If you’ve ever worked towards a goal, you’ve likely heard about willpower.
Well-meaning friends and family members probably told you how it’s the key to achieving your goals. Resisting the temptation around every corner will put you on the path to completing your journey.
If only it were that simple.
As well-meaning as the advice can be, humans are not robots. Everyone struggles to achieve a goal at some point in their lives. The science of willpower shows it doesn’t last, leading to research on why willpower does fail when it can seem so promising at the start of a goal.
If you’re wondering how to overcome your lack of willpower, know it’s natural for resolve to fade, and there is a better system to focus on than forcing yourself to resist all temptation.
Why willpower fails
Willpower is the ability to resist temptation to meet a long-term goal. In simplified terms, it’s fighting the temptation to eat a cupcake while trying to be healthier.
In a perfect world, you could set a goal and use willpower to consistently resist the urge to give into actions interfering with achieving that goal.
Research shows students with willpower have better attendance, grades, and test scores. Analysis even suggests willpower is a better indicator of academic success than IQ.
Willpower is a powerful tool when working towards your goals, but the problem is it only works short-term on its own.
Your pre-frontal cortex regulates your willpower, level of focus, decision-making, and problem-solving. It’s also the newest part of your brain to mature, not fully developing until you’re around 25 years old.
All those factors make your pre-frontal cortex tire out quickly, with your willpower dropping out. Mental conditions like addiction also impact your ability to maintain resolve. In these cases, you need another solution to help you achieve your goals or you risk defeat from an illness you can’t control.
Your willpower is like a muscle you can strengthen over time with practice, but like all muscles, it also needs rest. Without it, you tire it to the point of injury.
The scientific concept around this comes from ego depletion, which some think could happen when you use up all your strength on one task. You need willpower to function daily for things other than your long-term goals. It takes motivation to leave your warm bed on a rainy morning, go to work, pay your bills and be polite to rude people.
Temptation can be powerful — willpower alone won’t stop you from eventually giving in to it. Between your limited resolve and the need to divide it into various tasks, you need more than willpower if you’re going to achieve your goals long-term.
The science of rewards
Studies show immediate and frequent rewards on the journey to complete a goal enable a person to keep going by making the experience more enjoyable. This differs from one prize at the end of a task, which can make the experience more stressful.
It makes sense because rewards cause the brain to release feel-good hormones like dopamine. A regular dose of these hormones is going to make the experience of working on completing your goal easier.
Unlike willpower, rewards activate many portions of your brain, relieving the fatigue the overuse of resolve causes. Frequent rewards make it a more positive experience overall, naturally motivating you to continue the task.
A reward system also allows you to better plan out your goal. Instead of just saying you’re going to start or stop something, you can lay out how many days until your get your reward, putting you on a schedule for success.
These schedules can motivate you to begin your goal and work to completion. Getting a reward also relaxes you, helps you remember why you want to achieve your aim and reinforces your hard work. This enables you to build new habits, making your journey less difficult.
A reward could be anything that brings you joy while helping you stay on track. In the end, you can experiment with what works best for you. For example, you can reward yourself with a cupcake after a week of eating healthy, but if that reward makes it harder for you to continue eating healthy, you should switch to a different type of reward.
There’s no strict schedule on when to reward yourself, so long as the frequency enhances your journey instead of hindering it. If you’re cleaning your house, consider rewarding yourself with a break after completing two rooms. This reward could be taking a hobby break, calling a friend, having a latte, taking a walk or going shopping. Your reward should be something you enjoy doing that makes you feel good about your hard work.
Tackling willpower with rewards
Switching to a reward system doesn’t mean you’re cutting out willpower from the equation. Willpower is a tool that will help you resist short-term temptations in-between rewards.
It takes strength to begin working towards a goal in the first place. Your willpower is a muscle and the plan's start is an exciting time when you’ll be most motivated to put in work. It’s essential to have your reward system in place already, since it moves you along when your willpower starts to get tired.
Some goals are necessary but not inherently enjoyable — eating healthy, exercising more, working more hours and saving money. Using willpower in those situations may be more challenging, but quick rewards can motivate you to stay on track.
When you use your reward system as the primary tool and your willpower as a starting point and supplement, you’ll have a plan to maximize your motivation, allowing you to complete your tasks confidently. Once you have a plan in place with different rewards at different areas of your journey, you are ready to begin your next chapter or complete a stressful goal with more enjoyment.
Using rewards to reach your goals
A reward system is scientifically and anecdotally better than relying on willpower alone.
Resolve fades over time, while rewards are continuous and serve as a checkpoint along the journey of achieving your long-term goal. Using willpower as a tool alongside your reward system can put you on a journey to success.
Today's post is a guest post from Beth Rush.
Beth Rush is the Managing Editor at Body+Mind. She is a well-respected writer in the personal wellness space and shares knowledge on various topics related to mental health, self-improvement, and holistic health. In her spare time, Beth enjoys cooking and trying out new fitness trends. Connect with her on Twitter @bodymindmag.