How is willpower weakened and strengthened?

In his New York Times Book Review of Roy Baumeister and John Tierney’s book Willpower, “The Sugary Secret of Self-Control,” Steven Pinker says,

And he [Baumeister] showed that self-control, though almost certainly heritable in part, can be toned up by exercising it. He enrolled students in regimens that required them to keep track of their eating, exercise regularly, use a mouse with their weaker hand or (one that really gave them a workout) speak in complete sentences and without swearing. After several weeks, the students were more resistant to ego depletion in the lab and showed greater self-control in their lives. They smoked, drank and snacked less, watched less television, studied more and washed more dishes.

Pinker’s observation got me thinking about all the ways that we can weaken and strengthen our willpower.

How is willpower weakened?

1. By fatigue.

2. By the burden of choice (i.e., by the accumulative cognitive weight of having to choose over and over again.)

3. By surrounding ourselves with and giving in to temptations.

4. By developing bad habits.

How is willpower strengthened?

1. By limiting our choices.

2. By removing ourselves from the scene of temptation. (I move, say, from the city to the country.)

3. By mindful exercise.

4. By the “Ulysses effect” (I.e., by putting external restraints set in place beforehand.)


Philosophical counseling does and should teach will training. I’ve already begun building will training into my philosophy practice.

Further Reading

Michael Grosso, “Will Training,” Philosophical Practice 1.1 (2005), 23-32.