A few months ago, our Monthly Mission in The Balanced Life Sisterhood was “mastering willpower”.
The Monthly Missions are one of my favorite things about The Sisterhood. As a community we focus one ONE area of wellness for an entire month rather than trying to do everything all at once. It’s powerful and effective.
What I learned about willpower through my research and through the Monthly Mission has stuck with me in a major way. While I can’t go into as much detail as I did in The Sisterhood, I want to share a little bit here to get you thinking.
What it is, what it isn’t, and what you can do to improve it.
Do you ever feel like some days you have all the willpower in the world and other days you just can’t get it together? (I, for one, just ate 3 brownie muffins….you can guess which kind of a day I’m having over here. I blame the baby in my belly.)
Have you ever wondered how to get more willpower?
So much of healthy living comes back to willpower – the resolve to eat well, the discipline to avoid seconds (or thirds) when it comes to brownie muffins, the ability to complete your intended workouts. etc. It all comes back to our willpower.
Willpower = the ability to match our ACTUAL actions and choices with our DESIRED actions and choices.
Willpower can also be thought of as self-control.
So let’s start with perhaps the biggest misconception of all…
Willpower is always on will-call.
According to research, this idea is false.
We tend to think of willpower as an unlimited resource. We always have it and it’s always fully available, we just have to call on it and it will help us to avoid temptation or summon the discipline to reach our goals.
The truth is, willpower is limited. Gary Keller uses the image of the power bar on your cell phone:
“Every morning you start with a full charge. As the day goes on, every time you draw on it you’re using it up. So as your green bar shrinks, so does your resolve, and when it eventually goes red, you’re done. Willpower has a limited battery life but can be recharged with some downtime. It’s a limited but renewal resource. Because you have limited supply, each act of will creates a win-lose scenario where winning in an immediate situation through willpower makes you more likely to lose later because you have less of it. Make it through a tough day in the trenches, and the lure of late-night snacking can become your diet’s downfall.”
We all accept that limited resources need to be managed (like sleep and food), but willpower is rarely thought of this way.
“Willpower is like a fast-twitch muscle that gets tired and needs rest.”
So what do we do to manage our willpower and maintain a full tank throughout the day?
Although the answer will be unique to all of us, there are some universal factors that play a key role in our willpower availability:
The brain is responsible for our ability to make good choices, focus and solve problems. The brain needs food to function properly. When we go without proper nutrition, the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain responsible for behavior and decision making) is affected first. Eating regular meals helps to maintain the body’s blood sugar level which helps to fuel the brain. Therefore, remembering to eat regularly throughout the day can increase our willpower. Yet another reason why starvation diets DO NOT work.
2. Creating healthy habits.
When we are running low on willpower we fall back on our default behaviors. This is why I stress the importance of creating healthy habits and creating a “new normal” in your daily routine. If your typical habit is to reach for candy in the afternoon, even though you’ve committed to giving up sugar for a month, when willpower is low you will fall back on your default setting and reach for that candy bar because that’s what feels natural. Working hard to create new habits can change the default setting so that instead, you reach for a healthy bar or snack that you habitually keep in your desk drawer for times like these.
So it’s important to ask yourself “what are your current default settings?”
To know how to succeed, you need to know how you commonly fail. Understanding your current habits (good or bad) will help you to understand why you tend to act in ways you’d rather not.
3. Paying attention to time of day and planning around it.
If willpower is a limited resource, there are times when you will have more of it and times when you have less. Generally speaking you will feel the most in control in the beginning of the day when you are well-rested, well-fed, and free from excessive stress. On the contrary, by the end of the day there is a better chance that you will be tired, hungry and stressed from the demands of the day….all things that point to an empty willpower tank and lead too poor decision-making.
This is why people who exercise in the morning are most consistent and why late-night snacking is such a common challenge.
Consider your days and plan accordingly.
Ask yourself the following questions:
– When is your willpower strongest?
– What would you like to make sure you accomplish during that time of day?
– When is your willpower the weakest?
– What can you do to avoid to set yourself up for success during those “low willpower” times of day?
In addition, find ways to re-charge your willpower battery throughout the day.
A few ways to replenish your willpower:
– a healthy, balanced snack
– take a brisk 10 minute walk
– 5 minutes of deep breathing
– a 20 minute power nap
It’s important to keep in mind that even if we take steps to re-charge throughout the day, there will STILL be times when willpower is more easily called upon (morning) and times when it is harder to access (evening/late night).
I can’t stress this enough. Being well-rested is one of the BEST things you can do for your health. Not just because sleep itself is good for you, but because when you are rested you are able to make better choices. In addition, when you don’t get enough sleep your body will naturally crave simple carbs, sugar and caffeine to keep going throughout the day. Sleep, sleep, sleep.
A note about bedtime: do you find that around 9:00 you want to snack or have sweets while relaxing on the couch? Instead, go to bed! Head upstairs, brush your teeth, read a book and get some good rest. Your health will benefit in so many ways.
I’ll leave you with an interesting fact…
Research shows that the people who think they have the most self-control/willpower, actually have the least.
Because they are so optimistic that they fail to prepare for the challenges that will undoubtedly come their way. They think they can do it on sheer willpower alone. So when challenges arise they are less prepare and more likely to throw in the towel out of frustration.
Self-knowledge and understanding when and why we lose our sense of self-control is the foundation for improving willpower.
Everyone struggles with temptation in some way (procrastination, indulgence, overeating, skipping workouts, etc.). It is human. You are not alone. You are not a failure. Temptation is a part of human nature. So be prepared for challenges. Don’t expect changing your diet or exercise routine to come without obstacles.
For example, if you know that you typically come home from work starving and raid the cupboard before cooking dinner, plan for that! Have a healthy snack ready for when you walk in the door or eat dinner earlier to avoid the ravenous snacking that can occur between 5 – 7 pm.
The key is to know yourself and plan accordingly. Relying on willpower alone is setting yourself up for failure.
PS – if you’re interested in more information like this and having a community to support you along the way check out The Balanced Life Sisterhood. It may be one of the best things you decide to do for your health this year. 🙂