Willpower: A Precious Resource

Healthy Eating and Progress Tracking

If you have ever thought a lack of Willpower has held you back on your health, fitness, fat loss journey or in any endeavour that you found challenging, then this article is for you.

Your first mini-challenge is that there is a lot of information here – so set aside 10-15 minutes reading time to ensure you can take it all in!

At Ninth Wave, we work with normal people and our job is to help them.  We are not academics per-se and our goal is to communicate ideas and concepts in a way that is helpful to our clients.

A common belief about willpower is that you either have it or you do not.  We have weak willed and strong willed people.  If you are weak willed, then the best approach is to just toughen up and try harder.  Failing because of a lack of willpower is really seen as people just not trying hard enough.

We do not believe that at Ninth Wave.  Having a coach with a degree in psychology certainly helps us understand and utilise Willpower more effectively!  

How many times have you started a diet, only to fall off it by Friday or the weekend? Self control and discipline are often associated with the success or failure of lifestyle changes. People cave in to cravings because ‘they didn’t have enough self control’, or they didn’t go to the gym today because ‘they weren’t disciplined enough’.

Those who identify themselves as having weak willpower, often blame this as inhibiting them from reaching their health and fitness goals. “I just love food too much to eat healthy,” they may say. “I don’t have enough self control to stick to a (insert diet plan, healthy habit, fitness regime)”.

Underlying these sort of statements is a belief that they are limited by their level of self control, and that this is a quality that cannot be changed.

Many of our most successful clients started with this belief too.  They were reluctant, maybe even afraid of failing and many had never been to a gym before or didn’t believe they could stick to regular training sessions!

Willpower is a finite resource. It is much like the petrol in your car – the further you go, the more you use.  With Willpower, the more stressors, challenges, and new demands you put on yourself, the more you will drain your reserves of willpower.

Adding more challenges makes greater demands on willpower.

It is unclear whether people are born with smaller or larger reserves and there may be some truth in that people that seem to succeed more often have larger reserves of willpower.

Worrying about something we cannot measure is a waste of your time.  A much more helpful message is that the best thing any of us can do relating to willpower, is to preserve it for the more effortful situations, so that we have plenty at any point that we need it!

At Ninth Wave we advocate consistency. Building good habits means that the same action uses less willpower, preserving our reserves. When something becomes a habit, there is very little need for self control.

The action of “eating healthy” for one person who has been doing it as part of his lifestyle for many years would require very little thought and mental effort. For the client who is just starting their fat loss and nutrition journey however, the same act requires much thought for both the doing of and resisting of what used to be their norm. When faced with the choice of having leftover takeout for dinner or a healthier home cooked meal, the latter individual would need to exert a higher level of self control to decide on the better choice. For the healthier individual, that same choice is easy given that it is what they do nearly every day and have done for a long time.

Being aware that willpower can be drained means it is possible to strategise and be more economical with it. Here are some tips:

  1. Don’t overload yourself with multiple demands and only do as much as you need, to get a result. Training is a good example: for someone who is a beginner, training 7 days a week could make it easier to burn out or fall off the wagon completely when motivation is low, rather than if you had trained 2-3 focused days. 2-3 days is easier to make as the minimum, even when life is at its busiest compared to 7 days a week.
  2. Be aware of your triggers and mentally strategise so that you have alternative options available in situations where self control may be low. If you know that you are prone to cravings or falling off the wagon at the end of a long week or a hard day at work, make it easier to reach for the healthier option. Have meals prepared beforehand so that it is as easy as putting it in the oven or microwave to heat it up.
  3. Mentally prepare yourself with alternate choices for anticipated situations where motivation may be low and temptations are high. For example if you know you will be tired when you come home (low motivation/willpower) and you have a habit of ordering takeout (temptation is high) then have a rule to always drink a protein shake to curb your hunger before you make the decision on what to eat.  This will help making a better choice, easier.

Some Common Willpower Scenarios 

..A smoker lights a cigarette, even though she is trying to quit.  She is aware that it is detrimental to her lungs and limits her fitness.  Her nice clothes smell and she is having to stand, ostracised, outside in the cold to get her fix. But she just can’t say no; her week was just too stressful and she really needs one right now.

..An office worker presses the elevator button even though he intended to take the stairs and do some activity today.  His doctor had told him the extra 20kgs of body fat he is carrying increases his blood pressure which will shorten his life.  Part of him can ignore that though he knows it to be true.  But this week has already been a bit rubbish, he ate take-away that the doctor said he should avoid and the beers after work were not on plan either.  Still, no value in beating himself up, he will just see this week out and try harder next week.

..A high performing executive is starting a new fitness regime.  She used to be super fit but work has got in the way recently.  Not used to ‘failing’ anything, she will redouble her efforts, sign up to PT sessions several times a week, and start a food delivery service – quitting alcohol will help so she plans to do that too.

Each of these is admirable in their own way.  Each person has good intentions and each wants to be successful.

Each goal will require a certain level of willpower to make the changes and self control to consistently commit.

Key Point: Our concern for anyone embarking on significant changes is that multiple drastic changes at once requires both physical and mental effort, and a high level of willpower to sustain these efforts.  Smaller, less drastic changes have a better chance of success and can act as building blocks to better things.

The greater the change from your norm, the greater self control is needed to monitor and stick to it.  You must focus attention and actively control your responses and emotions in a way not necessary with your normal life.  As such, willpower is drained faster than normal – a fact the is ignored by most people.  Here is a bit of science about the use of Willpower:

In psychology, much work has been done to show that Willpower is like a muscle; the more it is used, the more it is depleted and needs to recover. In one of the earliest studies on willpower, test subjects who were required to eat radishes instead of the cookies in front of them persevered on a difficult puzzle for only half the amount of time compared to those who had been allowed to consume the cookies. This willpower depletion effect has been found to occur regardless of physical fatigue, and have also been replicated in experiments studying self-control of emotions. Subjects told to repress their physical responses to emotional images and videos gave up much earlier on subsequent demanding tasks. 

The science is telling us that there are multiple drains on Willpower and from that we know that if you increase those demands, you probably need to decrease the demand from other factors or we will quickly run out and fall off the wagon!

As we go about our day to day, there are plenty of instances where we must tap into our willpower, here are just a few:

Each of these is a drain on our willpower – every time we exert deliberate self-control we are tapping into our reserves. It might be more obvious to you now (note the unavoidable and avoidable suggestions) that when willpower becomes low due to daily life events, new lifestyle changes will be so much harder to stick to.

While it may be more difficult to change the unavoidable sources (though I would suggest that overtime changing your mindset and your responses towards those events may help) we can reduce the amount willpower needed.  We can:

If your fridge looks like this – saying no just got harder!

In the case of people starting on health and fitness journeys, we cannot expect that everyone has the capacity to just add more demands on their system.  The more extreme the change the greater the demands on willpower, therefore we need to manage these reserves carefully, to give people the best chance that they can of managing the new demands and being successful.

A review of what we now know:

  1. Willpower can be depleted. The more self-control a task requires the greater the drain on Willpower;
  2. Once Willpower has been depleted, it will be hard to succeed at things we want to do that require self-control.

But the good news is:

  1. Our willpower reservoir can be increased. Practising successful self-control allow us to use less willpower at a given time. This will allow for more to remain in our reserve for situations that require more effort.
  2. We can learn to rely on our willpower less often for the less important things, leaving more in the tank for new challenges or stressors that we will encounter.
  3. Will can be replenished with the same techniques we use to recover from physical training.

Here is a bit more exciting science:

Practicing* self-control strengthens Willpower. Even better, such practice has a flow on effect to unrelated endeavours! Many studies show that getting subjects to follow a task that requires self-control (in this case an assigned exercise regime) later performed better on lab measures of self-control, reported less smoking and less alcohol compared to when they had started than the group not given any exercise programs. 

* We think perfect practice is actually very important.  Many people come to us with a laundry list of every physical challenges they can imagine and left to their own devices, few will succeed (like the female executive in the example above).  This, does not help and often creates the feeling of having a lack of Willpower!  Picking challenges that we can succeed at with a little effort is a stepping stone to bigger challenges as well as a builder of confidence and Willpower.

Now you can see that Willpower is a not only important but it is also malleable.  It is something we can increase our reserves of and rely on less, with perfect practice.

If you have ever thought that Willpower has been what has stopped you from succeeding, there is plenty that you can do so that it does not hold you back in the future.  To help you, we will compile advice from the gym floor as to how we can improve our WillPower, specifically targeted towards lifestyle changes to enhance your health and fitness.  Look out for the article, coming soon.