Tag Archives: goals

Does Willpower Really Work?

It’s that time of year when we find ourselves surrounded by the tempting tastes of the holidays.  Thanksgiving fare morphs into the decadence of Christmas, and it seems that everywhere we turn, we are faced with yummy goodness: at the office, at parties, family gatherings, and sometimes in unexpected places like the public library.  The merry calorie train chugs along…clear into January.  As a trainer, I’m frequently asked how to deal with the temptations around the holidays:  How can I have better willpower this time of year?  If this is you, allow me to suggest a slightly different question.

Willpower can vary in effectiveness across different days, weeks, months and years within the same individual.  I do believe that, given the right circumstances, most people will tip past the point of moderation and into the area of overindulgence.  Context is very important:  if we are stressed, sleep-deprived, presented with just the right temptation at just the right moment, we will cave.  Other times, we can wield a steely resolve that borders on militancy.  Why is this?

Research on willpower in the past 5 years has challenged all that scientists thought they knew—positions that were held for 20 years.  Here are the basics of a hotly debated topic:  for 20 years scientists defined willpower as a finite resource that could be depleted.  In the past 5 years, studies began to show that this might not always be the case.  One thing is certain, there are both physical and psychological factors to consider with willpower.

Depleting factors

Many experts believe that willpower is like a muscle; it must be fueled and exercised (but not too much) in order to be effective.  But like our body’s muscles, it can get “fatigued” and must be replenished.

What depletes our willpower?  Physical stress such as sleep-deprivation, over-exercising, restricting food intake (especially carbs, more on that in a moment), and illness can all deplete our willpower “muscle.”

Even more powerful is mental stress (psychological factors): making tough decisions, problem-solving, exercising self-control, delaying gratification, studying/testing, dealing with difficult coworkers/people, traumatic events, and life transitions.  Negative self-talk and criticism can also have an impact.

This concept is called ego depletion and was first described by psychologist Dr. Roy Baumeister.  The 20 years of research that I mentioned earlier focused on replicating Dr. Baumeister’s findings.

The good news is that willpower can be replenished, and based on newer research, it could possibly be replaced with something stronger.

Replenishing/Buffering factors

First, when replenishing willpower, you must address both the physical and psychological aspects:

Addressing the physical simply reflects healthy lifestyle habits, a two-for-one benefit:  getting plenty of sleep, eating clean whole foods, getting just the right amount of exercise and the right amount of healthy carbs (not too much and not too little).  Glucose plays a big role in willpower.  When you have sugar crashes—blood sugar spikes and drops—you will have a harder time with self-control.  Keeping your blood sugar stable with plenty of protein and healthy carbs/fats (think berries, lentils, sweet potatoes, almonds, and avocados) bolsters willpower.

Stress management and self-care are also very important.  Make sure that you build in favorite activities that “fill your bucket” weekly, if not daily.  Keeping negative stress at bay with meditation, quiet time and prayer, relaxation, yoga, naps, walks, and spending time with loved ones are excellent strategies.  In fact, the hormone oxytocin is released when we invest time in meaningful relationships –this hormone acts as a buffer and facilitates the body’s recovery from stress.

Psychologically, one’s mindset holds the key in building something stronger than willpower:

It explains interesting phenomena such as why people endure the agony of marathons and triathlons, why people don’t give up in the face of repeated discouragement (i.e., an author receiving multiple rejection letters), or why some people can adhere to extremely strict diets.  This is called want power.  When people tap into their want power, they actually derive pleasure from what they are doing, thus it isn’t an option to give in to the natural tendency to quit or to “just have a donut.”  The pleasure and focus of working toward their goals allows them to push past momentary discomfort.

Willpower is great, and must be protected and replenished to get us through the short-term.  However, want power is even stronger and has an enduring effect.  So how do we get ourselves to want to do something?

It helps to have a purpose, a why.  Maybe you want to be fit to serve others, or to be able to keep up with your children and grandchildren, or to be healthy enough to live a full life – excellent why’s.

Going a step further, set SMART goals (a mnemonic acronym first introduced by George T. Doran) that are:  Simple, Measureable, Actionable, Realistic, and Time-sensitive.  Also, chunking these goals into smaller goals is an effective strategy –small wins add up over time.

Self-talk is a game-changer and has several components.  You have to believe that you are capable of achieving your goals and your internal dialogue must support this.  We aren’t perfect, so don’t demand it of yourself.  Owning your emotions, and even your cravings, allows you to move forward.  Just because you have a thought, emotion, or craving, doesn’t mean you have to act on it.  You have the power to choose.

Regularly identify the positive in what you’re doing in order to retrain your brain.  Checking in with yourself to emphasize the positive will eventually become automatic thinking.  Example positives:  I feel great when I’m finished exercising, or I feel so much better when I only have a little bit of dessert (or resist it entirely) instead of eating the whole tray.  The opposite feeling can motivate us as well:  how we feel after overeating or being inactive can deter us from choosing to follow our fleeting emotions that ultimately betray us.

How can you apply this to the holidays?

You may not have want power yet, and that’s ok!  The key, and the slightly different question is this: How can I protect my willpower while developing my want power?  Here are some tips:

  • Replenish/protect your willpower muscle using the hints mentioned earlier (i.e., physical care, stress management, and self-care).
  • Set SMART goals, one day/week at a time, if necessary. Example:  I will allow myself X amount of servings (specific) per week (measurable) during the next 4 weeks (time-sensitive), and I will plan ahead for these events so that I can enjoy my favorite things guilt-free (actionable).  If I get off track, I’ll immediately get back on track with no shame (reasonable).
  • Big picture questions and chunking strategies: How do you want to feel about the way you navigated the holidays when you get to mid-January?  Using a chunking strategy, focus on the shorter term: how do you want to feel after attending this party or that event?  Have a game plan.  Will you eat before you go, or take a healthy dish with you? Will you bring a dessert alternative or will you indulge a little bit?  Regularly check in with your willpower reserve if you’re still building want power.  Too many tempting events in a row will deplete it quickly.
  • Focus on a positive mindset through self-talk, owning emotions and cravings, believing you can be successful, identifying the positive feelings associated with your healthy choices, and celebrating the victories no matter how small.
  • When all else fails, use distraction. The holidays are about love and people.  If you can’t find a balance with your food intake, make it about the people in your life –spend time connecting, rather than eating.  Take a lap around the room or house before you reach for “just one more cookie.”  Who knows?  The cravings just might fade in that amount of time.

I would love to hear from you!  What helpful strategies have you tried?

Wishing you a very Merry Christmas!

What’s Next?

I’m in a “what’s next?” season of life.  If you’ve followed my blog, you know that my husband recently left the field of law enforcement after 18 years (16 as a sworn officer).  Looking back, I have a new understanding for how all-encompassing and intrusive his police occupation was.  It dictated everything in our lives – from the big decisions to the small.  For 18 years, I tailored my schedule to meet the demands of my husband’s job, the responsibility of raising three boys, and the management of my training business.  Finally able to catch my breath after this big transition, I’m getting around to me.

Where are you today?  Are you transitioning to an empty nest, either with young adult children moving out, or with your youngest child heading off to kindergarten?  Perhaps you are facing a transition with your job, or you are relocating your family.

In terms of fitness: with winter coming, you might have finished your last race or other event/competition of the season.  Maybe you finished an exercise program and are looking for new goals.  Or, perhaps you are hoping to get into a regular exercise pattern, get fit, or lose weight.  What’s next for you?

Fall is my favorite season for walking and observing nature.  I was recently on a walk one crisp, cold morning—the fallen leaves crunching under every step.  As I passed a tree that had already lost most of its leaves, I noticed that there were also walnuts (about ping-pong ball-sized) everywhere.  The ground leaves were so thick in some spots that they camouflaged the walnuts.  I was looking ahead while walking (instead of down at my feet) and stepped on the walnuts, rolling my ankle.  In order to make it through that area while avoiding injury, I decided to look down as I stepped.

In that moment, I realized that this experience mirrored my tendency to get antsy in the “what’s next” moments.  I want so badly to project too far down the road, for God to show me the bigger vision of what He is doing in my life.  But in reality, He is only revealing the steps right in front of me…and I had better pay attention, because there might be things that trip me up or throw me off of my path.  I need to shift my gaze from the “horizon,” to what is directly in front of me.  With each faithful step, He will show me what’s next…and next…and next…in doses that I can handle.

With fitness, we can get caught up in the final outcome and forget about all of the steps that it takes to get there.  Yes, goals are important, but set those goals with your steps in mind because they are just as important as the end result.   Some things to consider:  How much time each day will you need in order to commit?  What preparation do you need before starting?  How can you anticipate and plan for things that might trip you up –like holidays or work travel, for instance?  Will you need to enlist support/accountability from others?  What is your body telling you (i.e., do you need more flexibility, or balance, or do you need to modify due to a nagging injury)?  If you’re wanting to increase strength or get better at running, do you have those activities scheduled at least 3 times per week, balanced with plenty of restorative activities on the other days to promote muscle recovery?  Many successful exercise plans contain a sequence of phases that build upon the previous phase, providing a natural progression toward the end goal.  By focusing on each step of your plan, you will be less overwhelmed by the end goal as you move toward it.  Success is more likely, too.

In a broader context, if you are experiencing a major “what’s next” season in your life, I want to encourage you to stop trying to focus on where you’re going to end up –you could miss the crucial steps right in front of you.  Look for your very next step and trust God to show it to you.  He never fails to show us what needs to be seen, with just the right timing.

Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. (Psalm 119:105)  

What This Non-NBA Fan Learned During the Finals

I’m a college basketball fan, but I rarely watch the pros.  My 12-year old son, who is enamored with the game, begged me to watch the 2017 NBA playoffs between the Warriors and Cavaliers with him.  As a mom of a “tween,” I’m looking to seize any opportunity for mother-son quality time—so I enthusiastically said yes.  Once I got past the lackluster fundamentals in the NBA, I actually got into the playoffs.

I’m familiar with most of the big names out there, but could tell you very little about their stats or their stories.  My son, like many young boys, is a Stephen Curry fan –apparently you’re extra cool if you call him “Steph” for short.  After watching him play, I understood why.  He’s an incredible shooter (and rebounder…HELLO?!), and at 6’3’’- 190 pounds, often one of the smallest guys on the court.

I wanted to know more about this player that my son admires.  What’s his story?  Is he a good role model?

In my research, I stumbled across the following quote on Biography.com, and was struck by how it applies to many aspects of life beyond basketball:

“Make it work no matter what you have to work with – that’s something that stuck with me very early on as a point guard. Adjust. Get creative. Try a different angle, a different lane, a different move or a different shot – just make it work.” – Stephen Curry

This is my fitness journey.  And it might be yours, too.

We all have unique challenges and “cards” that we’ve been dealt, whether physical, medical, or psychological.  Perhaps we wish that we could do certain things…an intense 60 or 90-day workout program, a sprint triathlon, a Tough Mudder, or run a 10k.  Or maybe you are simply wanting to be consistent with exercise.

Whatever your goals, there might be times when you must adapt and adjust to your needs and limitations.  And that’s ok, because this is real life.  The greatest disservice we can do for ourselves is to choose to sit it out—because somehow doing nothing seems better than trying and failing.

Mindset can hold us back or propel us forward.

It’s easy to get stuck in the past.  Don’t let your used to’s haunt you.  I get it.  There are many things that I used to do, some I can still do, and some that require adjustments.

I’ve gotten creative with my own routines as my body’s needs changed (hello, thyroid disease).  I don’t do as much cardio as I used to and my sessions are shorter and smarter.  I lift weights strategically and focus more on recovery days/weeks than ever before.

My unique challenges taught me that I can still get results by trying a different angle, a different approach, and making it work with what I’ve got.  Thanks, Steph Curry, for making my point.

Do you need help making it work no matter what you have to work with?  Fill out a contact form…I’d be honored to train you!

Setbacks Can Reset Your Priorities

Have you ever been stopped in your tracks by a setback? It might have been with your health, career, finances, or relationships. While I will focus on fitness setbacks here, the takeaways can be applied to just about any situation.

Some people are fortunate enough to emerge from a health condition or injury unscathed, but most of us retain physical and/or psychological scars from the experience.  Are you scarred?  You’re in good company.

It stinks to have setbacks.  I’ve had my share of them…injuries, surgeries, disease, crushing fatigue, broken metabolism, surgeries.  Oh, and did I mention surgeries?

When I first got in shape and became a trainer, I had a plan in mind about how my “fit life” would progress…the workouts I would be able to do…the races I would be able to run…the body I would achieve.  Then, life happened…

In the thick of my struggle, it was hard to see the big picture.  I wondered if my situation would improve or if I would have to say goodbye forever to my definition of a fit lifestyle.

There were physical scars that taunted me: will this inflammation go away or will I always have a belly like this? I can play connect-the-dots with the incision scars on my abdomen. My neck looks like the laces of a football.  I’m too exhausted and in too much pain to exercise. 

The psychological scars were really tough, too: What will it mean for me if I can’t exercise like I used to? What if I have to go up a jeans size (or two) for good? I may not ever have the body that I hoped for.

These scars can be dream-killers. But what happens when we tuck them into our stories and press on to more meaningful goals?

Perhaps the lessons I have learned will resonate with you:

  • We have plans for our lives, but they may not be God’s plans for us. If anyone is guilty of over-planning and “control-freaking,” it’s me. I have to continually remind myself of this teaching…

James 4:13-15 – Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit” – yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring.  What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.  Instead you ought to say, If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.

Perhaps if I ran all of my goals by God first, allowing him to edit them as needed, I wouldn’t have been so devastated by life’s setbacks.

  • My goals – vs – living a full life: do these concepts complement or compete? When you are forced to re-examine your goals during a setback, it could be a gift of perspective. My goals of achieving a certain size or look were limiting my potential and had little to do with living a full life. I was given this gift of perspective during an 18-month ordeal:

Thyroid-related fatigue, my nemesis, threw a giant wrench in my goals several years ago. It was crushing and incapacitating. I could barely care for my family, my memory and decision-making skills suffered, my body ached constantly and exercise was extremely difficult. Despite sleeping 14 hours a day, I never felt rested. I was living half of a life, barely keeping my head above water.

During that season, I yearned for the energy to be a fully engaged mother, wife, friend, and trainer. My goals of achieving a flat stomach and toned legs suddenly paled in comparison. Ironically, certain exercises were making my condition worse, and in order to get well, my fitness goals HAD to change.

I adopted a new perspective. What can I do fitness-wise to improve my health in a way that will help me to live a full life? I wanted to be “fit to serve” those around me: my family, friends, clients, church family, and even strangers.

Investing in relationships, intentionally loving others, living in the moment, and being God’s hands and feet—this perspective suddenly became more important than having less cellulite and being able to do unassisted pull-ups. I’m not saying that you should never have these goals…just don’t stop there!

  • Having eternal impact. Our lives are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes (James 4:14). Every once in a while we get a reminder that life is fleeting, that there is a bigger picture. We have such a short time on this planet and time’s a wastin’. What enduring legacy do you want to leave? How can your goals maximize eternal impact?

The physical and emotional pain from setbacks is real. Acknowledge it. Give it a voice. Tuck it into your story, but don’t let it define you. When you are ready, take your next step with renewed purpose.