Tag Archives: willpower

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!