Self control

According to the American Psychological Association, “the lack of willpower is the top reason people give for falling short of their goals.”

The problem is not usually related with the lack of willpower but the lack of self-knowledge. it It is easier to reduce automatisms when once one has understood how the brain works, how it faces a willpower challenge.

Thus, the foundations of self-control are made of self-knowledge. The better you know yourself, the more qualified you are to take charge of  your life.


There is not exactly just one willpower, but three: the “I will” power, the “I won't” power and the “I want” power.

Every challenge concerning willpower can be rephrased as one of these aspects. For example, quitting smoking may be an illustrator of “I won’t” power but the real effort of denial won’t be grasped until one understands the underlying motivation (“I want” power)”. It is not just abandoning an habit: it is improving one’s quality of life.

Success in any willpower challenge lies mostly in finding out the real "I want" power that makes the effort worth.

One brain, two minds 

Two different areas act as guide in the actions of an individual: the pre-frontal cortex and the amygdala. The first area is in charge of thought decisions and self-control. The amygdala is in charge of guiding impulses and it is the brain’s “automatic pilot”: it makes decisions of which the individual is not aware.

In an experiment, a population sample was asked about how many unconscious decisions they thought they made on a day. The average was around 14. Later, they were asked to pay attention to every choice and decision arising throughout a day. The result showed an average of 217.

The more aware a person is of decisions coming up, the more chances they will have to exercise self-control. On the contrary, if we get used to switching on the automatic pilot, most of our decisions will be guided by impulses.Impulses themselves are not a bad thing. Humans have survived thanks to them. But they are there to take over the reins of decision making in cases when thinking is counterproductive. Not on a daily basis.

Desire and satisfaction

In an area located near the amygdala, in the nucleus accumbens, there is the so-called “promise reward” center. This area generates dopamine when stimulated, which is a neurotransmitter that pushes the organism to expect an imminent satisfaction. Hence its name.

However, we should not mix dopamine secretion with satisfaction itself. In fact, when dopamine is secreted, it is other brain areas that are activated. Dopamine is in charge of pushing our attraction towards something that can bring us this satisfaction.

Yet, two situations are possible: dopamine can be triggered by an external input informing the cortex about the thing it needs and on which its attention has been focused. Or the cortex can inform the nucleus accumbens about the thing it really wants and that really brings satisfaction.

In other words, two situations are possible: being guided by impulses or being guided by reason. Being a slave to external inputs or being able to "motivate" the brain to look for what really satisfies it. 

Proof of this is the deception we experience when, far away from the “dopamine triggering” environment (a backery, a shopping centre, the free buffet restaurant), we turn to examine what we have bought or eaten and it is crystal clear that it was not so necessary or did not taste as nice as expected.

That is the case when, after succumbing to the thoughtless impulse generated by dopamine, we put aside the long term goal (that we know will bring real fulfillment) replacing it with the ephemeral promise of immediate pleasure that, indeed, is not so rewarding after all 

On the other hand, if we are aware of being under the effect of a dopamine shot, we might be able to "make our brain reason”, contrasting momentary attraction with satisfaction itself. 

Willpower viewed as a muscle 

To explain how our willpower works, it is illustrative to compare it to a muscle: as we use it, it gets tired. As a muscle, the brain consumes sugar when it makes willpower work. 

Thanks to this analogy, we can better understand that, after a sleepless night, or during a especially demanding period of work, it is harder to beat our impulses and exercise our willpower. And why the best way to gain willpower is simply having a rest, doing sport, etc. 

We can also identify how to train the muscle of willpower: with gradual loads and relating our major challenges to our best times.        

License to sin

A paradox is revealed by some celebrities who, after being a model of decorum for years, the unveiling of a scandal breaks this model into pieces. It seems that the fact of being virtuous allows one to indulge a certain whim or concession. From this point onwards it is easy to give in more and more.

The same thing occurs with the “halo effect”: a person who buys green products may self-justify with this kind action while giving in in another fighting field. So is the case when we go on a diet and take our job in a more relaxed way after eating a salad because we feel good with ourselves after having achieved one of our challenges

When we are aware of having met a series of willpower challenges, we feel good and with the right to take a break or to reward ourselves. In the origin of this paradox there is an “I want” power problem: we miss the point of  why we do things and why we undertake willpower challenges.

In other words, we fall for the mistake of thinking that self-control goes against ourselves. The challege is focused on the “I won’t” power, which creates an excessive pressure to meet goals that end up being considered as opposite to ourselves, to our preferences or taste. 

Nevertheless, halting to examine the problem in a relaxed way will be enough to realise one is in the wrong.. When we have been on a diet for two weeks and treat ourselves to a doughnut, we have surely missed our long-term goal (feeling healthy, fitting in our clothes) and have been blinded by the sudden impulse, by the backery’s dopamine boost.

When after appropriate reflexion we can clearly identify the goals we sincerely want to meet, we are not going against ourselves, but in favor of ourselves. The more aware one is of this reality the easier it will be to face everyday challenges.

The moralistic conception of willpower has a strong relationship with this common self-deception. It is customary to label willpower-related actions as "correct" or "incorrect": eating salad is correct for someone on a diet; eating pizza is incorrect. So, when we achieve something we are “being good” whereas when we do not, we are “being bad".

This idea puts a great amount of pressure on us as we judge ourselves according to the compliance with our goals. When these are not met, we feel guilty. This pressure, instead of helping, often makes the use of willpower more difficult. The perspective is lost.

The perspective changes when we start speaking about what we really want: The person who goes on a diet eats a salad because they want to feel healthy and because they want to have a positive view of themselves. The ephemeral satisfaction of a doughnut is not worth compared to the great objective of health, no matter how much dopamine the bun generates.

The limits of “I won’t” power

Anyone who is told not to think about something, because of the structure of thought processes, will be prone to intensively think about it. Add the attraction we usually feel towards what is forbidden, and it will be clear: setting a goal according to “I won’t” power is not a good strategy -and even more so, if this entails banishing thoughts. 

In the context of thoughts, but also in other challenges that involve stop doing something, the fight in the negative should be followed by a clear overarching view, by a strengthening of the  “I want” power. 

Also, keeping thoughts above board, observing internal processes and generated emotions around a willpower challenge are good strategies to manage those challenges. Observing and airing emotions can help us to know ourselves better and consecuently, improve our self-control.

“What the hell” effect… 

Finally, this is probably the main pitfall for a willpower challenge: the “what the hell” effect or, as the saying goes, "you might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb". It is simply a disproportionate and irrational reaction to a slip. If we fail to meet a challenge, we give up the rest of the challenges

Once more, a vision too focused on the short term arises and it comes after the loss of the perspective of what we really want. It is easy to experience it since we identify the decision with the execution: in every process related to a willpower challenge, the moment in which we feel best is... when we make up our minds to carry out our intention. We understand that it will be hard to go all over the rest of the way and that it will not be so rewarding.

Therefore, weariness is understandable when one is not aware of this reality. However, observing the situation and understanding it, we can stand back and remember what is really motivating and act vigorously.

It is also common to feel guilty after a slip of willpower and flagellate oneself because of a failure. Nevertheless, research carried out at Harvard University has shown scientific evidence against this stance: in order to face mistakes and failures, it is much better to practice self compassion. Those having chosen to feel miserable are more susceptible to repeat those mistakes, probably as a result of the stress generared by guilt itself.

In this sense, it is advisable to think of how one should treat a friend who has made a similar mistake: one should treat oneself the same way. According to statistical data, this practice increases the chances of not falling for the same mistakes.


  • Self-control is based on self-knowledge.
  • Willpower stands on three feet: I will, I won't and I want power.
  • Every challenge can be rephrased as one of these three feet.
  • It is essential to become aware of what our  “I want power” is: any challenge which is not rooted in an appropriate identification of what we really want will be faulty.
  • Having clarified this aspect will prevent that short term satisfaction (impulses) take over our real desires and goals.
  • Upon a possible satisfaction, the brain generates dopamine that creates impulses towards the fulfillment of this satisfaction. 
  • Our awareness of these processes will help us identify a dopamine boost and consider whether that possible satisfaction is worth.
  • In the event of making a mistake, self-compassion is much more effective than self-flagellation.


MaCGONIGAL, Kelly. “The willpower instinct”.