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Introduction Philosophers, cognitive and social psychologists and laypeople often subscribe to the view that willpower is central to recovery from addiction. But there are reasons to suspect that willpower is much less important to explaining recovery than this view suggests. Methods Here we report findings from a qualitative longitudinal study on how substance dependent people see their agency and self-control, and how their self-control develops over time. 69 opioid, alcohol and methamphetamine dependent people were interviewed over a 3 year period. Results Most of the participants described themselves as strong willed; in fact, as very strong willed. However, there seemed no correlation between having a (self-assessed) strong will and recovery status. Rather, the number of strategies cited by participants distinguished those in stable recovery from those who were not. Participants in recovery were also more enthusiastic about strategies than those who have not succeeded in controlling substance use. Willpower remained important, but was itself used strategically. Conclusions People with addiction seem not to be short on willpower; rather, recovery is dependent on developing strategies to preserve willpower by controlling the environment.