Energize Your Willpower

In the grand scheme of things consistency always wins over perfection.

With the holiday season upon us, family dinners, never-ending temptations, samples at Costco, cookies, turkey, cheesy potatoes, and a glass of wine or two, it is no wonder that most people pack on the pounds at the end of the year.

With the holiday season upon us, family dinners, never-ending temptations, samples at Costco, cookies, turkey, cheesy potatoes, and a glass of wine or two, it is no wonder that most people pack on the pounds at the end of the year.

Most of us blame our “falling off the diet train” as an issue of willpower. I want to discuss the concept of willpower—what it is, and what it’s not—and what it means for gaining muscle. During a time of change, or tackling a new goal, we tend to attribute our successes and setbacks to “willpower.”

This type of mentality can cause some significant problems, however. Since our setbacks are rooted so deeply in our feeling of self-worth, willpower becomes synonymous with “self-esteem” power. The lower we see our willpower, the lower our self-esteem becomes. This type of negative thinking cycle puts us even further away from our goals and has huge repercussions on how we feel about ourselves.

The Relationship Between Willpower and Goals

We have all been there. We make a plan to “lose five pounds.” We get excited and motivated; we start to introduce some profound changes in our lives. Suddenly, life happens—a family event, a party at work, a slip in judgment, an injury—and we hit a temporary setback.

In the grand scheme of things consistency always wins over perfection and that “setback” is meaningless. However we become panged with guilt, we don’t see it as a temporary lapse, oh no, it becomes a profound shift in our sense of self.

Photography By Jeffrey Perez of Oahu, Hawaii

Our inner critic pipes up and says: “you’re not strong enough,” “you don’t have enough motivation,” or “you’re so lazy.” Our brains also are experts at pattern recognition and as a result, these feelings are quickly followed with thoughts of all of our past experiences when we did not stick to a goal or finish a commitment.

Suddenly this temporary setback leads to a negative shift in the sense of self. Our image of the type of person we are goes from a motivated warrior on their quest to success to “you are lazy, you have always been lazy, you will always be lazy, so why bother.” This negative thinking cycle can be very hard to break.

In order to get some clarity and control of the situation, I need you to challenge the traditional definition of willpower and consider what willpower is really about. In my own quest to do this, I turned to a book by Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D. called the Willpower Instinct and came away with some great insights and tools to add some pump to our willpower muscles.

According to Dr. McGonigal, willpower is not a “virtue or a moral trait,” it is not something that you have or you don’t have. Willpower lives in particular brain structures, most notably the pre-frontal cortex. It is a biological response controlled by the brain and the best part of all is that willpower is a strength that you can train.

Willpower has three parts:

  1. “I will-power”: This is the ability to find the energy and motivation to do things that are overwhelming, the things that make us anxious, or things that we may be unmotivated to do. This gives us the power to say yes when a part of us want to say “not today.”
  2. “I won’t-power”: This is the ability to resist temptation. This is a big one during the holiday season. This means you are reaching for an apple instead of a donut and is a skill that helps you with self-restraint.
  3. “I want-power”: This is all about visualization. You need to know your long-term goals, values, and direction. It can be difficult to articulate but once you have a crystallized idea of your “wants” it gives you the energy to accomplish daily tasks even when you don’t feel like it—this is your why.

Willpower and Your Brain

Our brain shifts back and forth between two modes of operation. One mode is considered the “ideal self or the rational self.” This is where most of us wish we always lived in. In this mode, we are able to be our most wise selves—we make smart choices, we think about our long-term goals, we predict the consequences of our choices, and we think about our values and make decisions consistent with them.

These operations are primarily located in the prefrontal cortex and are also where “willpower” lives. This part of the brain remembers what’s important to you and what you want while it monitors where your attention is relative to your goals.

However, the primal self is a mode we can also shift into. This comes from the more primitive interior parts of the brain and is responsible for quick, emotional responding. Its focus is on the very short-term and the small picture. It is motivated by immediate gratification and the avoidance of pain. From here we make choices that might seem like a good idea at the moment, but they are usually not best for us in the long-term.

Clearly, we want our minds operating from the ideal self whenever possible. So, our objective then is to find ways to do this. It turns out that training our willpower strengthens our ideal self and the more we operate from this standpoint, the easier it is for willpower to guide you.

Training Willpower

One of the best ways to shift into ideal self-mode and enhance willpower is through a regular habit of meditation. You are practicing willpower every time you meditate because meditation engages every system of willpower. You have a goal (to meditate), you are paying attention to what is happening in your mind and body that is moving you away from your goal (noticing when your attention has drifted from your breath), and then choose to act with intention in accordance with your goal (redirecting your attention back to your breath). Ironically, it’s better if you are “bad” at meditation because it gives you lots of opportunities to practice your willpower.

According to an abundance of research on the healthful benefits of meditation, a consistent practice of meditation directly enhances willpower because it strengthens the structures of the prefrontal cortex so that you are able to be more focused, more clear-minded, and operate from the perspective of your ideal self.

Meditation has been shown to increase the density of the white and gray matter in the very structures of the brain that are responsible for noticing what you are doing and whether it is what you want to be doing. This is just like muscle building. You are literally growing your very own inner wise mentor with every meditation.

In addition, meditation indirectly benefits willpower because it rewires the physiology in your autonomic nervous system so that you are overall more calm, less emotionally reactive to stress, (therefore less likely to go looking for quick fixes that sabotage your goals), and more self-aware. You may even sleep better. We all know how vital a good night’s sleep is in order to be our most wise self the next day.

I recommend a daily regimen of 5-10 minutes of focused meditation. You can use an app, or find your favorite song. There are a lot of free resources out there.

Another strategy to practice is called pause and plan. This practice is in direct contrast to the flight or fight response the brain reverts to in an untrained mind. In the midst of a threat to your goals, when temptation is staring you in the face, or when you are trying to persist at a difficult task, you want to be able to hit the pause and plan button. You do not want to be reactive.

To activate pause and plan, deliberately slow your breath down to six breaths a minute. This corresponds to about 7-8 seconds for every inhale and 7-8 seconds for every exhale. When we are breathing this slowly and with focused awareness, your heart rate will slow down, your heart rate variability increases and your brain will be sending energy to the prefrontal cortex, and not the flight or fight system.

Perfect! You are slowed down and feeling alert, connected to your rational mind, and ready to act with intention. I suggest that we practice this form of slower, focused breathing several times throughout the day for two benefits: first, you will feel calmer and more centered again each time, and second, you are strengthening the pause and plan response so that when you need to activate it, you can more do so more readily.


1. McGonigal, K. (2012). The willpower instinct: How self-control works, why it matters, and what you can do to get more of it. New York: Avery.

2. Beech, M. (2018). A talk on willpower. Email exchange with Dr. Maria Beech.