Overcoming adversity and competition to achieve great success always depends, at least in part, on willpower. No less a luminary than the Dalai Lama joined the chorus in praise of this trait when he said, “We all have the power of thought – so what are you lacking? If you have willpower, then you can change anything.” I’ve shared some thoughts on how willpower leads to higher scores as well.
Willpower can be defined as the ability to resist urges, impulses, and short-term gratification in pursuit of long-term goals or objectives. We’re always fighting urges to eat what we shouldn’t, pay attention to something other than what is in front of us, or walk away from what we’re doing and just go back to bed. As a limited resource, willpower only lasts so long, especially under sustained stress.
Test prep, obviously, demands lots of willpower.
For greater success in our chosen challenges, we should cultivate deeper wells of willpower from which to draw when the impulse to quit grows too great. Luckily, we can also work on a parallel strategy that minimizes our willpower requirements, even in moments of adversity–building better self-control habits.
How is self-control different from willpower? An abstract of two national field studies exploring the links between self-control and SAT outcomes clarifies the distinction:
In popular parlance, self-control is typically equated with brute-force efforts to control one’s behavior. But direct regulation of conflicting impulses is only one way to achieve valued goals. Specifically, theorists have differentiated between strategic and willpower approaches to enacting self-control. Strategic self-control entails the use of situational and cognitive strategies to voluntarily align thoughts, feelings, and actions with enduringly valued goals despite momentarily more alluring alternatives. For example, strategic self-control can take the form of keeping temptations out of sight, reminding oneself of the importance of a valued goal, or monitoring goal progress. Willpower, in contrast, entails direct, in-the-moment regulation of ongoing behavior—“just” saying no to temptations, for example, or “just” forcing oneself to get started on a valued goal.
This team of researchers partnered with the College Board to conduct two national field studies on strategic self-control and willpower in a real-world, high-stakes setting: the SAT. The researchers identified the efficacy of a number of relevant self-control strategies, including the following:
- studying in a place free of distractions
- disabling devices while studying
- adhering to a concrete study plan
- tracking study time and outcomes
Did specific habits for self-control impact student success? Long story short, compared with relying on willpower alone, using at least one self-control strategy predicted more time spent practicing for the SAT and higher SAT scores when controlling for demographics and prior achievement.
Obviously, the full study includes many more valuable details. Nonetheless, even those without the will to dive into the data can benefit from these findings. Do not rely on willpower alone; implement at least one habit for self-control, and reap the benefits of success!