Willpower and how to optimise it

Willpower and how to optimise it

The Marshmallow Test

Professor Walter Mischel’s “Marshmallow Test” has become famous as a measure of children’s capacity to delay gratification. You may well have heard of it – the child is asked to sit in a room, alone, with a marshmallow on a plate in front of them. They are told that they can either ring a bell and the researcher will come back into the room and they can have the marshmallow, or they can wait until the researcher comes back in their own time and have two. The studies measured the length of time it took for each child to ring the bell.

These experiments have been recorded on video and the film captures the effort the kids put into controlling themselves. Here’s the video of the famous Marshmallow test of Dr Walter Mishchel for you to see.  It’s easy to see how torn the children are, and how much effort they put in to resisting temptation.

Why does your willpower desert you at times?

Over the course of developing Appetite Retraining, the issue of lack of willpower came up time and again with the people I was working with. Some people told me they simply didn’t have any willpower, and others were baffled at how they could perform really well in other areas of life but could not control their desire for chocolate. When I came to examine what was stopping people putting their yearning to lose weight into effective action, lack of willpower emerged as one of the four main things that was sabotaging their efforts. You can read more about all four types of sabotage and how to overcome them in my self-help book “How to Retrain Your Appetite”.

What is willpower?

Essentially, the internal resource the kids in the video are using to wait to get two treats rather than one is their willpower. But what is it? Lots of adults I’ve worked with have talked about their lack of willpower as though it’s a stable feature of their personality – which makes them feel weak or inferior. Research shows this is not what willpower is at all.

Psychologists Baumeister and Tierney have studied willpower, and they’ve pulled research together into the book simply called “Willpower”. They concluded that willpower is like a form of energy, that we use up over the course of the day. This willpower-energy is depleted by making decisions and resisting impulses, and it’s at its lowest at the end of the day. It is replenished by sleep and by glucose. So going without sleep or not eating well will mean your willpower is running low.

What’s going on at the point of resisting the marshmallow?

At the fraught moment when you’re aware that you didn’t intend to eat any sweets this evening but you’ve just spotted the chocolate bar in the cupboard, you’re in conflict between “want it” and “don’t want to do this”. These two opposing drives are in conflict, and they are not equal. They are governed by different parts of the brain – the part that wants the delayed gratification (whether that’s two-treats-later or weight loss) is governed by the rational part of the brain including the pre-frontal cortex, which is involved in goal-planning and inhibiting actions. Mischel calls this the “cool” system. The desire to eat the chocolate right now comes from deeper brain centres connected with the emotions and in Mischel’s terms is the “hot” system. The hot system is to do with now, the cool one with later. And as a general rule, the hot system will trump the cool one.

How can you maximise your willpower?

The job, when you understand willpower in this way, is to cool the hot system down, or warm the cool system up. Here are some tips on how to do this in practice:

Warm up the “cool” system

  • Have an overall plan
    • In advance, identify when your “hot spots” happen. Is it mid-afternoon when you’re bored and tired? Or in front of the evening TV? Think ahead now and work out how you would like your afternoon/ evening to play out. And work out what you will do in place of the unintended snacking
  • Make an if-then plan
    • For instance, “If I approach the fridge, then I will not open the door and go and text my friend instead”
  • Set up a messaging group with people to mutually help each other stick to your “cool” goals. Then, at points where you feel tempted to follow your hot system, message them and activate their support and encouragement to help you stick to your cool goal.


Cool down the “hot” system

  • The kids in the Mischel studies spontaneously found ways of cooling things down. Different children used different strategies, some averting their gaze, some talking or singing to themselves. Others even made up little poems! Try talking to yourself, “Just make a cup of tea and make a to-do list for tomorrow”
  • Step away from the kitchen!
  • Think about the treat in terms of its objective characteristics (shape, size colour) instead of how delicious it would be to eat. When Mischel told the children to focus on these characteristics, they were able to wait for much longer than if they dwelled on what it would taste like
  • And if your hotspot is during TV programmes, if you’re watching a commercial TV station, record the programme and then skip through the food adverts. I’ve noticed that mid-evening ad breaks are full of temptation!
  • Keep tempting foods out of sight. Not surprisingly, if Mischel’s rewards were covered up it was much easier for the pre-schoolers to wait than when they were clearly visible on the table.

Don’t beat yourself up

Other factors that influence willpower are mood and stress levels. The more tired you are, the more stress you’re under, the greater chronic stress you’ve experienced in your life so far and your current mood all affect the way your brain operates at that moment of conflict between the hot immediate reward and the cool longer-term goal. So if you’re struggling with this, recognise that you’re doing the best you can, and that you’ll be able to use the information in this article when you have enough mental bandwidth to put it into action.


Baumeister, R and Tierney, J (2012)  Willpower: Why Self-Control is The Secret to Success. Penguin Books

Mischel, W (2014) The Marshmallow Test. Corgi Books

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