Willpower Is Overrated!

Willpower Is Overrated!

Students who have trouble getting their schoolwork done are often told that they just need more willpower. But increasing willpower is difficult, and when students continue to fail to get all their work done, they feel guilty and even more discouraged. Students with learning differences often have to work longer and harder to achieve the same results as other students, making them especially at risk of falling into this disheartening trap.

As teachers and parents, we want to help develop students’ ability to get their work done. But according to Brian Resnick’s article Why Willpower Is Overrated, trying to help someone increase their willpower is the wrong way to go about it.

Resnick summarizes the results of a study conducted at McGill University, which found that:

The students who exerted more self-control were not more successful in accomplishing their goals. It was the students who experienced fewer temptations overall who were more successful when the researchers checked back in at the end of the semester. What’s more, the people who exercised more effortful self-control also reported feeling more depleted. So not only were they not meeting their goals, they were also exhausted from trying.

So what should we do instead? The entire articles is well worth reading, but let me just summarize the key takeaways:

  • Research shows that successful people don’t have stronger willpower than the rest of us.
  • People who are better at self-control actually enjoy the activities some of us resist — like eating healthy, studying, or exercising.
  • Exercising willpower is taxing for everyone, so the key is to set yourself up so you don’t have to exercise as much willpower.
  • People who are good at self-control have learned better habits and strategies.


This is exactly why here at SMARTS we think executive function strategies are a terrific way to help all students be successful. By using strategies, students can work more efficiently and can develop their own personal approach to getting work done. This research into willpower is a persuasive angle to use with your students when teaching them strategies because learning a systematic approach will mean that they have to use less willpower to get their work done.

What do you think? Let us know some strategies you use to help students shore up their willpower.

  • Elizabeth Ross, M.A., SMARTS Media Manager