What is Willpower

What is the difference between self-discipline, self-control, willpower, and habits? Do we still need self-discipline if we are otherwise able to build good habits by “hacking our environment”? Let’s investigate.

Self-regulation is a broad term that encompasses many internal skills, including willpower, self-discipline, self-awareness, and motivation. It is the conscious, effortful regulation of the self, by the self. 

Willpower is your ability to control your attention, emotions, and actions, despite competing stimuli, and to resolve conflicts between short-term and long-term desires. It includes your capacity to delay gratification, override thoughts and feelings, and shift your internal state. 

Self-control is often used as synonymous with willpower, while some people say self-control is limited to impulse control (the “I won’t” power), while willpower also includes your ability to make yourself do things (the “I will” power).

Self-discipline is the continuous application of self-awareness and willpower over time, so you can choose behaviors that are in harmony with your long-term goals. 

Habit is when action has crystallized over time—unconsciously or through self-discipline.

Motivation is an emotional state of being energized to do something. 

This example illustrates the differences.

Sarah meets a friend she hasn’t seen since college. Sarah is impressed at her friend’s beaming health and energy. Her friend describes her healthy eating and exercise routine. This sparks Sarah’s motivation to take health seriously. She decides to stop eating ice cream and to run every weekday after work.

Monday evening comes, and Sarah doesn’t feel like running. She is tired after work and wants to rest, not run. She remembers her commitment (self-awareness) and pushes herself to run (willpower).

After running, Sarah opens her freezer and sees the ice cream she habitually enjoys every night. She decides to close her eyes, shut the freezer door, and eat an apple instead (self-control). The ice-cream urge passes, and she feels happy with herself.

This process repeats itself, with variations, every weekday. Every time Sarah practices willpower and self-control in this way, she is practicing self-discipline.

After a couple of months, all of this becomes automatic. Running every weekday happens with no internal conflict—Sarah does it regardless of how she feels. The ice cream looks less tempting. At this point, she has formed a new habit.

Willpower is the power of your decisions and actions. Each time an obstacle or temptation comes your way, and you say NO to it and re-affirm your commitment, you strengthen your willpower. In a way, willpower and self-discipline overlap with determination, resilience, and mental toughness. 

If we see willpower/self-control as the thread, then self-discipline is the process of weaving it all together to make a piece of clothing. Motivation is what got you started knitting in the first place. 

Habit-building is one of the main functions of self-discipline, but not the whole of it. Self-discipline is the guiding force that allows you to take action in accordance with your goals; some of these actions can be turned into habits, but not all of them.

For example, let’s say that one of your goals is to fix your broken relationship with your son. To do that, you will need to behave in certain ways with him, to build rapport and connection. It is not about building a habit of doing something—such as journaling every night—but about responding to the needs of the moment in a way that advances your cause. The dynamic and unpredictable nature of human relationships is such that building habits cannot be the (only) solution; you need the self-discipline to act in accordance with certain principles. 

For many of the expressions of self-discipline, there are simply no shortcuts. You need to exercise your self-awareness and willpower.


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