Probably everyone wishes, at one time or another, for more willpower.

With consistent willpower, we can banish our worst clothes. We may finally ignore what we once thought of as temptations that lure us toward the promise of pleasure, distraction, or relief, only to find that we are hit with guilt and regret when we give in. With enough willpower we can develop habits that make us stronger, healthier, smarter, wealthier, or more attractive, depending on our goals.

The source of willpower is found in the prefrontal lobe of the brain, the seat of “executive function.” The prefrontal lobe gives us the ability to execute the actions that lead to the achievement of our goals. Like an executive or business manager, you decide what gets done or doesn’t get done. The prefrontal lobe gives us the ability to:

• Decision making

• Evaluation of options

• Direct attention

• Delay gratification

• Following the rules

The brain’s reward circuitry creates habits through the release of a neurochemical called dopamine. The reward circuit encourages us to remember substances and experiences that initially conferred “rewards” (feelings of excitement, pleasure, or relief) and to remember what we did to get those rewards. Dopamine urges us to pay attention to cues when those substances and experiences are available, encouraging us to “do it again,” creating an expectation of more rewards. The reward circuit can put our brain in a constant struggle between succumbing to bad habits or following the dictates of our most virtuous executive function.

When we give in to impulses from the brain’s reward circuitry, we are more likely to watch TV instead of taking a walk, choose cookies instead of apples, play video games instead of doing homework. The problem with dopamine is that it overrides rational judgment and good intentions. It can turn off the prefrontal lobe so that we engage in destructive habits over and over again. By strengthening willpower, we get a stronger prefrontal lobe.

In this article, I’ll take a look at six factors that weaken your willpower, and unsurprisingly, there’s a remedy for each one. These six factors drive us to pursue our vices. When you become aware of these willpower “bandits,” you’ll be better prepared to avoid them and make better decisions.

Bandit #1 – Social Influence

Marlene Dietrich once said, “The weak are more likely to make the strong weak than the strong to make the weak strong.” The people you hang out with can have an amazing influence on whether you engage in healthy or unhealthy behaviors. Friends and family often present us with the same habits that trap us. We tend to congregate with people like us. So we’ve got drinking buddies, smoker friends, and we know who to call to join us on that excursion to Baskin Robbins for the triple special!

Mirror neurons in the brain make us want to imitate the behaviors of those around us. By accompanying others, we obtain social reinforcement and a feeling of belonging. So if you want to kick an unwanted habit, stop associating with people who share your weakness. They can be your friends, but they can also sabotage your success; something I wrote about in this article. If you still want to spend time with them, do it away from the bar, the casino, the ice cream parlor, or whatever environment may be their downfall.

If you plan to adopt a new habit, find ways to spend time with people who are also involved in the new behavior. Going to the gym can be more fun than exercising at home just because you’ll be in the presence of other people who are working out. Join a club, meetup group, or support group and put those mirror neurons to work!

Even if your new habit is a private and solitary activity, you can still get support from others through website and website forums where you can record your progress along with others working on similar goals. You can also hire a life coach to hold you accountable, review your progress, help you solve problems, and teach you how to motivate yourself.

Bandit #2 – Tired

It is obvious that we give in to temptation when we feel tired. The three main causes of fatigue are overwork, inadequate sleep, and low blood sugar. To combat fatigue, find a way to balance your work time and personal time. You may need to negotiate with your supervisor and/or co-workers to change your hours, the number of hours you work, or the range of your responsibilities. Maybe you need to delegate. Maybe you need to go to bed earlier to make your work day more productive. You may need to eat foods that give you more stamina and energy.

Inadequate sleep will undermine your resolve to kick a bad habit or start a new one. Inadequate sleep has been shown to reduce energy, decrease productivity, compromise immunity, and cause weight gain. The National Center for Sleep Disorders Research estimates that 70 million people suffer from sleep problems. Many people take over-the-counter sleeping pills or prescription medications for sleep disorders such as insomnia. You can do better by learning how to manage stress (see below) more effectively. Also, consider hypnotherapy for insomnia.

Low blood sugar is often the result of what you eat. Sugars, fats, starches, many processed foods, and alcohol break down quickly in the digestive system and turn into sugar. These foods are high in empty calories and low in nutritional value. They raise blood sugar levels, which causes the pancreas to pump out more insulin to lower sugar levels. As blood sugar levels drop, the result is fatigue, lack of concentration, and cravings for more of these foods. You’ll have more staying power if you break out of the sugar/fat/starch cycle and start eating foods high in fiber and protein that digest more slowly.

Bandit #3 – Focus on what you don’t want

Focusing on what you don’t want is not a well-formed outcome. It’s better to say “I want to get to a healthy weight” than to say “I don’t want to be that fat.” A positively stated goal or result focuses attention on the solution, not the problem.

The problem is that when people deal with habits and temptations on a daily basis, they tend to focus on what to avoid. They say something like, “When I’m at the party tonight I’ll resist the temptation to eat cookies and cake.” So, at the party, where does the attention go? It goes straight to those forbidden delights. Now the dopamine in your brain insists that you have to have as many as you can consume! Her executive function has been hijacked and her willpower seems to have gone out the nearest window.

The remedy is to focus your attention on what you will do instead: “When I go to the party tonight, I’ll have snacks from the vegetable tray.” However, here is another catch to watch out for. For many people, doing something “good” (ie eating vegetables) gives them permission to do something “bad” as a reward (ie eating the cake). If you define your habit as an indulgence for being “good” and you think that being “bad” is a reward for being “good,” then you will remain stuck in the habit that causes you misery. Read more about this in Kelly McGonigal’s book, The Willpower Instinct.

Bandit #4 – Negative Self-Talk

Many people honestly believe that by criticizing and punishing themselves, they will behave better. That is usually wrong! How would you feel if another person scolded or put you down on a daily basis? you would hate it Negative self-talk often activates the brain’s alarm system, leading to anxiety. Your brain then decides that the best way to alleviate that anxiety is to demand relief, and your reward system will insist that you have that drink, that chocolate, or that bag of chips.

There are many ways to change negative self-talk, especially with Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP). You can dismantle it, invalidate it, reformulate it and replace it. Get in touch with an NLP practitioner and read more about it in Steve Andreas’s witty book, Transforming Negative Self-talk.

Bandit #5 – Perfectionist Efforts

Many people get stuck in starting a desired new habit because they insist that it must be done perfectly, and if it is not perfect, they will have failed. So they procrastinate, butlers in the anxiety of the fear of failure. Also, many people start a new and desired habit only to give it up at the first sign of difficulty. A goal based on perfection is not attainable.

Whoever said “Everything worth doing is worth doing well” and “If you can’t do something well, don’t do it at all” didn’t understand how humans learn. We learn almost everything that is difficult through trial and error. In many companies we must start as beginners, making mistakes and correcting them until we achieve consistency and competence. Stop trusting the idea that you have to be perfect. Jump in and learn as you go, expecting to have bugs and glitches along the way. Remember, life is messy, so move on.

Bandit #6 – Stress

You probably know that stress can sap your willpower quickly. That’s because stress activates the sympathetic nervous system and triggers activity in the limbic region of the brain, the seat of worry and anxiety. When the limbic system receives energy from the brain, little is left for the prefrontal lobe. It’s as if the executive in your brain has been chased away by an unruly mob of neurotransmitters screaming that everything is wrong. You will regain some control when you see stress as a signal to apply coping mechanisms.

Stop the bandits!

So look at your daily life and identify your willpower bandits. ask yourself:

• Do I date people who have healthy habits or people who have unhealthy habits?

• Am I getting enough sleep or is there a way to improve my sleep habits?

• Do I focus too much on what I don’t want, when I should be focusing on what I do want?

• Do I have negative self-talk in my head that undermines my willpower?

• Do I sabotage my good intentions with perfectionist urges?

• Am I managing the stress in my life effectively or do I need better stress management skills?

Answer these questions honestly and you may get some clues on how to empower and increase your executive function so you can muster the willpower to conquer the bad habits and start the good ones.


Andreas, S. 2012. Transforming Negative Self-talk. New York: W. W. Norton

McGonigal, K. 2011. The willpower instinct. New York: Avery

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