Build Better Habits, Starting with Willpower


Social psychologists Shelley Taylor and Jonathan Brown found that for the sake of our own well-being, we tend to be mostly optimistic about our abilities. This is a powerful habit because it typically forms the baseline of how we evaluate opportunities and make promises. If you’ve ever had a kitchen remodel you know what I’m talking about.

We can develop better habits — for example, by dong a reality check of the average time and cost of kitchen remodels like ours. And willpower is the most important habit to build.

Many studies confirm it. In The Power of Habit: Why we Do What we Do in Life and Business, Charles Duhigg says:

“Willpower is the single most important keystone habit for individual success.

In a 2005 study, for instance, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania analyzed 164 eighth-grade students, measuring their IQs and other factors, including how much willpower the students demonstrated, as measured by tests of their self- discipline. Students who exerted high levels of willpower were more likely to earn higher grades in their classes and gain admission into more selective schools.

They had fewer absences and spent less time watching television and more hours on homework. “Highly self-disciplined adolescents outperformed their more impulsive peers on every academic-performance variable,” the researchers wrote. “Self-discipline predicted academic performance more robustly than did IQ. Self-discipline also predicted which students would improve their grades over the course of the school year, whereas IQ did not….Self-discipline has a bigger effect on academic performance than does intellectual talent.”

And the best way to strengthen willpower and give students a leg up, studies indicate, is to make it into a habit.”

I continue to recommend this book because it helps with one of the most empowering things we can do — and that is change our habits. See the review here.

Willpower in the Brain

If you are interested in understanding self control better, I recommend The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It by Kelly McGonigal. Willpower has become the thing that distinguishes us from each other, says McGonigal (emphasis mine):

“People who have better control of their attention, emotions, and actions are better off almost any way you look at it. They are happier and healthier. Their relationships are more satisfying and last longer. They make more money and go further in their careers. They are better able to manage stress, deal with conflict, and overcome adversity. They even live longer.

When pit against other virtues, willpower comes out on top.

Self-control is a better predictor of academic success than intelligence (take that, SATs), a stronger determinant of effective leadership than charisma (sorry, Tony Robbins), and more important for marital bliss than empathy (yes, the secret to lasting marriage may be learning how to keep your mouth shut). If we want to improve our lives, willpower is not a bad place to start. To do this, we’re going to have to ask a little more of our standard-equipped brains.”

According to Robert Sapolsky, a neurobiologist at Stanford University, the main job of the modern prefrontal cortex is to bias the brain against the harder thing.

This part of the brain is divided into three main regions to take on the “I will” stick with it, “I won’t” follow every little impulse or craving, and “I want” jobs. This last part is the smallest and the most important to tracking our real goals and desires.

Our self-control system has evolved more recently and we can use it to override automatic commands that drive us to do things that while alluring now are not so good for us in the long run.

We can help our future self by developing willpower, the single most important keystone habit for individual success.


Conversation Agent – Valeria Maltoni