True Grit: How to Succeed When Willpower Fails

“We are what we repeatedly do. 
Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” – Aristotle
 Jimmy’s pocket vibrated and he knew who was calling.  He had already been testing himself on his vocabulary words for the Physic test for about 30 minutes and really wanted to take a break.  However, he had made a promise to himself that he would not stop  until he reached 45 minutes.  “But,” he thought to himself.  “I should probably at least tell her I am studying and will call her back.”


Logically, he knew that this would not turn out well, but as we discussed before, the rider can’t always steer the elephant.

“Hello,” he said as he picked up the phone and answered.

Sixty minutes later, Jimmy was still on the phone and by that time he had almost forgotten about studying for the test.  Finally, he managed enough willpower to tell Cynthia that he had to finish studying.

He looked at the clock.  It was already past the time he told himself he was going to bed.  He was disappointed in himself.


“I wish I had more self-control,” he said out loud.

As it turns out, Jimmy is not alone. 

According to Roy Baumeister, the world’s leading expert on self-control and author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, when asked to list personal strengths, self-control comes dead last.

However, when people are asked which virtues they wish they had, self-control comes first.  Self- control is such a desired trait because humans understand the rewards that come with great self control.

And scientists can predict our success with a simple marshmallow…

(For a free Engagement Checklist based on science click Here)

Don’t Eat the Marshmallow


In the 1960s, Walter Mischel conducted one of the most famous experiments in self-control.  He recruited a group of four year olds and would bring them into a room one by one and make a deal with them.  He presented them with one marshmallow and told them that if they could resist eating the marshmallow for 15 minutes, he would allow them to eat that one and he would throw in another one for their effort.  What were the results?

Only one in three children were able to last the full 15 minutes.  The average child lasted only about 5 minutes before succumbing to sugary temptation before them.[i]

At first, Mischel conducted these tests to see how kids would be able to resist the temptation.  The preschoolers resisted by distracting themselves.  Some thought of the marshmallow as a picture and others focused on aspects of the marshmallow like how it looked like a cloud.  Others simply looked away from the treat.  However, as the years went by Mischel continued to follow-up with the participants.

He first asked his own kids, who attended school with many of the participants, how the kids were doing.  When a larger pattern emerged, he began to take more fastidious notes.  What he discovered is nothing short of amazing…

(For Free Grit Building Worksheets – Based on Science- Click Here)

The ones with better willpower had better grades and better test scores.

If a child lasted the full 15 minutes as a four year old, over a decade later he or she would average 210 points higher on the SATs. 

They would be more popular with peers and teachers and would get in less trouble at school.

Later on in life, they would earn higher salaries, have lower body mass indexes, and have less problems with drugs or alcohol.[ii]  As Michel explained:

“If you can deal with hot emotions, then you can study for the S.A.T. instead of watching television. And you can save more money for retirement. It’s not just about marshmallows.”

According to research, when comparing grades to personality traits, self-control is the only trait that predicts grades better than chance.

Willpower is incredibly important, but what exactly is willpower and how can we strengthen it?

(For Free Grit Building Worksheets – Based on Science- Click Here)

Limited Willpower

Willpower is more than just a metaphor.  We actually have a certain supply of willpower and once this supply is depleted, we often succumb to what we are resisting.  In fact, most people really only have the willpower to plow through about three or four things a day.

Self-control is a limited resource[iii] and it has some peculiar principles that operate in our subconscious.


Principle 1: Willpower is Like a Muscle

Just like a muscle it gets fatigued and can be built up over time.  You can’t do as many pushups on the fifth set as you could do on the first set.  However, the next time you will probably be able to do more on the fifth set than you did this time.  Willpower is much the same.

Principle 2: We lose Self Control as Willpower Depletes

College students were asked to fast for hours before coming to Baumeister’s lab.  They were then led into a room where they assigned to one of three groups.  Students that would eat cookies, chocolate, or radishes for a taste test.

The researchers then left the participants in the room by themselves (remember they were already hungry) and told them that they were only allowed to eat the food they were assigned.

This of course was not difficult for those eating the cookies and chocolate, but unless you are member of the Root Vegetable of the Month Club, eating radishes while others eat cookies is probably pretty tough.

Some of the participants looked longingly at the cookies and others even smelled them before eating the radishes, but everyone in the radish group resisted their urge to eat them.  Here comes the interesting part.

The participants were then taken to a different room and were asked to solve a geometry puzzle.  The catch was that this puzzle was insolvable.  How did each group fair?

Those that were allowed to eat the cookies lasted on average 20 minutes before giving up.  The ones who ate radishes lasted only 8 minutes.[iv]  Their willpower had been depleted and they could not persist because they used it all up trying to resist the cookies.  Which brings us to our next principle of willpower.

(For more on ego depletion and how it affects IQ Click Here)

Principle 3: Using Willpower Effects all Aspects of it.

When the participants resisted the radishes they engaged in what Baumeister termed, “Ego Depletion.”  Willpower has four forms and using one depletes the other. It doesn’t matter how you’re applying self-control to your emotions: if you are using self-control, then you are depleting your supply of willpower.  Conversely, if you strengthen one aspect of willpower, you will strengthen willpower in other places.

Students who exercised self control regularly in doing physical workouts, studying, or money management got progressively better at ignoring distractions during self-control tests.  The main improvement was resisting the effects of depletion.

Even more importantly, when they exercised self control in one of the areas I listed, they actually improved their self control in the other areas![v]

Principle 4: Glucose fuels Willpower

            If you have an upcoming parole hearing and you get to choose what time you will appear before the judge, you should either make your case as early as possible or right after lunch.

A study of the Israeli justice system showed that, “In midmorning, usually a little before 10:30, the parole board would take a break, and the judges would be served a sandwich and a piece of fruit.

The prisoners who appeared just before the break had only about a 20 percent chance of getting parole, but the ones appearing right after had around a 65 percent chance.

The odds dropped again as the morning wore on, and prisoners really didn’t want to appear just before lunch: the chance of getting parole at that time was only 10 percent. After lunch it soared up to 60 percent, but only briefly.”[i]

Ego depletion causes activity to rise in certain parts of the brain and to decline in other parts.

According to the research,

“Your brain does not stop working when glucose is low. It stops doing some things and starts doing others. It responds more strongly to immediate rewards and pays less attention to long-term prospects.”[ii]

However, this does not mean that you should give students lots of sugar.

The human body turns all food into glucose. Therefore, slower burning foods like complex carbohydrates and protein are better choices for long term willpower. Sure a sugary cola may help your willpower for a short burst, but you will crash and crave more sugar.

Students in poverty are once again at a disadvantage. Their diet is usually not rich in slow burning willpower inducing foods.

According to Baumeister’s co-author, John Tierney,

“Study after study has shown that low self-control correlates with low income as well as with a host of other problems, including poor achievement in school, divorce, crime, alcoholism and poor health.”

Instead of buying quality willpower food, many families have to buy cheaper calorie options that will cause a willpower “crash” when they need it most.

Principle 5: Decision Fatigue

Making choices is very difficult and leads to less Willpower later. This is why President Barrack Obama only wears one of two color suits. “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” Obama said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”[iii]

Every choice that you make, whether it pleasurable or not, lowers your ability to make good decisions.

“When the brain’s regulatory powers weaken, frustrations seem more irritating than usual. Impulses to eat, drink, spend and say stupid things feel more powerful …humans become more likely to get into needless fights over turf… they take illogical shortcuts and tend to favor short-term gains and delayed costs… they become inclined to take the safer, easier option even when that option hurts someone else.”[iv]

“Even the wisest people won’t make good choices when they’re not rested and their glucose is low. .

“The best decision makers,” Baumeister says, “are the ones who know when not to trust themselves.”

Hardwired for Success

When scientists studied the brains of elite athletes, they noticed something that surprised them.  Their hypothesis was that during the middle of the game, their brain activity would be elevated.

They believed that their brain works harder during the game than amateur players. They were wrong.


Instead, what happens when world-class athletes are in the middle of their sport, their brain activity actually plummets.


As we discussed earlier, the brain hardwires everything that it can. Thinking is difficult and as we discussed, burns an abnormal amount of energy for its size.

Our brain is designed to make things automatic as much as possible so we can free up cognitive resources to actually “think.”  Brain activity in pro athletes’ brains plummets because most of their actions are not being consciously made.

The brain has hardwired most of their actions, so the brain frees up cognitive resources for high stakes decision-making.  This is why routines are important and this is what Jimmy got wrong by answering his phone.

Human behavior is more automatic than most believe.  In fact, about 95% of human behavior is unconscious.  That means that we run most of our life on autopilot.

“According to cognitive neuroscientists, we are conscious of only about 5 percent of our cognitive activity, so most of our decisions, actions, emotions, and behavior depend on the 95 percent of brain activity that goes beyond our conscious awareness.”[vii]

This includes activities like breathing and heartbeat. However, it also includes how we perceive people at first glance and how we feel when we walk into a certain classroom.

The next logical question would be: is it possible to turn determination into an automatic behavior?  In other words, is it possible to make Grit automatic?


Grit is a very en vogue term in the education world, but it is very elusive in terms of teaching students how to be more gritty.  Grit is passion and perseverance for long term goals as defined by Dr. Angela Duckworth’s Character Lab website.

Studies have shown “that kids who demonstrate grit persist at hard tasks and outperform their competitors. Grit is a critical strength of most people who are successful. It is especially complex because it is related to other skills and mindsets such as optimism, purpose, growth mindset, bravery, and even self-control.”

How important is Grit?

Grit is more important than intelligence. There has been a significant amount of research on the idea of IQ tests and future outcomes for students. The most significant of which has uncovered the unconventional wisdom that self control is a better indicator of successful students over the long term.

(For more on Grit and Motivation Click Here)

One of the most relevant is the Angela Duckworth study that dealt with over 150 8th graders who were given a behavioral delay of gratification task, a questionnaire on study habits, and a group-administered IQ test.

According to the report,

“Self-discipline measured in the fall accounted for more than twice as much variance as IQ in final grades, high school selection, school attendance, hours spent doing homework, hours spent watching television (inversely), and the time of day students began their homework. The effect of self-discipline on final grades held even when controlling for first-marking-period grades, achievement-test scores, and measured IQ.[viii]

This is just one example, but self control or Grit has proven in study after study to be more important than intelligence.

Think about it, intelligence is great, but as Stanford’s Carol Dweck has proven, intelligent people often do not persevere because if they fail, it will hurt their ego.

Rather, as we will discuss later, it is more important to have a Growth Mindset (meaning that you can “Grow” your intelligence) than a Fixed Mindset (thinking that your intelligence is static and you are born with a certain amount of intelligence).

(For more on Growth Mindset Feedback Click Here)

(For more on the Tell Tale Sign of a Growth Mindset Click Here)

Self-control allows students to put off pleasurable activities for longer term goals.  This is why the marshmallow test was so important. As Walter Mischel puts it,

“What we’re really measuring with the marshmallows isn’t will power or self-control.  It’s much more important than that. This task forces kids to find a way to make the situation work for them. They want the second marshmallow, but how can they get it? We can’t control the world, but we can control how we think about it.”[ix]

The question remains, can you strengthen willpower?
There are many ways to increase Grit, but the best possible way may seem counterintuitive. And the best way to understand how it works is to quickly analyze one habit that is almost universal in developed countries.


If you think that Grit is important than you might want to check out my book because it is Gritty!

References for True Grit
1 Lieberman, M. (2013). Social: Why our brains are wired to connect (p. 205). Broadway Books[ii] Baumeister, R. (2011). Willpower: rediscovering the greatest human strength. (p. 11). Penguin Books
[iii] Muraven, M.R., & Baumeister, R.F. (2000). Self-regulation and depletion of limited resources: Does self-control resemble a muscle? Psychological Bulletin, 126, 247-259.
[iv] Baumeister, R. (2011). Willpower: rediscovering the greatest human strength. (p. 22). Penguin Books
[v] Baumeister, R. (2011). Willpower: rediscovering the greatest human strength. (p. 134-136). Penguin Books
[vii] Szegedy-Maszak, M. (2005, March 28). Mysteries of the mind Your unconscious is making your everyday decisions. US News and World Reports.
[viii] Duckworth, A., & Seligman, M. (2005). Self-Discipline Outdoes IQ In Predicting Academic Performance Of Adolescents. Psychological Science, 16(4), 939-944.
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