Most people realize that willpower is a component in making any lasting lifestyle change, whether that’s saving money, losing weight, or quitting smoking or drinking. Willpower is needed to help override urges and make the better, healthier choice when temptations run high.

Willpower alone isn’t enough to overcome addiction, but it can certainly make the recovery process easier. While many people believe that willpower is a trait, willpower is actually a set of skills that can be learned, practiced and strengthened.

Read on to learn more about how to strengthen your willpower and overcome your addiction.

What is Willpower and Where Does it Come From?

In many ways, willpower could be viewed as the conflict between a desire for what someone wants now and what they want later. When an addiction develops, the brain’s reward centers are rewired to prefer the instant rewards over the long-term ones, leading to strong cravings and urges for a substance (1).

As these cravings become stronger, more willpower is needed to avoid giving into them, which is a problem because addiction also affects areas of the brain believed to generate willpower (5).

Willpower isn’t just one skill, but rather a set of skills, most of which are attributed to the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is a part of the brain unique to humans that is responsible for most of our higher-level thinking skills.

These skills are often called executive functions, and refer to a set of critical thinking skills that help us plan ahead, solve problems and make good decisions that help us reach our long-term goals (3). Together, several of these executive functions work together to form our “willpower”. These skills include the ability to:

  • Think through short and long term consequences of an action
  • Override an unwanted thought, feeling or urge
  • Keep a “cool head” and be able to think through things, even when upset
  • Intentionally redirect attention away from unhelpful thoughts and feelings
  • Intentionally keep attention on long-term goals, values, and helpful thoughts
  • Follow through with a helpful, logical action or reaction

Willpower is generally regarded as a skillset that can be learned, practiced and strengthened, but some people might have a natural advantage or disadvantage when it comes to willpower.

A number of factors might determine some of these advantages and disadvantages. These include genetic predispositions, psychological factors like an underlying mental health condition, and even personality factors like being naturally more or less impulsive.

Still, even those with naturally higher levels of self-control don’t seem to have an unlimited supply of willpower.

Can You Run Out of Willpower?

Most researchers now regard willpower as a limited supply, or something that can temporarily run out (4). Research studies have found that when people exert willpower in one area of life (like not eating dessert) they are much more likely to give into temptation later on (like drinking too much) (2).

This finding suggests that all people seem to have some willpower, but using it will reduce the amount they have.

At the same time, willpower is also considered to be a renewable resource, one that with time, will replenish itself. This means that while people can give in to a momentary temptation after having made “good” choices all day, their willpower replenishes.

Giving into temptations isn’t the only way to replenish willpower, it also happens naturally (4). For instance, if a person is on a strict diet but has only healthy food in their home, they likely will have to use less willpower than if they were at an all-you-can-eat buffet. This means they will expend less willpower, having more saved up.

Methods for Conserving Willpower

Some people might naturally have more willpower, and others less, but the important thing is that everyone at least has some.

Because willpower is depleted when it is used, the key to willpower is not to try to build more of it, but to conserve what you already have.

There are a number of different strategies you can use to help you use willpower more sparingly, ensuring you have some for times when you need it most. 

1. Plan Ahead to Conserve Willpower

For most people in recovery, the times when they need willpower the most is early on in the process and when they are confronted with unexpected triggers or temptations.

For this reason, conservation methods should begin early on, even before you actually stop using drugs or alcohol. In the planning process, it is important to think about situations where you are most likely to encounter temptations or to have strong urges.

These might include:

  • Certain places like bars, clubs, or specific neighborhoods where you bought drugs
  • Certain people like those you used with or people you know would have drugs or alcohol
  • Situations where drug or alcohol would likely be available or offered to you
  • Situations where you would be able to drink or use without being “caught”
  • Stressful situations when you would be more likely to have strong urges to drink or use

Remember that it will always be easier to make good choices ahead of time than it will be in moments when you are tempted or have an urge. Try to think of ways you could make it harder to make a bad choice or easier to make a good one in the above situations.

Some examples include:

  • Leaving your wallet or cash at home to avoid being tempted to make an unplanned stop
  • Telling friends or associates you are no longer drinking or using drugs
  • Deleting contacts of people you drank or used with, or dealers you bought from
  • Going to an inpatient rehab to avoid being tempted to use during the detox stage
  • Signing up for outpatient rehab that has random drug screenings
  • Asking your doctor for a medication to block the effects of a drug or to ease withdrawals

2. Keep Yourself Busy

Another strategy that many people in early recovery find helpful is to fill their schedule with activities to keep them busy.

Consider staying busy with 12- step meetings (like the 90 meetings in 90 days approach), volunteering, setting lunch dates with friends, or signing up for a sport or activity. Avoiding having a lot of idle time helps conserve willpower in a number of ways, including:

  • Keeping your mind distracted from thoughts and urges
  • Limiting opportunities for drug or alcohol use
  • Providing social accountability (people who rely on you and expect you to show up)
  • Finding new, healthier outlets and coping skills for stress and difficult emotions that have built up and contributed to drug cravings in the past
  • Developing new habits and routines that help to rewire your brain, pruning away the old habits of drug and alcohol use

3. Cooling Down Hot” Thoughts

Inevitably, people in recovery will experience unhelpful and unwanted thoughts and cravings, so it is important to be prepared for these. Many experts describe these thoughts as “hot thoughts” which tend to be intense, emotionally charged, and urge-driven.

Interestingly, there are some techniques that have been proven to “cool down” these “hot” thoughts, helping reduce their intensity.

One of the most famous studies was one conducted on children that offered them one marshmallow now OR two if they were able to wait. Researchers found that children were more successful in waiting when they (3):

  • Shifted their attention away from the marshmallow by looking away or focusing on something else in the room.
  • Changed the thought by imagining the marshmallow as a fluffy cotton ball or cloud.
  • Shifting the focus to how the marshmallow looks (for example it’s size, shape or color) rather than how it tastes.

Obviously, drugs and marshmallows are different, and so the techniques used above would need to be adapted to be effective. Some ways of cooling down the “hot thoughts” that could lead to relapse include:

  • Focusing your attention on something else in the room or becoming engaged in a conversation or mental activity.
  • Using mindfulness to distance yourself from the thoughts and instead become a “curious observer” of what you feel, see and experience.
  • Keeping reminders of your biggest motivators for recovery  with you (i.e. a picture of your daughter or your 30 day chip from AA).
  • Telling yourself, “I don’t want it” or, “I don’t need it” instead of, “I can’t”.
  • Fast-forwarding past the immediate rewards of drinking or using drugs and thinking instead about the consequences (i.e. the disappointment of loved ones, the hangover, the guilt you would feel, etc.).

Final Thoughts

Like a muscle, willpower will weaken and fatigue when it is required to do a lot of heavy lifting, especially if it is out of shape. This is why planning ahead, staying busy, and keeping a cool head when urges hit it so important, especially in early recovery.

These strategies help you to protect your depleted supply of willpower so that you have it for times when you need it most. But over time, regular exercise of this “muscle” will actually strengthen it

When willpower becomes stronger, resisting urges will feel easier, similar to how a heavy weight seems to become “lighter” as a person gets used to lifting it. Keep this in mind on days that are particularly hard. When using willpower leaves you feeling weak, tired, and depleted, interpret this as proof that you are becoming stronger, and that your addiction is becoming weaker.

Sources:

  1. Bechara, A. (2005). Decision making, impulse control and loss of willpower to resist drugs: a neurocognitive perspective. Nat Neurosci. 2005;8(11):1458-1463. doi:10.1038/nn1584
  2. Baumeister, R. F., & Vohs, K. D. (2003). Willpower, choice, and self-control. In G. Loewenstein, D. Read, & R. Baumeister (Eds.), Time and decision: Economic and psychological perspectives on intertemporal choice, 201-216.
  3. Mischel, W.,  Ayduk, O., Baumeister R. F., & Vohs, K. D. (2004). Willpower in a cognitive-affective processing system: The dynamics of delay of gratification, Handbook of Self-Regulation: Research, Theory, and Applications,. 99-129.
  4. Muraven, M., et al. (2008). Helpful self-control: autonomy support, vitality, and depletion.  Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44, 573-585.
  5. Noël, X., Brevers, D., Bechara, A. (2013). A neurocognitive approach to understanding the neurobiology of addiction. Curr Opin Neurobiol. 23(4):632-638. doi:10.1016/j.conb.2013.01.018

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