Success Coaching - Willpower

March 8, 2022 Watermark Insights

All of us have, at one time or another, struggled with that unfortunate necessity: willpower. At times we have succeeded in avoiding temptation (I ordered the side salad instead of the fries!) or doing the thing we hate the most (Hello, TurboTax!). At other times, however, we have fallen short (I'm just going to open up TurboTax here and…wait…did my sister just post new, adorable pics of my nephew on Facebook? I'm gonna check those out for just a sec…)

For college students, especially those who find themselves on academic probation or warning, a lack of willpower and self-control is often a major if not the primary cause of their struggles in school. Academically, my students often have difficulty sticking to a study schedule, starting long-term assignments early, turning in assignments on time, and even going to class. But as anyone who has been to college can attest, students need willpower outside the classroom too; after all, pizzerias don't flock within delivery distance of every university in America because of the astronomically high earning power of college students. Many of my students have difficulty eating healthfully and exercising, which can negatively affect not just their physical and mental health but also their ability to focus and perform well academically.

So how do you teach willpower? How can a success coach help create an environment in which students can more easily build up their ability to resist temptation and accomplish difficult or undesirable tasks?


Practice Practice Practice! Willpower, like any other skill from mental math to shooting a free throw to meditation, takes practice. And the good news is: practicing willpower in any situation can help you be better at it when it really counts! Studies have shown that regularly making small decisions that require self-control (taking the stairs instead of the elevator, making one's bed every morning, forswearing swearing when someone cuts you off in traffic) grows one's capacity for self-control in all situations. Anything that causes you to override an impulse to either indulge (that second piece of pie) or avoid (that looming email inbox) can be good practice for when you are confronted with situations that are really hard.


I always ask my students to list the things they find it most difficult to either do or avoid, and I think it's important to make the distinction between the two. It may be difficult for me to avoid turning on the TV when I really should be studying, but succeeding in not turning on the TV doesn't necessarily mean I have opened a textbook. There are some things we really really want to do but shouldn't, and others we should do but really really don't want to. Therefore, I ask my students to write down both types of trigger situations as well as to note any overlap or interrelation between the two. If I always seem to avoid working on a paper by futzing around on the internet, then perhaps I should work on the paper somewhere that doesn't have Wifi (if I can find one in 2014) or at least turn off all notifications during the set period I have allotted for work.


Many of my students are the first in their families to go to college, and so one of the things I ask them to do in situations in which they need to use a little willpower is to literally visualize the end goal: graduation day. Who is there watching you walk across the stage? Those people who are in your corner- maybe your mom or dad or grandma or that little brother who will see your success and realize that his dreams might just be achievable too- are they there? How do they look? How do you feel in your cap and gown as you wave to them from your seat among all the other graduates? Now, every time you are tempted to go to that impromptu dorm party when you really should be studying, even if you tell yourself you'll only go for an hour before getting back to the books (a hilarious lie we have all told ourselves at some point in our lives), remind yourself of that image. You are closer to it every minute you stay above water. This doesn't mean, of course, that any time spent partying or relaxing with friends is wrong or wasted. After all, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, and probably a pretty sad human being. It just means that, if spending two hours right now on macroeconomics will get you closer to the exhilaration of walking across the stage at graduation, the shouts from all those who have supported you and cheered you on ringing through the air, open that economics book and remind yourself that there will be another party tomorrow.


We can all be pretty hard on ourselves. We fail, and instead of getting back in the game, we tell ourselves, "you are so stupid for failing! No one else is failing, and if you were worth a darn you wouldn't either!" Each of us has a different mantra that our inner critic repeats to us over and over, but we all have some version of it. With my students, I remind them that it doesn't do much good to beat yourself up when you fall off the horse. They all have failed to some degree already, and too much self-criticism can become demoralizing and eventually defeatist. On the other hand, if you not only acknowledge your mistake but also give yourself a kindly lift back into the saddle, you will be more apt to commit to continuing the ride. Likewise, rewarding yourself for small victories can be healthy and motivating as long as you don't let a little reward send you into full temptation gratification. "If I finish three pages, I'll go get a mocha at the coffee shop," can do a lot to boost energy and morale…as long as the mocha doesn't lead you to, Augustus Gloop-style, fall headfirst into a river of chocolate.

As with everything, it's a process. Willpower is a lifetime sport. As a success coach, I teach my students that every setback is one small step for man (or woman), and every victory…one giant leap toward achieving a worthwhile goal.

Susan Marion is the Coordinator for Success Coaches at Tiffin University, in Tiffin, Ohio. She was instrumental in starting success coaching at the institution in 2007. The program now has fifteen part-time success coaches and supports almost one hundred students who are at risk academically.

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