Psychology and Relationships

People with strong willpower share this mindset, says motivational psychology professor

Erhui1979 | Digitalvision Vectors | Getty Images

It's around this time of year – two weeks after alleging a total habits overhaul –  that the idea of willpower begins to occupy an outsized portion of our minds: why don't I have more of it, how can I get more of it, why do other people seem to have an unlimited amount of it? 

Veronika Job is a motivational psychology professor at the University of Vienna who studies willpower. Her research indicates some surprising news: You possess the exact amount of willpower you believe you possess.

If you think of yourself as someone with little self-control, your actions will reflect that, and vice versa.

Furthermore, views of one's own willpower start at a young age, she says, and there is no evidence you can easily change this perception down the line. In other words, there is no "silver bullet" to developing more willpower. 

For many this information might seem discouraging.

It's not all bad news, though. There are tasks that you might simply have more determination to complete, which could help you "indirectly" change your attitude toward your own willpower. 

People with strong willpower have a 'non-limited' mindset

There are two ways in which most people view willpower: 

  • Limited: If you believe that difficult situations which require self-control deplete your ability to resist temptation, you have a "limited" view of willpower. 
  • Non-limited: If you believe difficult situations fuel your ability to control yourself, you have a "non-limited" view of willpower. 

These views tend to be self-fulfilling prophecies, Job found in her research. If you believe you only have so much willpower, then you do run out.  If you believe your willpower grows over time, that is likely to happen. 

"A misconception is people think that every act of self-control depletes a resource and makes you less able to exert self-control," she says. "I would not say people have infinite reservoirs of self-control, but it's more like this very simplistic idea of a muscle. Some people think if you use it once it gets fatigued. That's not how our self-control works." 

In other words, self-control isn't like a glass of water which you drink from until it's all gone. However, if you view it in those terms, then it's likely that you will have a harder time resisting temptation than those who don't. 

A misconception is people think that every act of self-control depletes a resource and makes you less able to exert self-control.
Veronika Job
motivational psychology professor

'Pursue goals you actually like'

Although there is no hack to developing willpower, certain tasks might seem less demanding if you find ways to enjoy them. 

For example, if your goal is to spend more time outdoors but you don't like to hike, don't force yourself to hike. Instead, pick outdoor activities that you look forward to. 

"What matters a lot is you pursue goals you actually like," Job says.

If you are being rewarded for your efforts, Job says, this can also "strengthen your general attitudes and beliefs" about your own willpower. 

Both can "indirectly develop" a non-limited view of willpower, Job says. 

I talked to 70 parents of highly successful adults: 4 phrases they never used while raising them
4 phrases parents of successful adults never used when their kids were young