Willpower: 3 principles to help you achieve your goals

2022 goals

Having an achievable goal — whether it’s about improving your finances, wellbeing or relationships — can be hugely motivating. But life’s curveballs can all too easily come rolling around the corner, to throw us off course. 

Research shows that having a thorough goal plan — including how you’ll respond to such curve balls — can hugely improve your chances of reaching goal completion. But there’s another weapon in your arsenal — understanding the principles of willpower, and how you can use it to keep all those resolutions, goals and dreams intact.

1. Keep your cool; keep your resolutions

A 40+-year-old study, known as the ‘marshmallow test’ conducted by psychologists at Columbia University laid the groundwork for much of our understanding of self-control. The researchers defined willpower as ‘a basic ability to delay gratification’, and gave their subjects a simple choice — eat one marshmallow now, or hold out and be rewarded with two later. The results led to the researchers determining that there are two systems at play for subjects in this situation, dubbed the ‘hot’ and ‘cool’ systems. In the cool system (also known as ‘know mode’), we are rational, complex, slow and controlled. In the hot system (also known as ‘go mode’), we are emotional, simple, fast and stimulated. ‘If this framework were a cartoon,’ writes the American Psychological Association, ‘the cool system would be the angel on your shoulder, and the hot system the devil.’

It’s plain to see why ‘cool’ wins out when it comes to maintaining willpower, but as luck would have it, our ‘cool’ systems generally kick in later than their hot counterparts, meaning that by the time our reflective, rational thoughts surpass our impulses, we’ve already skipped that evening class in favour of a date with the sofa. While our predisposition to ‘hot’ or ‘cool’ may be genetic, researchers have also found that our stress levels are one of the biggest factors at play in our sway towards one system or the other. In short, when we’re more stressed, we respond with heat, and when we’re less stressed, our cool systems are more likely to override our internal boilers. Managing stress, then, is crucial to staying on track with your goals.


2. Willpower is a muscle; the more you flex it, the stronger it gets. But beware muscle fatigue!

Imagine you start the year with five goals you wants to achieve over the coming 12 months. They’re all extremely important to you and you’ve clear ideas of how you’ll go about tackling each. You review your plan every week and are strict with yourself when you get lacksadaisical. By March, however, only two of your goals are still in play, You are no longer conducting weekly review sessions, and of the remaining goals you’re still working towards, the measures of success have been relaxed somewhat. 

Scientists say that ‘willpower depletion’ is the issue at play. By starting the year with multiple goals, You are forced to draw on your entire willpower reserves and pretty soon you’re running on empty (there’s even evidence that overusing willpower can result in physical changes, with our glucose levels dropping when we’ve exercised too much self control). Furthermore, depletion in one area can affect commitment in others, so as soon as one goal looked to be in jeopardy, your other goals were soon also on shaky ground.

Scientists also say that willpower is like a muscle, and like all muscles, strength comes from consistent use. So how does this square up with muscle fatigue? Well, researchers believe that even though our willpower reserves can be depleted, they are never truly exhausted. Studies show that when asked to work towards a singular goal in small increments, we are not only more likely to succeed, but to exert greater self-control in other areas too.

Little and often, seems to be the key to resolution success. If  you do have multiple goals, breaking them down into manageable chunks and spacing them out throughout the year is more likely to build and strengthen that willpower muscle, rather than giving up when February fatigue kicks in.


3. Should’ve, would’ve, could’ve

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, allowing us to look back at failures and see that despite our best intentions, we were doomed from the start. That’s often the case, says Stanford Psychologist and author of The Willpower Instinct, Kelly McGonigal, when we create resolutions based on our expectations of what we should be doing. ‘People come up with resolutions that don’t reflect what matters most to them, and that makes them almost guaranteed to fail,’ she says. ‘Even if that behaviour could be very valuable and helpful — like exercise — if you start from the point of view of thinking about what it is you don’t really want to do, it’s very hard to tap into willpower. If there’s no really important “want” driving it, the brain system of self-control has nothing to hold on to.’

Instead of focusing on all the things you’re not, Kelly advocates finding something you can build on that will have the same end result. ‘The best resolutions are ones that strengthen something you already are, but you may not have been fully investing in,’ she says. A person generally prone to disorganisation may feel that becoming a to-do list superstar is the way to gain that promotion. But focusing on what they do well, and resolving to do that even better, is more likely to be a goal they can achieve, winning the prize in the process.


Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What one thing do you want for yourself this year?
  2. What characteristics do you already have that can contribute towards that goal? What can you do more of to enable it?
  3. What will you be offering the world, those around you, and yourself, if you can action the above?
  4. When you look back at the end of the year, which actions can you visualise yourself having taken?
  5. Why does this goal really matter to you?

None of this is to say that our resolutions can’t stretch or challenge us, but it is important, says Kelly, to ensure there’s fun involved. Sometimes our goals do need to have an element of ‘should’ and in those cases we may need to ‘outsource accountability’ (getting a friend or colleague involved in the action or making our mentor aware of our progress), or even offer ourselves ‘bribes’ – small rewards we plan in advance, prizes we can keep our eyes on as we forge ahead.


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