The Key to Building Willpower

How often has this happened to you? You tell yourself that you’re going to work for the next hour, only to find yourself struggling after ten minutes. You remember hearing that breaks are good for productivity, so you decide to take one.

My ideal calendar

My ideal calendar

Two hours later, you reemerge from the Internet. You’ve “liked” your friend’s new profile picture, seen the new Dark Knight trailer, and learned why The Atlantic thinks women still can’t have it all in today’s corporate culture. If you’re really good, you might have also updated yourself on the latest developments in the global economy, cleared up your email inbox, and found the next book you want to read.

But you haven’t done your work.

What you need is…

I don’t need to tell you that work is hard. But it’s important to remember that the most rewarding projects are also the most difficult. If you can endure the unpleasantness of the work, you’ll be able to accomplish things that other people won’t, precisely because those things are difficult. This ability to persist in the face of challenges is a character trait known as grit. In research by psychologist Angela Duckworth, grit was shown to be highly predictive of a number of types of success, from better spelling bee performance, to greater completion of intensive training at West Point, to higher undergraduate GPAs.1

What’s interesting about grit is not merely that it predicts success, but that it is often a better predictor of success than IQ (Duckworth’s studies also indicated that grit is not positively related to IQ – the two are more or less independent). This seems to imply that hard work and dedication can be more important than raw intelligence for success.

But if grit is a character trait, can we change it? To answer that, we’ll need a more in-depth look at grit.

What exactly is grit?

Grit is defined as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.” To measure grit, Duckworth created a questionnaire called the “Grit Scale,” which contains statements about long-term goals and interests that you can agree or disagree with. Most of the items seem to look for evidence of past grittiness, such as whether or not you achieved something that took years of work or whether your interests change every few months. Since these are more or less up to you to accomplish, grit does seem to be a trait that you can change.

In fact, a recent article in the New York Times magazine describes efforts at KIPP college-preparatory schools to teach children character traits like grit. Their approach seems to be focused around simply discussing what it means to be gritty, and that program has seen some preliminary successes. Thus, it seems entirely tenable to increase your grittiness.

Grit and ego depletion

In an earlier post, I introduced the notion that we have limited willpower. When we are depleted, the quality of our work and our ability to resist distractions both diminish. There is a natural link between grit and your level of willpower. Grit indicates resilience in the face of hard work—as such, gritty people will likely have greater stores of willpower. Likewise, people with greater willpower will probably rank highly on the Grit Scale.

Improving your willpower

When people introduce the concept of limited willpower, they often compare it to a muscle, which gets tired if you use it a lot. By the same logic, you should be able to increase your willpower (and thus your grittiness) by regularly exercising it. This seems to be the reasoning behind the KIPP program, and it agrees with what Roy Baumeister has said.

Photo by hyku

Even though the meter says empty, you can still go another 20 miles.

But even though willpower can be trained like a muscle, most of the time people don’t push their willpower nearly as much as they’d push their muscles. Imagine a workout routine in which you stop whenever you encounter an unpleasant amount of resistance. You’d never get anywhere! The most beneficial part of your workout is where you’re pushing your limits (as long as you take care not to injure yourself).  Likewise, you’ll only build your willpower if, when you first get that urge to take a break, you resist for a little while longer. Not only will you get more done, but you will also set yourself up to work for longer in the future by building your pool of willpower and your general level of grit.

Push your limits

I hope that this strategy proves helpful for developing your willpower. It’s not a panacea—your willpower is still ultimately a finite quantity, so you will need to take breaks to maximize your productivity. But the next time you’re tempted to check Facebook, stop and ask yourself this: are you really at the limit of your willpower?


1 Duckworth A. L., Peterson C., Matthews M. D., and Kelly D. R. 2007. “Grit: perseverance and passion for long-term goals.” J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 92, 1087–1101. DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.92.6.1087.

2 Tough, Paul. “What if the Secret to Success Is Failure?” The New York Times. 2011 September 14.

3 thoughts on “The Key to Building Willpower

  1. Nice post! Grit is something I lack in spades, so really interesting to find your post. I try and overcome lack of willpower by time boxing (using the Pomodoro technique) which helps a lot, but now I’m going to look at the articles you reference and see about exercising my grit.


  2. Very nice article and blog overall. Any potential employer who sees this is sure to hire haha.

    Ady, do you use a physical timer or have you found a software that you prefer?

    All the best,

  3. Pingback: Money Matters: 4 Ways Willpower Affects your Finances « Wisconsin State Treasury

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