Research supports that willpower is not a personality trait or a skill, rather it operates like a muscle, and as such, it can be strengthened – but also easily fatigued. So, the question is, how do we train it?You are at a breakfast buffet – do you select the healthy options or the fried foods and pastries?
You are going to bed late, skipping breakfast and your workout and simply grabbing 3 espresso shots to start your day. Is this a healthy alternative?
Staying on the treadmill ( the weather is unpleasant outside) for a time goal you set and you are watching the minutes go by and feeling the increasing fatigue and boredom. Are you losing motivation?
Your schedule is becoming increasingly demanding – commitments to family and work. Your workouts are becoming shorter and less frequent. How do you respond?
What do all of the above have in common? Each requires willpower – the ability to ignore temporary pleasure or discomfort to pursue a longer-term goal.
The research further indicates :
– Willpower is a mind-body response, not merely a mindset.
– Using willpower depletes resources in the body.
– Willpower is limited.
– Willpower is trainable.
1. Willpower is in the Mind and Body.
Mind-body responses allow you to adapt to some challenge due to coordinated physiological changes. (Ex: The fight-or-flight response to stress or danger- with increased heart rate, blood pressure, and heightened sense. The relaxation response, in contrast, allows the body to respond to its internal needs of digestion, growth and restoration).
Similarly, physiological changes occur in the body during acts of willpower – coordinated responses that help us adapt to challenges requiring self-control. The mind-body response allows us to temporarily freeze our impulses and focus on our long-term goals.
Heart-rate variability (HRV) seems to help us slow down and proceed with intention, not instinct. Maintaining a higher HRV in the face of a self-control challenge seems to connect with an inner strength and stress resilience – stay focused ( as in the fight-or-flight response) and calm (as in the relaxation response). The result – acting to support our higher good and not giving into immediate gratification.
2. Willpower Depletes Resources of the Body
The mind-body response of exercising willpower actually produces fatigue. In essence, mental self-control effects physical stamina. Our mind and bodies draw from the same source of strength – glucose. Glucose is the primary fuel for the body as well as for willpower. Willpower engages many areas of the brain and uses up high levels of fuel.
When blood glucose levels are low, willpower is impaired, impacting self-control, attention, emotions and behavior. Therefore, it is vital to maintain a healthy diet and choose foods that stabilize blood glucose levels and not skip meals.
3. The Limits of Willpower
As with the body – no matter how fit we are, exertion can lead to exhaustion. Self-control depletes willpower. Since willpower is limited – each act of self-control is a win-lose situation, helping in the immediate time frame but potentially leading to a loss of control later. Ex: Resisting the impulse to splurge on expensive clothes makes it more difficult to resist a high-caloric dessert at dinner. Therefore, it’s important to set priorities and be easy on ourselves with less important decisions.
Further research indicates:
– Image can deplete willpower. Managing our image in work or social settings – especially when repressing our natural personality – impacts other goal setting.
– Social stress impacts willpower. People feeling socially rejected have less control over their thoughts and health-enhancing behaviors.
– Social support is critical to developing willpower – share your goals and celebrate your successes with others.
– Make a list of things in your life that create stress and make a plan of the things in life that are in your control. If you cannot control it, cross it off the list.
4. Restoring Willpower
Getting adequate sleep is essential to restoring willpower once it is exhausted. Sleep deprivation weakens our resolve and we head toward the path of least resistance. We often revert back to unhealthy habits that require less mental/physical effort.
Elevating one’s mood also seems to help restore willpower – this can be done by gifting or rewarding oneself after we have followed through with a new healthy behavior.
Getting enough sleep, laughter, positive thinking and treating yourself – are helpful strategies that give people a sense of greater control over their willpower reserves.
5. Increasing Willpower
Willpower can be trained like a muscle. The more you work it, stretch it, and let it recover, the stronger, more flexible and more resilient it will become. Committing to incremental, consistent acts of willpower in any area of life – from improving your posture to creating a sound financial plan – can increase overall willpower.
6. Conserving and Bypassing Willpower
If willpower is inherently limited, it would make sense to conserve it. Planning in advance is a key strategy in conserving willpower. Organize your life so you don’t have to think about what you are going to eat or whether you are going to exercise. Emphasize the positive – make healthy choices in advance and in moments of greatest strength.
Deal with obstacles before they arrive. Often writing in a journal about how to deal with barriers to exercise leads to greater adherence to the program. Visualizing your success and following through with your intentions and plans leads to better results.
Also, you can face challenges by completely bypassing willpower and drawing on a different strength – motivation. Instead of focusing on the sacrifice or effort, focus on the positive reward of the behavior. ” Who do you want to be”. “Why do I care”. “What’s the higher purpose” – create a self-image in your mind that leads to success.
– Willpower is limited. Set reasonable goals and priorities. Save it for when it really matters.
– Reaching for success has bumps on the road. Setbacks will happen and they are only temporary.
– Willpower is not “all in the mind”. The fuel that supplies the mind-body that’s needed to face life’s challenges include – rest, a healthy diet, a balanced exercise regimen and a flow of positive experience.
– Understand that your ability to adhere to a health or fitness program can be challenged by the demands of your job, family, and other relationships.
– Identify and reduce stress in your life which will support any significant life change.
– Conserve or bypass willpower by focusing on other strengths such as planning, commitment and positive motivation.