How To Improve Mental Strength And Willpower

Several years ago a reader asked me to write about how to build your willpower. They had some really good questions and it made for a popular post on the (now retired) TMW Fitness website. It’s a great topic. Wouldn’t it be great if we could just make up our minds to do something and then do it and have everything work out perfectly?

We can make the decision, we can then follow through but sustaining the effort and getting the results we want isn’t always as simple.

The Oxford dictionary defines self-discipline as “The ability to control one’s feelings and overcome one’s weaknesses”.

Discipline is being able to define your code and developing the strength to maintain it.

Rewards and Punishments

Discipline is getting a desired behaviour to dominate. In the same way we discipline dogs to act in a certain way, we discipline ourselves. When you teach a dog to sit on command, it can take some time. You use reinforcement to make the dog see that this behaviour is good by giving it a treat. Conversely, you use punishment when your beloved pup shits on the rug.

The treat tells the dog that it has done well, so we reward it. The dog likes rewards, so it performs the same behaviour again. The punishment tells the dog that it has done wrong. The dog doesn’t like the punishment so it avoids the behaviour in future.

This is a very simplistic version of how it all works but you get the idea. We discipline dogs in simple ways and it works but I wonder if anyone reading this has ever used a technique like that on themselves? We’re too smart for that though right?

I mean, can you imagine if people had the nerve to train us to act a certain way by giving us things like gold stars, smiley stickers and certificates? How about bonuses and commissions? Public recognition?

The fact of the matter is that we’re all very much influenced by rewards and punishments. Rewarding yourself for your successes can reinforce behaviours that you want to continue but it works best for achievements and not activities.

There is a problem with rewards and punishments as an approach however, they are extrinsic. Extrinsic motivation comes from the world around us, not from us. It doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing but it does have it’s hang ups, one of which is known as the overjustification effect. The overjustification effect occurs when we tie our performing of a particular activity to an extrinsic reward, we begin to believe we should only do that activity if we get the reward, this causes our intrinsic motivation to decline, we don’t know exactly why this happens but it does. This is the reason I wouldn’t suggest rewarding yourself for doing an activity but instead for high achievement in an activity or not at all.

Be Clear on Your Motivation

Your motivation determines the lengths you will go to in order to achieve something. If there’s nothing at stake then there isn’t much motivation, there’s not as much involvement. This isn’t always a bad thing, sometimes being too involved in something clouds our judgement and leads to poor decisions. It all comes down to how much we care about what we do. With sufficient motivation we can achieve some staggering things. It’s a fair assumption that most people would go to great lengths to protect their family or locate a winning lottery ticket that been thrown out whereas they’d be less likely to make a large donation to a charity doing work in a third world country. This isn’t because we’re all awful people but because if it doesn’t affect us directly, if we’re not involved, then we’re less motivated.

Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic Motivation is the rewards or punishments from the outside world that mould our behaviours. Going to work and working hard for a bonus is extrinsic motivation. Working hard because you want to develop skills and do the best you can is intrinsic, you’d work just as hard regardless of a bonus.

Intrinsic motivation, that is motivation that comes from your own desires, is necessary for success on your own. If all of your motivation is extrinsic, from outside sources or people, then you may find yourself failing if/when those sources are removed. You’ve got to have your own reason or you’re only going to do it when you’re walked through it.

Realise What You Could Gain

Knowing what you could gain or lose can be a big motivator. It has been said that you’re average of the five people you spend the most time with, I believe that quote is attributed to Jim Rohn but it’s hard to know who first said what in this age. As much as networks and resources make a difference, I believe this is true largely because spending time with people who are more successful in a particular area gives you an up close and personal look at what you could achieve and that serves as motivation to continue and work hard. If you don’t know what you’re missing, how can you go out and get it?

Surround Yourself with the Right People

Leading on nicely from the last point, the people you associate with make a difference to how easy it is to be disciplined. If the way you want to be contrasts greatly with how those around you are then it can be much harder. If those around you have a lot of the traits you want to develop then you’ll probably develop some of them almost automatically in the same way we pick up mannerisms from our friends.

The people around you can also be a source of knowledge and it’s often really helpful to have someone who understands your wants, people who you can share the interest with. This is what cultures are built on, without your small society, you may feel lost going it alone. There are many ways to connect today so it’s much easier than before to find like-minded people on the same path as you.

Define Your Priorities

If what you’re doing isn’t a priority for you then it won’t get done. I can look back at old to-do lists and see a clear pattern. The stuff I prioritise gets done, the stuff I don’t never gets done. I’m fine with that because that stuff wasn’t important anyway but if your priorities aren’t in line with what you want then you won’t get the results you’re after because you won’t give it the time or energy it needs.

We can achieve great things in a vacuum, where all of life’s little problems don’t exist. Pile on work, kids and community events and it gets a bit harder. If you have a hectic life and you try to change everything at once, there’s a good chance you’ll fail. You bite off more than you can chew and you choke.

Dan John describes this as ‘Having one can of willpower’, a finite resource that gets used up by all of the things we have to do and maintain. There may be a multitasking prodigy out there who can excel at everything at once but you’re probably not that person, neither am I. For the rest of us, focusing on one objective at a time is important for achieving anything of worth. No one cares what you started. It’s what you finish, what you see through, that counts.

Accept that you are not a finished product

Wanting to be better doesn’t mean you’re not good enough. It’s healthy to want to be the best you can.  You’re not perfect, no one is. The moment you become perfect is the moment you stop growing. Revel in your imperfections, learn from your mistakes and laugh at the stupid things you’ve done along the way because there’s only going to be more of them. Discipline is like a muscle, it starts weak but you show a little self-control and it grows until it becomes strong. You don’t find it, you build it.

Theo Whittington


  1. I liked the first version, I like this even more! Are you going to add more of the workout posts from the old site?

    • Thanks Roy!

      I let go of most of the old content when I retired tmwfitness.co.uk, so you won’t see much of it on this site. I’ll be sure to add new and better posts when I can. I don’t have the free time that I once did!



    • You can subscribe with the box on the right of the article, and you’ll get it sent to your email every time I post something new. Thanks for stopping by!

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