Willpower – A Precious Resource Part 2

Healthy Eating and Progress Tracking

How many times have you started a diet, only to fall off it by Friday or the weekend? Do you feel discipline and self-control limit your success at following a healthier lifestyle?

If you succumb to cravings, do you think it is because you don’t have enough self-control.  If you miss a gym session that you promised yourself, is it because you lack discipline?

If you identify with these feelings, if you consider that you lack willpower when the going is tough, then you probably feel this is a huge roadblock to getting the results that you want.

Interestingly, that is how many of our most successful clients felt about themselves too!  They started as the reluctant gym attendee who had never been to a gym before and didn’t believe they could stick to regular training sessions!

In our previous article, we discussed that willpower is a finite resource that is depleted with use.  How much you have is less important that how efficiently you use it and how much demand that you place on your reserves of willpower.

Like your bodies energy, your willpower is drained the harder you work.  The more times in a day you draw on willpower, the quicker it will be depleted.

What draws on your willpower?

When your willpower gets low, you become more likely to revert to default, habitual choices that may not be in line with your current goals.  Doing what is a habit – requires a lot less willpower that new behaviours you are trying to adopt.

This means that the more drastic changes you try to bring into your lifestyle at any one time, the more willpower will be relied upon.  This will make what is already difficult, nearly impossible.  Not only to you use up willpower rapidly, but you reinforce negative feeling of failure when drop the ball on any of the changes you want to make.

Have a think about this scenario.  It is New Year and out come the resolutions.  You will eat better, work out consistently, and reduced your drinking.  As life tends to, when work or family become inescapably stressful – they too will drain your willpower.  With all the normal demands chipping away at you – it may only take one particularly tough day at work to rob you of any remaining willpower, and then all your new changes simply become too demanding.  Saying no to that glass of wine at dinner or hitting the gym at the end of the day, well, it probably is not going to happen.

This is why, at Ninth Wave Fitness, we advocate the formation of smaller healthy habits over time rather than a complete lifestyle overhaul.

Smaller habits can ‘fit in’ to your life without tapping out your willpower.  You can develop a positive relationship with change and your success, and move to the point where your new habit becomes your norm – no longer draining willpower as it did initially.

So then now we know that:

  1. Willpower can be depleted. The more self-control or effort a task requires, and the more often this occurs, the quicker it depletes.
  2. Once you are in a willpower depleted state, you are more biased to giving into temptations and making decisions based on habit.

What can we do from here to reduce our chances of self-sabotage or falling off the wagon from our health and fitness goals?

A trained muscle is temporarily weak and depleted. A consistently trained muscle grows stronger over time, allowing you to move loads and perform at a level that is higher than your previous state.

Willpower can be improved in a similar way.

What psychology has said about improving willpower and self-control:

  1. Avoid temptation 

The classic statement ‘out of sight, out of mind’ applies when it comes to improving self-control. In a marshmallow study, children were given a marshmallow with the choice of eating the single marshmallow, or being rewarded with two if they managed to wait.

The children who distracted themselves, closed their eyes or turned away were more likely to resist eating the marshmallow compared to those who directly stared at this treat.

So many of our clients tell us stories of their workplace placing lolly jars, or biscuits, or cakes or chocolate right next to their desks!  You will be much more likely to reach for a lolly (whether you want to eat it or not) if it is near you rather than being inside a cupboard or in the shared kitchen.

If this happens to you – ask the person that put it there to place it somewhere else.

If you are the well-meaning person supplying these treats – please don’t!

  1. If temptations or situations of willpower depletion are unavoidable, have a plan. 

There are always going to be life situations where temptations or engaging in the not so healthy behaviours will be unavoidable for you (e.g. getting angry, drinking too much alcohol, eating too much junk food). A technique called ‘Implementation Intention’ has been shown to help reserve willpower.

In this technique, you form ‘If _____, then I will _____’ statements in your head (hey – you can even write them down) for situations where temptations are high. While it may not seem like much, forming these scenarios in your head and having alternatives allow you to reserve your willpower as it requires less effort to make decisions or refuse when in the actual situation.

  1. High motivation can overcome willpower depletion, allowing you to persevere with a task or action that is effortful even in a willpower depleted state. 

When it comes to health and fitness goals, identifying why these are so important to you personally can assist in not completely falling off the wagon when you are at your weakest, or not stray as far as you would.

In studies that provided money as a reward, people persevered with a hard puzzle even after they went through a willpower depleting task, if they were offered a monetary reward for completing it. To some extent, keeping motivation high will help assist in sticking to new behaviours by allowing you to draw from whatever reserve of willpower you have remaining. I also say “to some extent” as motivation is very fleeting; while it can get the ball rolling, it doesn’t always stick around to get the job completed!

  1. Practice self-control: in the short run, new tasks that require self-control will deplete willpower. 

A muscle that has just been trained hard is weaker than before the training session. Similarly, willpower reserves are lower if you have had to use them and you are in a weaker state. However, as a trained muscle grows stronger, regularly and successfully using willpower strengthens it too. The benefits of regularly practicing self-control on a task is not just limited to the specific task; but extends to better willpower on other lifestyle aspects. How cool is that!

Studies show that getting people to follow an assigned exercise regime (a task that requires self-control) later performed better on other measures of self-control, reported less smoking and less alcohol compared to when they had started; than people not given any exercise programs.

This is a pattern I have seen quite often with clients too; the moment they start training consistently two-four times a week, and identify with its benefits, the better they eat and more diligent they are with engaging in other healthy behaviours (e.g. more walking, less sitting, trying to sleep better). They are also quicker to get back on the wagon if they have had a ‘not so good few days’ or had something off their food plan, rather than beating themselves up about the mishap.

So, while you may find the first few weeks of dietary and behavioural changes you have made to your life tough to stick to, the more you do it, the better you will get at not only those changes, but potentially improve yourself control across other aspects of your life!

As we mentioned in the first article, at Ninth Wave we advocate that great practice makes perfect; so not overloading yourself with too many changes and starting with just enough to allow for adaptations to occur is key (in the same way that we aim to achieve positive adaptations with the right amount of training)!

So now we also know that:

Willpower can be trained; over time, practising self-control regularly on manageable changes will improve the strength of your willpower and make it less vulnerable to being depleted in the long run.

In the next article, I offer you a list of things you can do to practice self-control, strengthen willpower in the long run and keep on track with all your health and fitness goals.