How to Build Willpower – Definitive Deep Dive


You want to lose body fat, build muscle, and gain confidence…

You know protein is important, that you should eat your fruits and vegetables, and that working out is good for you.

You KNOW almost exactly WHAT to do.

Yet you can’t seem to collect enough willpower to do the things required to realize your goals, or stick with the process long enough.

The leftover Christmas cookies keep calling your name from the kitchen table. Staying on the couch is much more comfortable than doing the chores around the house. It’s bedtime, yet you stay awake scrolling social media or watching Netflix.

Sound familiar?

Ever feel like you just don’t have the same amount of willpower as others who do reach their goals?

Does it feel difficult to practice self-control, to resist temptations, and to delay gratification?

Today you’ll learn exactly what sets our most successful nutrition coaching clients apart, so you can do the same.

(Honestly, I think you’ll be surprised by some the solutions to your willpower problem.)

Before we jump in:

  • We are currently accepting new clients into our online nutrition coaching program. If you’re looking for individualized help, you can get a free consultation call to learn more. Click here to apply and learn more (the call is non-binding, and 100% on the house). I’ll personally get back to you to confirm.
Table of Contents

Can Willpower be Depleted? - Controversy in Science

Before we get into the tools and tactics, it’s important to understand willpower.
For a long time, scientists have believed that willpower is a resource that depletes throughout the day. This concept, coined by psychologist and researcher Roy Baumeister back in 1998, is called Ego Depletion.
According to this theory – knowing that your brain runs on glucose (sugar) as its primary fuel source – you expend actual energy as you use your willpower throughout the day.
In 2007, a study (by Baumeister) supported this claim through an experiment where participants drank lemonade between doing difficult tasks. One group got a sugary drink, while another group got an artificially sweetened drink. In this study, the group that drank the sugary drink – and so, replenished their brain glucose stores – regained willpower.
A later 2013 study Carol Dweck however, then found that it was not the actual drinking of the lemonade, but the participants’ BELIEFS about willpower that determined the effect of glucose on self-control.
Turns out that how much willpower you have and whether it depletes or not, is much more about your mindset and beliefs around willpower and self control!
If these conflicting studies weren’t enough yet, there seems to be a bigger problem with the research around Ego Depletion (which is hundreds of studies by now)…
Throughout the years, researchers have dug into older studies and found unpublished data that did NOT support claims in favor of Ego Depletion. There have also been multiple studies that have tried to replicate older studies, and failed to find any evidence FOR Ego Depletion.
Then again… There are also meta-analysis (studies that look at a bunch of different studies), that neither prove or disprove the Ego Depletion theory.
Confused much?
Don’t worry. I’m going to help you figure this out.
Maybe with enough time, the research becomes clear. But let’s leave that to the scientists to figure out. In the meantime, you and me can work on your mindset, environment, and willpower muscle.
Because you’re not doomed, you can improve your willpower. As always, there’s a lot within your control that can be done.
Let’s now dive into a bit of neuroscience (in plain English), so you get a good understanding of the relationship between fatigue/stress and self control.

Stress and Self Control are Enemies

Self control ‘lives’ in what’s called your Prefrontal Cortex (PFC), the very front part of your brain. Its functions include:
  • social interaction
  • personality expression
  • memory
  • inhibition of inappropriate behaviors
  • self control
  • attention
  • decision-making
Let’s call it the ‘in control’ part of your brain.
Then there’s the midbrain, which is more related to the fight or flight response.
Of course, you’re always using different parts of the brain at once, but I’m sharing these two specific areas of the brain with you to show you how stress plays a role here.
When you’re stressed and/or fatigued, your mental resources move more towards that mid-brain area, away from the PFC.
This can lead to:
  • Being forgetful
  • Having a hard time concentrating
  • Being disorganized
  • Reduced insight, judgement, and moral conscience
  • Decreased empathy and compassion
  • Decreased optimism and persistence
  • Decreased self-regulation and inhibitory control
By now, you should begin to connect the dots.
Persistence, optimism, self-regulation, being disorganized, inhibitory control… ALL things that play a massive role on your Odyssey toward your long-term fitness goals.
When you’re stressed/tired, and in what’s called a ‘Fight or Flight’ state, it becomes very hard to practice self control and have a lot of willpower.
But if you’re calm and present, in what’s called a ‘Rest and Digest’ state – also called ‘Pause and Plan’ – it’s much easier to be in control and make the right decisions.
Guess why we talk about sleep and stress management so much on the Talking Nutrition Podcast?
Guess why we have two full deep dives on the blog on sleep and stress?
Because it’s about more than feeling calm and rested.
Both stress and sleep can dramatically impact every aspect of your health and fitness journey, including willpower and self-control.
Whether that’s a positive or negative effect, depends on how well you manage stress and practice good sleep hygiene. 

Can you Train Your Willpower?

Yes, you can!
Through resistance, discomfort, and consistent action, you can train your willpower. It’s just like training a muscle.
Here’s how you do it:
  1. Challenge yourself. Set action-based goals (in favor of your main goal) that push you. Make sure they’re challenging yet achievable. Think of anything ‘difficult’ that you know will benefit you, like following a hard workout routine.

  2. Get uncomfortable. You need a strong mind, not just a strong body. What can you think of that pushes you outside of your comfort zone? Can you get in that ice bath, or crank the shower and see how long you last? There’s a lot of hype around cold water exposure, mostly based on incorrect claims. However, one thing it does do, is train your willpower muscle. You do something you KNOW you really don’t want to do, but you do it anyway and resist the urge of getting out. This is just one way of showing yourself who’s really in control.

  3. Resist temptations. Temperance – the practice of moderation and self-restraint – is a skill you must gain. There’s on long-term success in health and fitness without it. Expose yourself to the things you know you struggle with. Can you keep that phone away and NOT scroll social media every second you get distracted? Can you stop yourself from grabbing 10 cookies instead of 1? Can you go to bed on time, instead of watching “just one more” episode of your favorite series?
These things are easier said than done, but 100% within your control to do and get better at.
After reading this article all the way through…
What will you do to train your willpower muscle?

The Willpower Trap - How to Reach Your Goals Without Willpower

Wait, what? Didn’t we just learned how to improve your willpower…?
Yes, and you should still push your limits, get uncomfortable, and learn how to resist temptations.
But don’t fall into the ‘Willpower Trap’…
You failing does not mean it’s because you don’t care enough, or that you’re not fully committed. It’s not always a not-having-enough-willpower problem!
Skills, people around you, accountability, and your environment… ALL play a huge role here too.
Just relying on willpower can help you create change, but can become a problem when you don’t address the root cause of your problems.
Picture this:
  • If you haven’t learned how to eat healthy AND include some flexible foods in moderation…
  • If you have no support from the people around you, or no one who can guide and hold you accountable…
  • If you’re constantly tempted because the house is full of snacks, cookies, and sugary drinks…
… is it really a willpower problem?
Or do we need to create a better environment for you that’s in line with your goals to be successful? Do you need to have a look at your social circle? What skills do you lack?
You see, the people you think have a lot of willpower, aren’t just successful because of willpower.
They set up their life so they do not have to rely on willpower all the time.
They are aware of their weaknesses and more difficult moments, and WORK to increase their chances of success.

How to Build Willpower Summarized - Be the Scientist, Not the Subject

Today you learned about the research on willpower, how scientists don’t all agree, and that your mindset and beliefs about willpower play a massive role in how much willpower you have.
Then, you learned how the stress response changes which area of the brain is most active, and how this impacts self-control, decision-making, persistence, and more.
After that, we talked about training your willpower muscle by pushing your limits, getting uncomfortable, and resisting temptations.
And finally, you learned how successful people set up their life so they don’t have to always rely on willpower.
Now, it’s time to put things into action.
  • Start off by doing inventory of your life. What needs most work?
  • What actions do you need to take to improve on those things?
  • How about your social circle, skills and knowledge, and direct environment?
  • Make sure to reflect weekly. Turn bad days into good data. Zoom out, address how you’re doing, and use that information to figure out how to move forward.
Promise yourself to take what you’ve learned in this article and DO something with it.
Take control by becoming the scientist of your life instead of the subject.
Be proactive, not reactive.
Remember that no matter where you’re at currently, you can still take the same actions as someone you think has more willpower than you.
Nothing is physically holding you back, it’s all in your head. And you can influence that through action. You are 100% in your control
Thank you for reading this article.
If you enjoyed it, it would mean the world to me if you shared it with someone else who may need it.
  1. Baumeister RF, Bratslavsky E, Muraven M, Tice DM. Ego depletion: is the active self a limited resource? J Pers Soc Psychol. 1998 May;74(5):1252-65. doi: 10.1037//0022-3514.74.5.1252. PMID: 9599441.
  2. Gailliot, M. T., Baumeister, R. F., DeWall, C. N., Maner, J. K., Plant, E. A., Tice, D. M., Brewer, L. E., & Schmeichel, B. J. (2007). Self-control relies on glucose as a limited energy source: Willpower is more than a metaphor. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(2), 325–336.
  3. Job V, Walton GM, Bernecker K, Dweck CS. Beliefs about willpower determine the impact of glucose on self-control. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2013 Sep 10;110(37):14837-42. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1313475110. Epub 2013 Aug 19. PMID: 23959900; PMCID: PMC3773743.

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