Why Willpower Continues to Fail You

We all want more self-control. Temptation would disappear and we could pursue our healthy diets with ease. But something works against our better judgement. Our good intentions are ignored and replaced by decisions we will later regret.

Why do we sometimes act in alignment with our better judgments and sometimes fail to do so? Why do we finally break down and eat the treat? Why do self-control and willpower fail us?


WILLPOWER IS A BIOLOGICAL FUNCTION

Willpower is not a test of character. It is not something you have or don’t have. Decades of research shows it is a resource that can be used up and restored. It is in short supply physiologically. Like electrolytes after an hour of sweating, your willpower can become depleted. When you restrict a food, like cake, then every time you see cake you have to use willpower to avoid it. Say you are at a wedding where the cake is predominately displayed and you keep catching it out of the corner of your eye. Each time you see and avoid the cake you have to use willpower. The first time is easy. But the sixth and seventh times, that is where the challenge begins. Finally you break down and eat a piece. You feel defeated. How can it be that difficult to not eat something?


Fixating on a food you can’t have only makes you want it more. Your mind naturally goes to the thing you deny yourself. Kind of like when you try avoiding an ex-boyfriend and all you think about is calling him. A mind-set of restriction breeds stress. The morning is typically the least stressful moment of your day and decisions are less complicated. Sleep resets your willpower levels. Then after a long day of restricting and other stressors taxing your mind, willpower is close to depletion.

Willpower is not a virtue. It is a mind-body response that can be improved with nutrition, sleep, exercise, mindfulness and proper body functioning.


PRIORITIZE SELF CONTROL WHERE IT MATTERS MOST
What makes self control so complicated is distractions. We are all surrounded by distractions and do many small mental tasks throughout the day that deplete our brains of available glucose. This glucose depletion also decreases our capacity for responsible decision-making.

So then how do we prevent distractions? It seems that the people with the best self-control are the ones who have set-up their lives to minimize temptation. You have to design your life in a way that allows little room for willpower.


KNOW YOURSELF
Begin to understand how you make decisions. Pay attention to your daily routines and habits. This study groups people into four personality categories that are determined by how individuals make decisions.

Do you follow the same routine each morning? Do you eat the same foods everyday? How do you decide to exercise? Is it programed into your weekly schedule or do you question it each day after work?

Some people have to make exercise a daily habit or they’ll never do it. Others need a friend for accountability. And then some have to make it a competition, where the losing stakes are high. The same goes for food. If you know you will be tempted by cookies in your house, then you know you can not buy them. Current mood can play a big role in how you respond to food as well.  At the end of an emotional, frustrating day you reach for comfort food that is likely unhealthy.

You are the best person to inform your life. Embrace and work within your constraints. Create a set of rules to live by and your need for willpower dwindles.

Your personality can fight FOR or against weight loss.

Through self-knowledge, you will see how to work for your best self. It takes embracing the things you dislike, accepting that you want to improve and loving yourself where you are right now.


PEOPLE AND ENVIRONMENT
Eating is influenced far less by self-control than by other lifestyle factors. The people around you and your environment have a powerful influence on your food choices.

So you’re working in an office that keeps candy in the break room and your colleagues eat bad take-out for lunch, then your work life is set up for temptation. Then you go home and your kitchen is filled with chips, cookies and frozen pizza. All that avoidance is taxing your willpower reserves and making it close to impossible to stay within a healthy diet.

Take a look at your work and home environments. How are they set-up for success? 

Friends and family can complicate your weight loss goals too. It is the people around you that most strongly influence your diet and habits.  And that is of course human nature. We want to fit in, be accepted and feel a sense of belonging. Food is communal, it builds bonds with others and when you step away from that, it can be painfully isolating. Your family may connect each night over bowls of ice cream, but that food is not aligned with your health values. It will take a heavy dose of willpower to avoid that treat.

In an ideal world we would all eat with healthy eaters, never have processed foods in our presence and live without temptation. Since that isn’t likely, you have to set yourself up for success in the best way possible. Maybe at work you move your desk so you never pass the break room and at home you have a bowl of fruit ready for those ice cream nights.

There are ways to create environments that limit exposure to anything distracting or draining. 

Self-control depends on circumstances not ability. When you’re surrounded by better choices, it’s a lot easier to make a good one. Allow your environment and the people in your life to help you create healthy habit forming.

You can’t demand excessive willpower. Our biology can work against us in powerful ways and we have to work with our mind and body to achieve the health we desire.

By listening to yourself, learning from your habits and following a healthy lifestyle (enough sleep, balanced nutrition, exercise and mindfulness for proper body functioning) you set-up a life that requires less self-control. You are in command of your choices.

 

What works for you?  How do your habits help with self-control?

 

 

Making Healthy Habits Stick: Part 1

Healthy habits come from regular practice and discipline, right? Many other co-factors make this a complicated question. Your unique personality traits actually play a big role.  How do your habits impact your health? Do you know what it takes to make a new routine stick?

What if there was a way to figure this out? Gretchen Rubin’s book, Better Than Before may help. She’s identified four personality types, or tendencies, based on the way people develop habits and make decisions. I have become a bit obsessed with this categorization and now look for signs in my friends to see which category they fall in. I’ll first define the four and then provide some examples.

Upholder – “Respond readily to both outer expectations and inner expectations”

Questioner – “Question all expectations, and will meet an expectation only if they believe it’s justified.”

Obliger – “Respond readily to outer expectations but struggle to meet inner expectations.”

Rebel – “Resist all expectations, outer and inner alike.”

I’ll use myself as an example. I’m a classic Questioner. I will not commit to anything until I have done the proper research and am satisfied with my findings (one of the reasons why I like demystifying the diet/food world). So if a friend recommends a new restaurant I won’t try it until I look over the menu and read several reviews. The same goes for books, movies, clothes, anything. It’s not that I don’t trust and value my friend’s opinion, I just want to find out for myself as well. This can be a terrible time suck and I’m working on ways to short-cut the process.

To find out your personality tendency, take this quiz.

Once you know your tendency, it can be easier to make desired changes and create new habits.

I’ll throw out some examples. Every night you tell yourself you’re going to work out in the morning before work. Morning comes, your alarm goes off and you hit snooze. But what if you had a friend waiting for you at the gym? Accountability systems work very well with Obliger personalities. They refuse to disappoint their friend.

Upholders commit to themselves and to others easily, making habits easier to put in place. If they make a plan to exercise each morning then they will, without the need for external accountability.


What habits would you like to form?

Regular exercise? Healthy eating? Getting more rest and relaxation time? Better organization methods? Having closer connections with friends/family?

If we want to be healthy, we have to set-up our lives for health. We have to know ourselves better.


Goals are not sustainable.
Now I want to focus on the difference between habits and goals. Goals have an end marker. Goals begin and end. Say your goal is to lose 20 pounds. Setting a goal weight can be counter-productive if getting there involves restrictive dieting and a grueling exercise schedule. What happens when you achieve your weight goal? Maintaining the minimal diet and intense exercise is not sustainable and the weight will come back.

Now transition your thinking to longterm. Consider what lifestyle changes are necessary for lifelong health. Eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly and taking care of your whole health is a sustainable model. These become lifelong health habits rather than a goal you achieve and forget about a month later.

 

So how do you make new habits?

1. Take a look at your days, weeks and months. What patterns are currently in place?

2. Take note of the patterns you’d like to change.

3. Make a list of the habits you want to implement.

4. Use your habits personality to recognize what it will take to put a new habit in place.

5. Work towards habits, not goals.

 

What habit are you working towards? What is your habit personality?

Let me know in the comments below!