Russell Stannard: The importance of willpower

Do you ever get the feeling sometimes that you just don’t want to make a decision? Have you ever noticed for example that you tend to have more willpower and focus in the mornings than you do in the afternoons? This is now scientifically proven and it has huge implications for both ourselves but more importantly our students.

A few of the studies.

In a now famous study, a group of people were asked to sit in a room. They had not eaten for the whole morning. In front of them was a bowl of radishes and a bowl of cookies. Half the group was given radishes to eat and could not eat the cookies and half the group was given cookies to eat. 15 minutes later both groups of people were asked to do a puzzle. The puzzle was, in fact, impossible to complete. The group who had eaten the cookies and therefore had not used up their willpower, kept trying to do the puzzle and didn’t lose patience. The group that had used up their willpower resisting eating the cookies, lost their patience very quickly, with many of them giving up trying to do the puzzle.

Willpower, which drives self-control is not an infinite thing and slowly through the day, we use it up. In other studies, for example, people admitted that they made more irrational decisions as the day went on, they tended to be more impulsive and this is because as the day goes on, our willpower is depleting. This has very serious implications for certain jobs, for example, judges giving parole to prison victims gave 50% of applicant’s parole in the morning sessions but by the end of the day, this had dropped to nearly 0%.

good news

The good news is that firstly our pool of willpower can be increased. For example, people who were put on a programme of exercise found that they had more increased willpower for all other aspects of their lives. A simple exercise where people were asked to stand up straight and not slouch each time they noticed they were sitting badly, found their willpower also increased. These studies have 2 implications. Firstly we can increase our willpower by doing certain things, often quite simple things, and secondly, willpower is transferable. So, you don’t have the willpower for one thing but not the other, rather you have one finite pool of willpower that you can use during the day for different things.

The other good news is that your willpower can be restored. So for example, just taking 5-10 minutes of the day out from work and doing mindfulness exercises where people sat and focused on their day and what they wanted to achieve, led to restored levels of willpower. Taking a short nap in the day, tends to also lead to restored levels of willpower too. A complete break from work, for example, going out for a walk or getting outside can also help.

for the classroom

  1. Students will have the most willpower in the mornings. So, it is probably better to do the more cognitively heavy work in the morning lessons.
  2. Don’t waste too much time in the morning lessons with warmers. Make your warmers quick as students should be able to focus quickly. I still suggest doing a warmer but keep the morning ones quick.
  3. In the afternoon it might be a good idea to completely break from a lesson for 5 minutes. This break needs to be something mundane. For example, I have seen examples where the teacher plays a song and asks the students just to doodle on a piece of paper while they listen. It needs to be something that is cognitively light. You could even get students to do a simple mindfulness example. For example, they could think about the day so far and write down what they have done or learnt.

our students willpower

Building willpower actually takes willpower, so you need to get the balance right. For example, in the studies around exercise, people had to use willpower to start exercising. However, after a while, doing regular exercise helped to build their willpower and so the long term result was they actually had more willpower for other things.

So with students start slowly and give the students concrete strategies that they can work with. It is actually about helping them to build up learning habits that in term build their willpower and self-discipline. Here are a couple of examples I have previously done.

  1. Teach students how to play the pelmanism game and get the students to play it for 5 minutes each lesson. Each student should keep an envelope with say 8 to 9 words they are currently studying.
  2. Get the students to write just for one or two minutes. Give them a blank piece of paper and ask them to write down as many words, phrases or sentences connected with the day as possible. So they might right things like a sunny day, I got up, motivated, tired, happy, had a lesson, etc. The idea is just to get them into a habit of writing and building a habit, so do this in each lesson and you will see they get better and better as well as building a discipline to write.
  3. Get students to speed read a text from a part of the book they have already worked through. Then put them in pairs and ask them to think of all the words they can remember connected with the text. Again do this on a regular basis.

What you are trying to do in all these
examples is to focus on habits that will build discipline and self-control. You
can make them more difficult as the students get better at them.

for thought

There is much more to the studies in self-control and willpower and in this post, I have only been able to touch on a few things. However, I want to leave you with three important things that are related to the bigger picture.

Firstly self-image is a key aspect of willpower. For example, people who see themselves as self-disciplined and have a vision of themselves as being self-disciplined have much greater levels of willpower. If they fail, they are likely to quickly bounce back and get back on track. This is a key psychological trait in athletes, successful businessmen, and professionals. They tend to actually see themselves as self-disciplined people.  Could you think if ways of helping students to build a better image of themselves? Could this in some way be incorporated into a lesson play?

Secondly, being aware of the studies in
willpower can be a major factor in students understanding why it is so
important. So it is worth explaining some of these studies to your students as
it may help them to understand why it is so important for their learning and
for their futures.

This final point must be treated carefully
but it is very important. Studies have shown that if people think about their
future and think about failing, it actually has a greater motivating effect
than thinking about success.  So we need
to help our students build a better self-image about their present but make
them aware of what they could miss out on if they don’t learn to develop


Learning a language requires
willpower.  You need to get lots of
language input by continually listening to the language, you need to read as
much as you can, make use of opportunities to practice speaking and of course
study grammar and vocabulary. Along with learning an instrument, I would say it
is one of the hardest things to do and many people fail, simply because they
don’t have the willpower and self-discipline that is required. It is something
we need to bring into our lessons by setting up activities and exercises that
can develop it but also by making students aware of the recent research.

you want to learn more?

I recommend the work of Roy Baumeister and
Kelly McConigal. Both have written books on the subject and both have
interesting videos on YouTube.

Kelly McConigal

Roy Baumeister

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