Boost Your Writing Willpower

A beggar approaches a well-dressed woman and says, “I haven’t eaten anything in four days.”

“God,” she says, turning to face him. “I wish I had your willpower.”

Sad joke, right? I think so, namely because it’s realistic. As a society, we seem to have a somewhat convoluted idea of willpower is. In my humble opinion… 😉

Recently I had the opportunity to interview several experts on the topic, including renowned social psychologist and researcher Roy F. Baumeister. His latest research is featured in “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength,” a book I highly recommend. He and Karen R. Koenig, a licensed psychotherapist and author of “The Rules of ‘Normal’ Eating” addressed willpower, whether it exists, how it relates to diet and how to strengthen it. (To read the full article, click here.)

“Willpower is a traditional folk term based on the idea that a person uses some energy to resolve inner conflicts and do the right thing,” Baumeister told me. “Self-control is how you change your responses, and willpower is an essential ingredient of that process.”

We experience temptation for about 4 hours each day, according to his research, with a success rate of about 50 percent. Snack foods, that extra nap, the TV, sex, internet popups and social media can lure us from tasks, making it difficult to complete them with efficient ease. Because we have a limited supply of willpower, says Bauermeister, using it wisely is key.

So how does this relate to writing? Whether you believe in willpower or not, we can all benefit from increasing our willingness, desire and success in sitting our butts down and writing well. Right???

Willpower-Boosting Steps:

1. Set realistic goals. Most people fail to do this, setting themselves up for failure and disappointment. Rather than aim to write 10,000 words per day or four books per year (unless your publishing deal demands it), aim for five to 10 pages per day or a reasonable amount of time each week.

2. Eat well. Maintaining positive glucose levels in your brain, which stems from carbohydrates, promotes heightened willpower and self-control. Sugary sweets provide a short burst of glucose, which can be helpful for immediate, short-term goals (like a last-minute writing contest, for example). Otherwise, aim for balanced meals and snacks throughout each day, emphasizing complex carbohydrate sources. Whole grains, fruits and vegetables are useful options. Don’t partake in dieting or let too much time pass without eating.

3. Practice. Willpower functions like a muscle, according to Baumeister. If we fail to practice it, we’ll fail to grow. If we stay atop those realistic goals we’re likely to not only reach them, but increase our ability to demonstrate self-control in general. If you struggle with writing daily, for example, try every day, in small increments. It will get easier.

4. Write with passion. I personally believe that fulfilling our heart’s desires facilitates willpower, self-control and success. This is why we may feel entirely unmotivated to do, say, math or taxes (blech!), but spring out of bed with gusto in the morning knowing we get to write. If you love writing, write. And choose topics you love.

5. Sleep enough. Even a mild sleep deficiency can zap our creativity and abilities to focus, learn and remember. Most adults need 7 to 9 hours of quality sleep per night.

Any steps to add? Challenges you’re facing? Challenges you’ve overcome? I’d love to hear from you. In either case, stay well and write merry. 😉

Leave a comment


  1. My challenge was writing every day consistently, I found that the 6 – 7:30 am window was the best window, The noise of the day has not found me and I’m groggy enough that ideas flow without being over thought.
    The result is that I wake up and get to that desk and it works. If i get too busy at my day job, I still feel fulfilled as I have already accomplished my writing for the day.

    • I imagine it’s much like exercise–telling ourselves we’ll “do it later” lends itself to not doing. If, that is, you’re a morning person. 😉

      Glad you found what works well for you!

  2. I think the “sleeping enough” step is vital to my writing. Unfortunately, that is the one I have least control over, being a light sleeper married to a man with sleep apnea. I’ve actually noticed levels of impairment with lack of sleep that correspond with the number and duration of the times of night I’ve been ripped from sleep.
    The first stage of impairment, I can write, but only a little. The second, I have to stick to editing and look over it again later. The third stage, I can read but no writing happens. The fourth stage, I can only manage to read articles. After that, I just sit at my computer and play Spider Solitaire and try not to doze off.

    • My heart goes out to you, Kate. I wonder if you’d find “The Power of Rest: Why Sleep Alone Is Not Enough” by Dr. Matthew Edlund helpful. He teaches a variety of ways to increase restfulness (and wakefulness) aside from actually sleeping. I like his thoughts on “active rest” and “micro-naps.”

      Have you written about your experiences? I imagine many people would relate… Thanks for stopping by. I hope you rest well soon!

      • I think our next step is to get twin beds (50’s sitcom style) so his night movement doesn’t wake me. I am definitely not able to wind down enough to nap during the day. I haven’t read the book, but the concept of resting is one I agree with. I definitely need my down time if I haven’t gotten good sleep. Thanks for the great book recommendations!

  3. Sara Grambusch

     /  October 15, 2011

    Simple steps but if we do them all we should be in good shape. The ONLY nutrient that feeds our brain is glucose = carbs.
    Great post!

    • Thanks, Sara! Glucose is certainly the only energy provider for the brain. For overall wellness, however, the brain needs other nutrients, too. We need to make sure we get those healthy omega-3 fats, antioxidants, etc. (Planning to post on that soon! ;))

  4. Nigel Blackwell

     /  October 15, 2011

    Good list. Willpower and all those higher functions must be the first thing to go when when your body’s basics aren’t met (like sleep, correct food etc as you say). Lack of sleep definitely saps my creativity.
    I’d add exercise to the list because, for me, it improves my mood and well being. I think its especially important for writers because it’s a profession where you simply sit for extended periods.
    Setting goals on Friday helps me over the weekend, otherwise it’s suddenly Sunday evening and I’m annoyed I have got enough done!

    • Great points, Nigel. Considering the important role exercise plays in sleep, diet, moods and energy, it undoubtedly boosts willpower and self-control. Plus, it proves that you can accomplish something challenging and/or unpleasant…unless you’re a natural super-athlete, which I’m not. 😉

      Congrats on whatever goals you’ve met by tonight!

  5. I think I have all of these challenges to my willpower, but currently sitting down and just writing is my priority. I set time for it every day, but the list of “need to do’s” whittles it down. On Monday I am determined to set aside a substantial block of time and stick to it. Hopefully nothing intervenes!

    • Thanks for your honesty, Jessica. I suspect that people struggle with the same issue.

      I hope your writing makes its way onto that ‘need to do’ list soon! Or at least into this coming Monday… 🙂 Keep me posted on your progress!

  6. Great list August. I know that in the past couple months I have suffered in the exercise department merely out of a lack for time. I know I need to rearrange somehow to make the time. I actually miss the high one gets from the workout. My biggest issue to tackle is sleep. I never get enough. I am always behind on tasks because I don’t have enough time in the day for it all and when I head to bed sometimes other factors will have me shifting gears and heading for the sofa. I will always wake up sore if I do that. But like Kate I am dealing with things out of my control that effect my sleep when I do lay my head down. *sigh*

    • I’ve so been there, Debra! I made improved sleep a big priority this year and it’s helped more than I can say. In addition to the book I suggested to Kate, there’s a fabulous book by Dr. Barry Krakow called “Sound Sleep, Sound Mind.” It’s unlike any other sleep text I’ve read (I’ve read many! ;)) in that it teaches you to stop your thoughts and behaviors from jarring you awake once your head hits the pillow. And sleep plays such a key role in our interest in/ability to exercise efficiently….or at all. 😉

      I’m planning to post on time management, sleep and exercise soon. So important for writers, and people in general…and common challenge areas for sure. Stay well and keep me posted!

  7. More helpful tips to unlock literary greatness. Nicely conveyed.


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