Willpower Woes: The Surprising Science Behind Making Life Changes Stick

Do you ever feel like no matter what you do to get healthier or fit that you don’t seem to succeed? Have you tried every diet out there, only to find the restrictions too difficult to manage? Have you attempted in earnest to maintain a fitness program only to find that, despite your best efforts, doing a consistent routine is too difficult to manage?

With all these starts and stops over years and decades, you may think: What’s the point of trying? Or maybe you’ve given up and resolved to just accept poor health as part of your life. Well, the inability to “stick with it” has many facets, some of which you may not be able to control. In fact, research shows that the self-control needed to succeed in many of these cases may be a limited resource.

Brain Functions

In 2006, Michael Inzlicht and colleagues at the University of Toronto Scarborough studied what happens in the brain when humans try to abstain from something they want. That is, when we try to use willpower to refrain from acting on our urges to do something specific.

Failure to control one’s behavior is found in all aspects of life. It includes acting out, saying mean things, stealing and drug abuse. It also encompasses not doing things that are good for you like walking, eating healthy and getting plenty of rest.

Inzlicht set up a study, published in the journal Psychological Science, which tested participants’ self-control over time. Participants were first asked to do something to deplete their “store” of willpower or behavioral control and then see how much they had left for another, unrelated task.

First, participants watched an emotionally upsetting movie and were asked to suppress their emotions and try not to cry during especially difficult scenes. Following this, participants completed what is called a Stroop task. Stroop is a psychological test that measures the reaction time needed to name colors that are printed in a color not associated with the color word. In other words, saying “green” when the word “green” was printed in the color red. This task may seem simple. While this seems simple, if you try it you will see how much self-control it takes not to blurt out the printed color and to have to suppress that urge and replace it with a correct response.

During both the watching of the film and the Stroop task, participants’ brain activity was measured by an EEG (electroencephalography) device. This records the electrical activity on the scalp to measure voltage changes within the brain’s neurons.

What the researchers discovered was intriguing. When participants had to restrain themselves and exert quite a bit of self-control (when not expressing emotions or when trying to say the names of colors), there was an increase of brain activity in the part of the brain’s frontal lobe known as the anterior cingulate cortex. This is the region of the brain involved in autonomic functions, like regulating blood pressure and heart rate, as well as rational cognitive functions, such as reward anticipation, decision-making and emotion.

Brain Activity

The interesting finding in this study is that there was less frontal lobe activity with the Stroop task after watching the gut-wrenching film. In other words, when a fair amount of self-control was previously used on one task, the next time it was needed there was less available for use. These findings suggest that people may not have as much willpower or control over their behavior as time progresses and demands are placed on them to exert such control.

It is pretty discouraging to think that the human brain is capable only of providing a strong degree of self-control during a given time period. That might seem to leave most of us with little hope for change. Think about it: If we use self-control to not eat a sticky bun with breakfast and force ourselves to take that morning jog, then we will have less available control over our behavior when it comes to making lunch and dinner choices, or passing on the second round of drinks, or going to the gym or to yoga class. Is it any wonder why so many fail at diets and exercise routines time and time again?

More Information

Well, this needn’t be the case and more information has recently been published on this issue. A study again headed by Inzlicht, this time with colleague Brandon Schmeichel of Texas A&M University, appeared in the September issue of the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science. In this further research, Inzlicht now finds that the “limited resource” model of self-control is too narrow and does not explain the exceptions, the times when self-control is in place and one is able to maintain the level necessary to effect positive change by making repeated good choices. It is not a “use it or lose it” situation as previously thought, but more closely tied to motivation, this study shows.

While previous research apparently pointed to a decrease in the amount of willpower available with each passing task requiring some form of self-control, this conclusion may be flawed because of the generic activity used in the studies. In other words, researchers had set up lab situations wherein subjects had no strong motivation influencing their behavior.

The more recent study indicates that mood, personal beliefs, positive reinforcement and motivation play a big role in exerting willpower. Inzlicht and Schmeichel propose that “engaging in self-control by definition, is hard work; it involved deliberation, attention, and vigilance.”


It’s not the case that resisting an extra piece of bacon at breakfast uses up our daily store of willpower, making self-control more difficult later in the day when needed. Rather, it seems that the motivation to exert our willpower later in the day seems less motivating. At that later time, we tend to want to reward ourselves for hard work done.

In the end, as with everything else affecting health and well-being, you can divide your circumstances into things you can do to help reach your goals and things beyond your control.

In the case of self-control, you need long-term behavior modification for success. My experience has shown that trying to restrict too many things is what leads to failure. For example, trying to set new exercise goals, diet routines and sleep patterns all at the same time creates an overwhelming struggle.

Instead, making one change for a few weeks before adding another seems to allow the brain and behaviors to reshape and recondition to the new activity. Repetition over time turns a self-controlled behavior into a habit that then keeps taking place on autopilot. Once the first piece of the healthy behavior is under new control, add the second piece, and so on. In this way, you don’t run out of your willpower stores, you don’t deplete your motivation and you learn new healthier behaviors along the way. Without behavior modification, all programs for change will fail.

Think about times you have tried to make positive changes in your life and have fallen short or failed. Then think about how many things you were trying to control for at that time. Also consider the moments when you were on the path to success but allowed yourself an indulgence for work well done, and that indulgence set you back in your efforts.

If you analyze in light of the research on self-control, you can find the way forward. It reminds me of the old maxim: “Inch by inch, life is a cinch; yard by yard, it’s very hard.” Which leads to another appropriate maxim: “The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.”

Slow down your efforts to be healthier into manageable steps, and over time new behaviors will arise that make self-control easier overall and wellness restoration an achievable goal.