen Samuel-Hodge, William M. Vollmer, and Laura P. Svetkey. "Weight Loss During the Intensive Intervention Phase of the Weight-Loss Maintenance Trial." American Journal of Preventive Medicine 35.2 (2008): 118-26