Willpower is a Limited but Renewable Resource
Someone in my Facebook group asked a great question the other day…how do I gain more willpower to make the right food choices?
There were some great answers from other members about the importance of accountability, taking small steps to improve versus trying to “fix” everything you’ve done wrong in the past, and giving yourself a break sometimes because, none of us is perfect.
But it got me thinking even more about the question. What is willpower? And can we really create more of it? So my writer instincts said…go research it. First, I went back to my health coaching textbook and looked up how my field describes willpower.
“Willpower is the ability to ignore temporary pleasure or discomfort to pursue a bigger goal.”
Busting the Willpower Myths
More digging into the subject busted some long-standing myths that I had about willpower. Such as:
- You just need more information. Knowledge is not power when it comes to willpower. Apparently, even if we know a sleeve of Girl Scout Cookies are high in calories and generally not a good choice for breakfast (oh no!), that does not increase our willpower to resist them.
- Using the willpower “muscle” makes it/you stronger. Ugh. You know how people say practice makes perfect. Not always with willpower. The cognitive function that controls your ability to have willpower can become fatigued, like an overworked bicep.
- Willpower is a long-term strategy. Willpower is an “in the moment” response to the cookies, a second glass of wine, or whatever you’re trying to consume less of. To truly change your behavior long-term, willpower is only one part of the equation.
So, knowing all these fun facts, what can we do to not only increase our ability to make snap decisions that are healthy but also increase our overall ability to reach our long-term goals.
Let’s Get GRITty
According to the experts it comes down to GRIT. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania coined the acronym and it is defined as “the ability to “work strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity and plateaus in progress.”
Wow. That’s motivating.
Dr. Angela Duckworth distinguishes self-control (willpower) as a shorter-term behavior—not eating the cookie right in front of you. While GRIT is about pushing toward goals over a longer period.
Here’s an overview of GRIT and how I use these techniques to help my clients gain better long-term control over their lifestyle habits and behaviors.
- Goals Get You There. If you’ve read my blog for the last year or two or if you’ve worked with me, I am a big proponent of setting SMART goals (specific, measurable, actionable, relevant and time-bound). When you lay out your goals in a way that has all those elements it helps to focus your efforts on ONE thing and strengthen that willpower muscle for endurance, not just spurts of heavy lifting.
- Relax and Reward. Again, something I teach my clients. First – I help them find ways to reduce stress and increase energy. Yoga, long walks, silent meditation for 15 minutes a day – whatever it takes to quiet your brain and refocus on your goals. When you’re tired or stressed out you don’t make good choices. Your guard is down, and you reach for comfort, and convenience. Also – I’m a big fan of rewarding yourself and celebrating the little accomplishments. If you never allow yourself to eat that cookie or order the second glass of wine, you’ll eventually overindulge and end up on a path back to old behaviors.
- Intention and Implementation. Ahhhh…it all comes down to planning and preparing. When you plan what you’ll eat and drink at a cocktail party or map out when you’ll workout on a business trip, you are in CONTROL and when you’re in control you are ready for the temptations and roadblocks. One way researchers suggest to prepare for something that will be tempting is using the “if-then” strategy. Let’s say you’re going to a client dinner where there will be lots of alcohol flowing. “IF someone tries to pour me a drink, THEN I’ll thank them and carry a glass of club soda with a few olives in it.”
- Thinking Truthfully. Kelly McGonigal the author of The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It says there are three different aspects of willpower:
-“I won’t” power—the ability to resist temptations
-“I will” power—the ability to do what needs to be done
-“I want” power—the awareness of one’s long-term goals and desires
Using these mantras to deal when temptation pops up will give you the ability to respond to whatever the world puts in front of you (cookies, wine, the couch and remote).
Let Your Willpower Renew
Finally, even with all the good intentions and planning and goals, it’s important to remember that we are human. We are flawed. We will give in to temptation sometimes. The most important thing I teach my clients is self-forgiveness and self-compassion.
Remember what I said about willpower ‘muscle fatigue’? Some days that muscle will have had all it can lift and will give out. When it does, acknowledge the slip, remind yourself of the long-term goal, and refocus on you and what you need to do next time to avoid the pitfall. Give the muscle a break; let it renew a bit. It’s when we never use the muscle that poor “in the moment” choices then become habits and then deeply-ingrained behaviors. That’s when we need to bulk up that willpower muscle and use a little GRIT to overcome the challenges and make the positive changes needed to be healthy.
Want more help finding your GRIT and strengthening your plans to be healthy? Let’s chat. Fill out my FREE Wellness Assessment and you’ll get a 30-minute call with me. We’ll discuss your goals and what I’d recommend to strengthen your willpower and GRIT.
Have a happy and healthy day and watch out for those willpower-busting, yet adorable, Girl Scouts and their addictive cookies!