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  • Writer's pictureAndrea Bari Levine

The Science of Willpower

Implementing good habits takes work. It requires a conscious decision (maybe several conscious decisions per day) to do something that feels unnatural to you. In essence, it takes willpower. Studies suggest that willpower is not only a cognitive function, but also a chemical one. Here are the theories that show promise:

1. Research shows that high-effort decision making activates the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) in the brain. Some scientists believe that, like a muscle, the ACC can be depleted in the short-term by exercising self control, but strengthened in the long term through practiced restraint. According to this theory, any type of self-restraint can weaken our resolve such as refraining from social media, taking the stairs over the elevator or even holding back a snide remark.

2. Newer research argues that believed willpower is a more effective gauge of restraint. These studies suggest that whether you believe you have an infinite amount of willpower or not, you are right.

While the jury is still out, we can use both theories to plan for better decision-making throughout the day. Here are some suggestions:

  • Make decisions when your ACC is well-rested, like first thing in the morning

  • Remove temptations from view: fewer urges means fewer instances of restraint

  • Treat your desired habits like a game or reward so less willpower is required to implement them (tracking success can help turn a chore into a fun challenge)

  • Begin with habits that seem within your reach, build that resolve then tackle the more difficult changes you want to accomplish

  • Know that if the long-term goal is worth it, you are capable of doing what you need in the short-term to achieve it

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