The keys to self-control

We have all been there: training plans, schedules, getting in shape for summer, quitting smoking, etc. And we have all experienced the intense satisfaction of victory... and the disappointment of defeat. The times we’ve fallen short, it’s quite possible we have chalked it up to “I didn’t have the willpower to do it.” We are not alone: According to the American Psychological Association, the lack of willpower is the first reason given by Americans (data taken from a survey of a very broad segment of the population) to explain their respective failures.

The problem is usually not lack of willpower, but rather a lack of self-awareness. As we have seen in previous articles, developing habits entails more than “just doing it.” Understanding how the brain works, and how it responds to a challenge involving willpower, makes it easier to cut down on automatism, or involuntary actions. Before addressing specific challenges, perhaps we should explore our current habits, and those that we would like to adopt. 

For some years now, Stanford University Professor Kelly McGonigal has been teaching a course on these topics, and it has been a smash success: after being tentatively offered, the first year it had to switch classrooms multiple times to accommodate the huge, growing demand.

At the beginning of her courses, Dr. McGonigal often carries out a simple “experiment.” She asks participants how many decisions they make throughout the day involving food: choosing a menu, shopping, grabbing a snack when walking by the pantry, and so on. The first time she did it, asking them for quick-response answers, the students’ average was 14. Then she asked them to pay close attention throughout the following day, being very aware each time they found themselves making a decision related to nutrition. The next day, the average jumped to 225.

What does it mean? While these are not purely scientific data, they do show a very common experience: throughout our day we make many decisions unconsciously, operating on autopilot, a.k.a. habits. It is the practical consequence of what we saw when we were discussing habits: our brain has subconsciously assimilated certain criteria that it applies on an everyday basis on many occasions. And we must be aware of this if we really want to change certain aspects of our life. Hence, the foundations of self-control are built on self-awareness. The better we know ourselves (habits, customs, how our brain works), the more capable we are of taking control of our life.

We tend to approach our challenges of willpower in terms of “I will do this” or “I will stop doing that.” But if we dig a little deeper and look at the keys to our latest “victories” involving challenges of willpower, we will likely find what Dr. McGonigal considers essential for success: stick to what we really want. In other words, being fully aware of what we are seeking with this challenge. 

For example, imagine our intention was to quit smoking: we would find this challenge to be especially tough if it came down to simply denying ourselves cigarettes. However, the goal of anyone aiming to quit smoking goes well beyond that, namely: having a healthier lifestyle, not being overwhelmed when exercising, enjoying the smell of food, and so on. The issue lies in how to be more consistently aware of the deep motivation behind those challenges. 

Therefore, when it comes to any challenge involving willpower, a big part of the success revolves around finding the true “desire” underlying the effort. And it is especially important for what follows. 

In an area close to the amygdala, in the nucleus accumbens, lies the so-called “pleasure center.” When stimulated, this area secretes dopamine, a neurotransmitter that makes our body stand at attention awaiting imminent satisfaction: hence the name. 

However, the segregation of dopamine is not to be confused with satisfaction itself: when that happens, it is other areas of the brain that are activated. Dopamine is responsible for making us attracted to something that can give us that satisfaction. 

At this point, two situations can arise: either an external input triggers dopamine, which sends a signal to the cortex saying that it needs whatever has caught its attention; or the cortex conveys to the nucleus accumbens what it really wants, what really satisfies it. Essentially, it comes down to being guided by impulses or guided by reason — being at the mercy of external inputs or knowing how to “motivate” the brain to find what truly satisfies it. 

All of this is evidenced by the disenchantment that we experience when, far removed from the “dopamine trigger” environment (a pastry shop, a mall with sale prices marked in red, the restaurant with an open buffet), we think back to what we purchased or ate and realize it clearly was not such a great need after all, or it did not taste as good as we’d hoped.

This is what happens when we give in to the momentum generated by dopamine without even thinking and shelve the long-term goal (which we know will bring us true satisfaction) to pursue the fleeting promise of immediate pleasure... which, of course, is overrated. 

On the other hand, if we realize that we are under the influence of a dopamine rush, we can make our brain “see the light” and distinguish between a momentary attraction and real satisfaction. 

To illustrate how our willpower works, consider the following metaphor. Willpower is like a muscle: when exercised, it gets tired. As with a muscle, the brain consumes sugar when willpower is put to the test. 

This analogy gives us a better understanding of why, after a night of insomnia, or when work becomes particularly demanding, it is tougher to prevail against our impulses and exercise our willpower. And why oftentimes the best way to strengthen willpower is to simply rest, exercise and so on.

And we can also see how the willpower muscle can be trained: progressive loads and linking the greatest challenges to our best moments.



MCGONIGAL, Kelly. “The Willpower Instinct.”