Why can’t I resist the dessert after eating a big meal?

How can I go a whole month refraining from refined sugar and then fall off the wagon?

I am a work in progress when it comes to willpower and I don’t claim to be an expert on this subject. I will share what I’ve learned about the true meaning of willpower and how to strengthen your willpower so it works to your advantage.

First off, I think too many of us rely solely on our willpower when it comes to changing bad habits. We think it’s a muscle that’s on call and should kick in when we need it, and that some of us have more of it than others. When it doesn’t work for us, we feel like a failure. Why can’t I resist temptation? Why do I give in so easily? What is my problem? Willpower is thought of as the singular source of personal strength and is misinterpreted as the key to success when changing bad habits. The English proverb; “where there’s a will there’s a way” is misleading.

On some occasions, I’ve set a goal with a clear purpose and with the right frame of mind and my willpower seems to be strong. For example, I set out to resist all refined sugar for the 40 days during Lent. I succeeded! When determined to continue that good habit, suddenly one day, when face-to-face with some candy (not even my favorite choice to indulge in sugar) I caved and fell off the wagon, hard.  As someone with strong self-discipline I began asking myself; what is wrong with me? How can I go 40 days without sugar and then back to wanting it, and giving in to it, 5 days in a row?

Here’s what I’ve learned about willpower and how to use it to your advantage:

Willpower doesn’t stand alone. It’s not something that some people have and others don’t. It’s not on will-call when you need it, no matter how solid your purpose and reason for change is. I’ve always been a high-achiever, setting goals, working hard toward them with willpower as my guide. I figured I could access my willpower when I needed to, that it would always be there for me. The reality is my willpower has failed me time and time again. Here’s why:

Willpower is a limited resource that needs to be managed. I realized that my willpower is like the battery on my cell phone. At the onset of the day my phone is charged and ready to go. As I use the phone to text, talk, and search the web I drain the battery. Just like my cell phone battery, my willpower is strong in the first part of the day, but as I call upon my willpower throughout the day, my resolve weakens. Kathleen Vohs wrote in an article in Prevention Magazine in 2009, “Willpower is like gas in your car…When you resist something tempting, you use some up. The more you resist, the emptier your tank gets, until you run out of gas.” How do you “fuel” your willpower?

  • Double-up on cleaner fuel. The brain makes up 1/50th of our body mass and consumes 1/5th of the calories we consume for energy. Most of our conscious activity is happening in our prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain responsible for focus, short-term memory, solving problems and moderating impulse control. A 2007 article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, detailed 9 separate studies on the impact of nutrition and willpower. The bottom line: willpower is a mental muscle that doesn’t bounce back quickly. If you employ it for one task, there will be less power available for the next unless refuel. * This give true meaning to the phrase: “food for thought” and fueling our willpower with foods that elevate our blood sugar evenly over long periods of time like lean protein, vegetables, whole grains and healthy fats.
  • Help it work for you. In situations where you have more control, give your own willpower some help. For example, in your own home, remove temptations for foods which you have no willpower and/or replace them with healthier alternatives. Before going to a party where you know there will be no healthy options, eat ahead of time. Get in a support group with others who have similar goals and whom you can call upon when faced with temptation.
  • Don’t fight willpower, try to build your day around it. There are so many things that tax our willpower: filtering out distractions, doing things we don’t enjoy, selecting a short-term reward over a long-term goal, or suppressing an impulse. For me it’s usually boredom or just sitting for too long. I’m tempted to get up and have an unhealthy snack right now having sat at my computer for a while writing this blog! I try to pay attention to my willpower and respect it by taking a break for walk instead of toward the kitchen. Scheduling big tasks and “thinking tasks” early in the day instead of when my mind is not as sharp toward the end of the day. In other words, make doing what matters most a priority when you’re willpower is it’s highest.

*Resource: The One Thing by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan. Bard Press, 2005

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