The Psychology of Willpower: Where There's a Will, There's a Way

The Psychology of Willpower: Where There's a Will, There's a Way
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 28 July, 2022

The psychology of willpower tells us that nothing is impossible when you’re determined and your brain is trained to make good decisions. People aren’t born with willpower. Rather, you develop these qualities over time, gradually becoming aware of your limits and abilities.

Studies on willpower started gaining steam in 2011 after the APA (American Psychological Association) conducted a survey.  The objective was to assess the level of stress of the American population, as well as determining factors. The results were remarkable.

More than half of the respondents stated that they were well aware that their lifestyle was not healthy. Moreover, they knew that stress as well as anxiety were their worst enemies. However, they claimed that they did not have the willpower to initiate changes. They did not feel motivated or equipped to change.

Why does this happen? Why do we procrastinate so much? Why do we lack the will to exercise, to stop smoking or to fight for that thing we’ve been dreaming of for so long? The psychology of willpower has some answers.

A snail on a stick.

But what is “willpower” anyway?

Maybe you recognize the following situation. You feel like you have no willpower, like you’re in a dark room and you have no idea what to do. You feel helpless. Then you beat yourself up for not acting.

Something that the psychology of willpower makes very clear to us is that willpower is not genetic. Nobody comes programmed with it. Moreover, it’s very dependent on a person’s mood, environment, and how they were raised. Nobody teaches us how to overcome fear and indecision, how to have more self-control and determination.

The psychology of willpower as pictured by a man on a cliff.

Characteristics of willpower

According to the APA, willpower is “the ability to delay gratification, resisting short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals. The capacity to override an unwanted thought, feeling or impulse”.

  • It is closed related to self-esteem and self-image.
  • Willpower has a lot to do with the regulation of negative or limiting thoughts.
  • In addition, it is also associated with our ability to delay gratification. We must be able to resist short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals.

Finally, we stress once again that all these skills and psychological resources can be practiced and developed. In fact, it is something that we should all do, and something we should teach our children.

3 key concepts from the psychology of willpower

While it’s true that “where there’s a will, there’s a way,” things aren’t quite that simple. Health psychologist Kelly McGonigal wrote a book on it: “The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It.” She teaches valuable strategies that we can summarize in the following points.

Meditating on a mountain.

I can’t

“I can’t.” This is undoubtedly one of the most common yet limiting things we say to ourselves. But we must combat this kind of negative self-dialogue if we want willpower. One way to do this is by telling ourselves, “if I am not going to be able to, I will make myself able.” The secret is to stop negative internal dialogue.

I will work on it

We all have wonderful virtues, abilities and capacities that we must appreciate and empower. However, certain environments and people make us forget or belittle them. It’s time to remember them. It’s time to step away from negative influences, both external and internal, so they don’t hurt our self-esteem. Then we will be able to reach our potential.

I want to be able to…

The last key is simple, useful and practical. It is based on simple daily verbalizations. Some examples:

  • I want to be able to feel better.
  • I want to be able to feel stronger.
  • I want to be able to overcome my past and set aside negative thoughts.
  • Today I want to be able to face that fear, that problem.
  • Tomorrow I want to be able to achieve that goal.
Walking through a peaceful corn field.

The psychology of willpower has a lot to offer us. Let’s learn how to work on it, become aware of the strength we have inside, and recognize that we deserve to make our dreams come true.


All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.