Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

How Willpower Works

Lots More Information

Author's Note: How Willpower Works

Willpower victories and failures happen every day. Even as I was writing this, I observed my dwindling reserves of willpower in my own life. Following some research and planning, I wrote the first page on a Monday afternoon. The following day, I started bright and early, powering through the rest of the first draft. But then came Wednesday.

Wednesday is the day that Julie and I record episodes of "Stuff to Blow Your Mind," so the entire morning consisted of last-minute additions to notes and time in the studio. By the afternoon, my brain felt a bit drained. So when edits came back to me from Allison, I managed to kill an hour tending to my work social media pages and tending to listener mail. After that, I still didn't have the willpower to dive back into the edits.

And that's when I spied the giant jar of gummy bears. They gleamed like globs of liquid rainbow in the afternoon sun. And I remembered they were left over from the office holiday party. I gobbled down one handful. Then, to my shame, I reached in again.

Now, riding a wave of restorative glucose, I'm finally finishing the article up. That's science in action for you.

Related Articles


  • Baumeister, Roy et al. "Ego Depletion: Is the Active Self a Limited Resource?" The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1998. (Dec. 18, 2012)
  • Bruyneel, Sabrina. "The Role of Cognitive Processes in Overcoming Self-Control Failures." Advances in Consumer Research - North American Conference Process. January 2008.
  • Goodier, Robert. "Brain's Willpower Spot Found" Live Science. May 29, 2009. (Dec. 19, 2012)
  • Gots, Jason. "The Neuroscience of Success." The Big Think. Aug. 7, 2011. (Dec. 18, 2012)
  • Hansen, Mogens Herman. "Democratic Freedom and the Concept of Freedom in Plato and Aristotle." Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 50. 2010. (Dec. 18, 2012)
  • Kroen, Gretchen Cuda. "Kid's Sugar Cravings Might be Biological." NPR: The Salt. Sept. 26, 2011. (Dec. 17, 2012)
  • Lehrer, Jonah. "The secret life of self control." The New Yorker. May 18, 2009. (Dec. 18, 2012)
  • Lieberman, Daniel E. "Evolution's Sweet Tooth." The New York Times. June 5, 2012. (Dec. 17, 2012)
  • O'Connor, Timothy. "Free Will." Free Will: Critical Concepts in Philosophy. Routledge. Nov. 11, 2005.
  • Raskin, Andy. "How to lead your customer into temptation." CNN. May 4, 2006. (Dec. 19, 2012)
  • Severns, Maggie. "Reconsidering the Marshmallow Test." Slate. Oct. 16, 2012. (Dec. 18, 2012)
  • Tierney, John. "Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue?" The New York Times. Aug. 17, 2011. (Dec. 17, 2012)
  • Villarica, Hans. "The Chocolate-and-Radish Experiment That Birthed the Modern Conception of Willpower." The Atlantic. April 9, 2012. (Dec. 18, 2012)
  • Walton, Greg and Carol Dweck. "Willpower: It's in Your Head." The New York Times. Nov. 26, 2011. (Dec. 18, 2012)
  • "Willpower: How to increase it, how to measure it." The Economic Times. Oct. 9, 2011. (Dec. 18, 2012)