How willpower works: the science of self-control



David Blaine spent 35 hours on a 80-foot pillar just 22 inches wide, without a safety harness, fighting hallucinations and the urge to nod off (and fall to his death). He spent 63 sleepless hours in a giant block of ice inches from his face. He spent 7 days inside a coffin with 6 inches of headspace. He spent 17 minutes underwater. He spent 44 days without food suspended above the Thames in a sealed transparent box, ranging from subfreezing to 114 degrees Fahrenheit.

Blaine is an endurance professional, and his stunts are not illusions; they are feats of willpower. Growing up, he trained himself in the discipline of self-control and deliberate practice. He studied the Victorian training of his childhood hero, Houdini, and forced himself to fast for ten days on just water by age 18. Long-term endurance training strengthened his willpower like a muscle.


In experiments beginning in the late 1960s, the psychologist Walter Mischel gave 4-year-olds the agonizing choice of one marshmallow now or two marshmallows in 15 minutes. When he followed up decades later, he found that the kids who deferred gratification turned into adults who had better relationships, were better at handling stress, obtained higher degrees and earned more money.

Willpower helps us exercise more, work more effectively, and live more healthily. ‘People who have better control of their attention, emotions and actions are better off, happier and healthier, better able to manage stress, deal with conflict and overcome adversity,’ says Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal.

Can willpower be strengthened? If we want to increase it, which strategies are most effective? And can those techniques be taught? I’ve been doing quite a bit of reading into this. Here’s what I’m learning.


‘In the past decade, our understanding of the neurology and psychology of habits has expanded in ways we couldn’t have imagined fifty years ago. Dozens of studies show that willpower is the single most important keystone habit for individual success. Self-discipline has a bigger effect on academic performance than intellectual talent. We now know why habits emerge, how they change, and the science behind their mechanics,saysCharlesDuhigg.

‘There is growing scientific evidence that you can train your brain to get better at self-control,’ says Kelly McGonigal.

What does the science suggest?

Baumeister: willpower is like a muscle


Starting in 1998, experiments in Baumeister’s lab showed that exertions of willpower left people with less self-control.

‘Your supply of willpower is limited, and you use the same resource for many different things. Each day’s stock is refreshed if you have a good night’s sleep and a healthy breakfast. Low sleep, poor nutrition and low exercise sap willpower and create impulse control and attention problems. Exercising self-control in one area seemed to improve all areas of life.’


Thaler & Sunstein: the planner and the doer

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‘Self-control issues can be illuminated by thinking about our minds as containing two systems, a far-sighted Planner and a myopic Doer. The Planner is trying to promote your long-term welfare but cope with your tempted Doer. Self-control strategies are our Planners taking steps to control the actions of our Doers often by trying to change the incentives our Doers face.’


Kahnemann: the paradox of effort and self-control


Our minds have two systems: system 1 is fast, automatic and effortless, and system 2 is slow, deliberate and effortful.

‘System 2 is in charge of self-control, but requires this effortful exertion. And effortful thinking also requires discipline and self-control. Self-control is tiring. If you have had to force yourself to do something, you are less willing or less able to exert self-control when the next challenge comes up.’


McGonigal: meet your two minds


‘Meet your two minds: the impulsive and wiser minds. When your mind is preoccupied, your impulses – not your long-term goals – will guide your choices.

‘If there is a secret for greater self-control, the science points to one thing: the power of paying attention. It’s training the mind to recognize when you’re making a choice, rather than running on autopilot. It’s remembering what you really want. To develop more self-control, you must first develop more self-awareness. The first step is to notice when you are making self-control choices.

‘Without self-awareness, the self-control system would be useless. You need to recognise when you’re making a choice that requires willpower; otherwise, the brain always defaults to what is easiest. Psychologists know most of our decisions are made on autopilot’.


Duckworth: self-control and grit


Angela Duckworth’s research shows that what most predicts success for pupils is grit. Grit is motivated perseverance for long-term goals. Those with grit have the stamina to persist with the deliberate practice vital for achievement.

To me, the most shocking thing about grit is how little we know, how little science knows, about building it. Every day, parents and teachers ask me, “What do I do to teach kids a solid work ethic? How do I keep them motivated for the long run?”

Duckworth divides the mechanics of achievement into two separate dimensions: motivation and volition, or grit and self-control. Grit is long-term stamina; self-control is micro-decisions. ‘A strong will doesn’t help much if a student isn’t motivated to succeed; but motivation alone is insufficient without the volitional fortitude to follow through on goals’.

Duckworth’s research findings into self-control are online:

  • Self-discipline outdoes IQ predicting academic performance in adolescents (2005)
  • Can adolescents learn self-control? (2010)
  • Self-regulation strategies improve self-discipline in adolescents (2011)
  • A meta-analysis of self control measures (2011)
  • The predictive power of the gratification delay test (2013)
  • Self-regulation and school success (2013)

Her research has tested a self-control survey used for pupils:



Tough: motivation is complex.


“That’s the problem with trying to motivate people: no one really knows how to do it well.”

How does this research translate into education practice for school leaders and teachers? That is the challenge I’ll take up on this blog in the coming weeks.

About Joe Kirby

School leader, education writer, Director of Education and co-founder, Athena Learning Trust, Deputy head and co-founder, Michaela Community School, English teacher
This entry was posted in Education, Student Culture. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to How willpower works: the science of self-control

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  2. David Didau says:

    Thanks for this summary Joe. Have you all so looked at the ego depletion debate? Baumeister’s ‘self-control as a muscle’ metaphor is tied to this idea that self-control may be a limited resource; if we expend it in one area, we won’t have it to spare in another. Our egos become depleted.

    But Inzlicht and Schmeichel are suggesting that self-control might be more attention driven and primarily concerned with motivation. What does this mean? They say that self control appears limited because once having exercised it we choose to reward ourselves with indulgence. Our attention shifts and we stop noticing cues that signal the need for self-control; we focus on cues that signal the need for reward. They see this as a ‘process model’ which better fits the data. Unfortunately the research is behind a pay wall, but you can read the abstract here:

  3. Thanks for this Joe, as some-one who found my own will-power muscle fairly late in life I find the work of McGonigal and others in this area a great help in my own life as well as in teaching.
    The Mischel test is interesting and often-referenced but I wonder of sometimes the children’s capacity for delayed gratification is over-attributed to an innate ability. By four years of age the children would have had a lot of experience of adult authority and I wonder how much of the successful children’s willingness to wait can be attributed to their trust in the person administering the test. Not personal trust so much as trust that when some-one says something will happen, it’ll happen.

  4. Tim Taylor says:

    Reblogged this on Primary Blogging.

  5. BB2 says:

    Reblogged this on The BB2 Collaborative.

  6. dtjprime says:

    Reblogged this on dtjprime.

  7. MLeonard says:

    what an excellent blog – useful in my teaching, useful in my personal life – just what I needed to read today – thank you!!!

  8. Brendon Ross says:

    Great post! David Blaine is somewhat of an idol of mine. The way that HE decides what his body does and the will power he has over his actions is simply heroic. One of the most impressive individuals of our time for sure. Definitely going to check out a few of the books you have suggested as well as I’d love to strengthen my ‘will power muscle’.


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  14. marvinsuggs says:

    I believe the key to our school getter better is in the students motivation and grit. This summer’s challenge is to find a way to bring this to the fore. ‘Growth mindset’ certainly paves the way but I’m fascinated with the Uncommon Schools ethos – how do you begin to challenge the preconceived ideas students in deprived areas (predominantly white) have about education and it’s value. Bloody holy grail in my eyes. Nice work Joe.

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