improving self-control to beat the willpower gap

How self-control impacts our financial decisions

Talent, a high IQ, or self-control: Which matters more to happiness? Believe it or not, it’s NOT talent or a high IQ. It’s self-control.

In fact, reaching our goals and our overall happiness depend far more on our self-control and willpower than on our talent or IQ.1 And no matter how intelligent, wealthy, attractive, or talented any of us may be, our willpower is like our energy — it’s limited.3 Each of us only has so much willpower. And that willpower WILL run out at some point. When it does, the willpower gap can trip us up.

The willpower gap is when excuses, low motivation, and poor choices get in the way of reaching our goals. And it can happen whenever we spend too much of our willpower. But it doesn’t have to. We can close that willpower gap and improve our self-control.4

Let’s look at some simple exercises for closing the willpower gap and strengthening self-control.

7 TRICKS to Beat the Willpower Gap
and Stay Focused on Your Goals

I. Plan ahead to avoid temptation

What REALLY tests your willpower? Whatever those temptations are, make a plan to stay away from them. The “out of sight, out of mind” strategy can make it much easier to exercise good judgment and self-control.4

Example: If you’re trying to cut back on impulse spending, set up a realistic budget that gives you freedom to buy the things you want while staying within your limits.

II. Automate good choices

Create a rule or an “implementation intention.” This is an automatic decision you’ve already made for situations that test your willpower. Usually, this rule is an “if-then” statement, like “if X happens, then I’ll do Y.” It can put you a couple of steps ahead of those willpower-testing moments and help you create a new habit loop.4

Example: If your goal is to save more, setting up automatic deductions from your paycheck can help you achieve your goals without even having to think about them.

III. Focus on one goal at a time

Having too many goals at once can drain our willpower faster and make it harder to exercise self-control in other areas of life.4 So, choose one goal to focus on at a time. Once you accomplish that goal and it becomes a habit, you won’t need to focus as much willpower there, and you can pivot to your next goal.

Example: If your goal is to be happier, focus on a single aspect of that, like connecting with people you care about, practicing daily meditation, or getting a certain amount of sleep every night. Once you’ve made it a habit, it won’t test your willpower, and you can focus your resources on another goal.

IV. Routinely ask “why?” and “how?”

“Why” questions can help you see the big picture, reminding you of the reasons behind your goal and what’s really at stake. “How” questions can reconnect you with the here and now, reminding you of the steps to accomplish your goal. Together, these questions can offer powerful motivation, especially when you need to tap into your self-control “reserves” if your willpower becomes depleted.4

Example: Ask yourself “why?” and “how?” when you’re tempted to go off course — or any time you make choices to support your goal. Better yet, put up visual reminders of your why and how, like pictures of what your goal means and the rewards you’ll enjoy when you accomplish it. Those visuals can regularly and automatically prompt you to think of your why and how.

V. Meditate

Meditation builds mindfulness and awareness. When we meditate, we’re showing up for ourselves and we’re devoting time to focus on the thoughts and feelings that impact our behavior. Meditation can improve the ability to recognize the impulses and emotions that steer us off course. It can also help us zero in on the positive behaviors that support our values and goals.1

Example: Dedicate 5 to 10 minutes a day to sit still and mediate in a quiet space. Try to fold your mediation time into your morning, midday, or bedtime routine to make it a true habit.

VI. Chart your progress

Monitoring how you’re doing can uncover what’s working and what isn’t. It can help you correct course as soon as you start slipping. It can also help you become more attuned to your behaviors and what really helps you succeed. If you’re consistently tracking how you’re doing, you can get better at focusing on the positive behaviors related to your goal. And you’ll be able to enjoy the small rewards that can come as you make progress.

Example: Quantify your goal in some way. Then, break it down into smaller subgoals that you can track and measure in “steps”. So, if your goal is to save $X for retirement in the next Y years, break down that amount into monthly or weekly increments that are easier to track and be accountable for.

VII. Keep your eyes on the horizon

Believing we CAN change can motivate us to do the work necessary to make changes. So, instead of feeding into doubts, focus on what it takes to make it another step closer to your goal. If you stay confident that you’re going to reach your goal, you’re much more likely to keep putting the effort in when the going gets tough, instead of changing course.

Example: Replace negative thinking and self-doubt with “growth thinking,” which is focused on positive thought patterns and learning. So, if your internal monologue goes something like, “I’m not smart enough to reach this goal,” make a conscious effort to replace it with thoughts like, “I’m struggling right now because I’m learning and developing new skills.”

Self-control is tied to better choices, improved health, and better overall well-being.

Financial Lesson:


Focusing on improving your willpower and self-control can have a lasting positive impact on your life. Folks who have stronger self-control tend to be happier and healthier, both in the short– and long-term.1 In fact, self-control has been tied to better choices, improved health, and better overall well-being.1 It’s also linked to less impulse spending and better financial decision-making.5

Of course, self-control shouldn’t be our ONLY focus. If we go overboard with self-control, we can mute our more intense emotions and dampen the joy we experience from our accomplishments.6 And that could leave us with regrets and missed opportunities, instead of satisfying experiences.

The key is to balance self-control with self-compassion.6 Instead of taking the harsh approach that’s always pushing your limits, be kind and realistic when setting goals and working towards them. It also helps to get advice and check in with the folks you trust along the way.


Jodi & Mike

Sources & Disclosures







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