Willpower – A Precious Resource Part 3

Healthy Eating and Strength and Fitness Training

Willpower – A Precious Resource Part 3

In this final article, we will discuss how we can practically apply what we know about willpower in order to help us adhere to our health, fitness and other lifestyle goals.

We know that: 

  1. Willpower can be depleted. The more self control a task requires (the more effort you have to put in to force yourself to do it or abstain from doing something), the more it depletes. 
  2. Once willpower has been depleted, the more you are open to giving in to temptations later on. 
  3. Thankfully, as you get used to certain challenges and tasks, performing them uses less and less willpower.
  4. Willpower can also be trained; practising self control regularly will allow you to sustain willpower for longer than before. 

Initially, it may seem all doom and gloom that after a long hard day, we are biased towards self sabotage by reverting to our default habits and behaviours, even when they go against our best intentions.  However, once we understand how willpower works, this knowledge can be used to help us prepare for more success going forward.  Here are seven great tips for you, summarised, and then detailed explanations following on.

Tip 1: Start Small

Add small, positive habits and find success with gentle progress.

Tip 1: Start Small

Aim to do the minimum to start getting healthier.  Make smaller additions to your lifestyle that are easy and require only a little effort.  Add positive habits before taking things away from your lifestyle.

Tip 2: Avoid Temptation

If you don’t have bad food or drink around – you need less willpower to be successful.

Tip 3: Pre-Plan for Temptation

Anticipate scenarios that could derail you and decide, beforehand, how you will face them.

Tip 4: Prepare – to Reduce Your Risk

Have good things prepared before you need them – making it less likely to make bad choices in the spur of the moment.

Tip 5: Find Your Purpose

Think positively about what you are striving for and journal how you will feel when you are successful. Focus on what you want to be – not what you are – and how you will feel.

Tip 6: Repeat New Behaviours Until They Are Automatic

When small changes have become a habit, you will not be relying on willpower and you are a step further on your journey.

Tip 7: Be Patient and Enjoy the Journey.

Everything good takes time. Don’t obsess about dates – learn to love the process and the journey.

Tip 1: Start Small

Try adding in more healthy foods, before you take anything out.  Ensure that every time you eat, you throw in an extra serving of non-starchy vegetables that you like (peas, corn (ok, I know it is a grain), broccoli, carrots, celery, leaves etc).

End every meal with an additional piece of fruit (apples, oranges, pears, and peaches are amongst my favourites).

Ensure you have some protein at every meal – generally, protein is anything that used to have eyes !  

If you are a vegetarian, you are already well versed in suitable vegetable protein sources – so increase the amount of these.  

For non vegetarians – if you aren’t having meat or fish at a meal, try to add some, or low fat cottage cheese, or a natural low sugar high protein yoghurt (I like plain chobani), or even a ATP NoWay protein shake to start or a Bare Blends Organic Dairy Protein (we sell both as they are awesome).

Increase your daily activity.  If you do nothing currently, add a 15 min walk each day, or walk to work or do anything to increase your activity (tracking your steps is a great idea – we like Argus app on the iPhone).

Tip 1: Rules

Generally, we think a couple of weeks of success is enough time to know that you can keep sticking to the small change you have made – but if you have not been fully successful in sticking to it, wait until you have had 14 straight days of success before doing anything else.

After 2 weeks of success – pick another example to add into your day.  Keep the others you have been doing too – so that you are accumulating good habits with very little stress or effort and no guilt.  Just wait for 2 weeks of complete success before adding another.

Tip 2: Avoid Temptation

We established in the first article that ‘out of sight, out of mind’ helps to improving self control with  dietary behaviours (link to article, refer to no. 1. Avoid Temptation). 

If you know you have certain trigger foods, avoid keeping them in the house. For example, if one piece of chocolate or glass of wine results in you consuming the entire bar or bottle, avoid keeping them in a place that is easy to see and reach, or keep them out of the house completely. 

Remember that when you have had a hard day and come home in a willpower depleted state, it is easier to give in to temptation. Humans will always do what is easiest; if the bar of chocolate or bottle of beer is not available in the fridge, you are much less likely to cave in to temptation as doing so will require you to make an effort to go out of your way and into a store. 

Same goes for your workplace treats. How many times have you mindlessly reached for a piece of candy or two if it has been on your work desk? Having treats that are easily accessible usually results in mindless eating; it is common for a lot of people to eat them out of boredom, regardless of whether they were hungry or not. 

Tip 3. Pre-Plan for Temptation

If you know you will be in a situation where temptations will be plenty, e.g. a work function where people offer drinks, or a birthday party, have a few ‘if ______, then ______’ scenarios pre-planned in your head. 

Very rarely are we thrust into functions or outings that we do not have prior knowledge of, so this is a relatively easy and quick one for you to try. 

For example, “If I get offered cake, I will only have one small slice”, or “If I get offered a drink, I will ask for gin and tonic instead of the beer”. 

These are called ‘implementation intentions’, and mentally planning ahead in this way has been shown to allow people to respond and take action without needing as much willpower. It may seem too simple to be true, but having these alternatives in mind ahead of time saves you the energy of deciding what to do when faced with the challenge, as well as the effort of resisting the very temptation. 

I would also add that it would reduce any sense of guilt associated, as you are not ‘giving in’ to temptation, and reduce the chances of taking it too far, as you are less likely to think ‘oh well I might as well make this my smoking/drinking/cheat meal day since I have already had one’. 

Tip 4. Prepare – to Reduce Your Risk

Meal prepping is one sure way of ensuring you are never left without good, healthy food. Many times at the end of their day, people will come home starving, only to find the thought of cooking for 10-30 minutes for a healthy meal a chore. 

In this case, takeout or other poor choices (biscuits and cheese is a common failing for some) become easy to turn to.

Having food prepared for most of your week means you are never caught without a quick and nutritious meal to eat. We love recommending slow cookers for just this purpose – making batch cooking really quick and easy.

Tip 5. Find Your Purpose

Personally identifying with your goals will help you adhere to the actions that are required to get you there. If a goal means something to you, you are more likely to stick with it as you know that you want it and why you want it. 

Journalling and documenting can help with this. Identifying with why you eat healthier, why you train, why you are making an effort to bring changes in your life (e.g. It makes me feel better, perform better, look better, be a better person) makes it easier to stick to. In the same way that providing a monetary reward for solving a puzzle resulted in test participants persevering with it for longer, personally identifying with our goal, why we want it, how we will feel if we achieve and maintain it, etc, will allow for us to persevere even on the days when motivations are low. 

You have to learn to love the idea of the result you are searching for – rather than hating where you are right now.  It is a much more successful mindset that helps with compliance.

Tip 6. Repeat New Behaviours Until They Are Automatic

Consistency is something we always refer to when talking about success in achieving fitness or fat loss goals, and then maintaining this new level of strength, lower body fat, increased muscularity, etc.

Working on small steps and building consistency removes the need for iron clad willpower – and prevents you needing to tough it out to get your result.  Once a behaviour becomes a habit, you will be able to do what you need without a second thought.

Overtime, you will form habits that allow you to autopilot even at your weakest or on your more stressful days. 

Remember: you strengthen your willpower by consistent practice and it carries over to other tasks that require self-control too.  Never be discouraged; if you feel that you currently lack self control to achieve your goals, it will not be that way forever provided that you focus on small steps, done well, and done often.

Tip 7: Be Patient and Enjoy the Journey.

Everyone falls off the wagon. With small steps – that fall is rarely catastrophic nor does it set you back much.  

Realising that big changes take time is crucial; willpower and self control require practice. Building habits requires patience and a consistent effort to do that action again and again over a long time. 

Every gentle, successful effort moves you forward.  Over time, it accumulates to great changes – whereas early and drastic efforts, all too often, come with a nasty backlash or demoralising falls. 

With this approach you can learn to love the journey and appreciate the positive changes rather than looking at it as a battle or a fight.