#169 Why is my willpower so weak?

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Why is my willpower so weak?

Why is my willpower so weak but yet everyone knows you can do anything you set your mind to.

I’ll bet that’s what people have been telling you all your life. I’ll bet it’s something you’ve told yourself, too. And you know what? It’s simply not true.

What is willpower?

Willpower isn’t something you can simply conjure up when you need it. Studies have repeatedly shown that the ability to control one’s impulses, or to sustain a difficult task over time, works like a muscle. If fact, researchers have demonstrated that using our willpower actually zaps us of physical strength, just like using a muscle.

Secrets of People Who Enjoy Great Health

Surprisingly, I have found that my patients who have been the most successful at transforming their lives haven’t relied on willpower at all. Rather, they have engineered their lives so that for most of the day willpower isn’t needed at all.

For example, if your home is free of junk food then you never need your willpower muscle at home to eat right.  Likewise, studies show that just wearing a pedometer boosts your exercise by 27% with absolutely no willpower required.

When willpower is needed, like when your coworker brings in donuts or leftover Halloween candy, the willpower muscle is strong and ready to spring into action.

The Dangers of Exhausting Your Willpower Muscle

How is this ruining your life? When you rely on willpower to help you achieve one specific health goal you’re robbing your body of the strength it needs for all sorts of other things. So even if you are able to accomplish the thing upon which you’ve focused your willpower (staying away from the pastries when you pick up your morning coffee, for instance,) you’ve made it less likely that you’ll have the strength you need to do something else later on, like using the stairs at work instead of the elevator or focusing on that big work project instead of Facebook.

Tip: Use an Accountability Device

We can’t turn willpower on and off. It’s not innate in any of us. Just like a muscle, it must be exercised to get stronger and needs time to rest and recover. And just as we have many different muscles in our body that do many different things, we have a lot of different kinds of willpower — and need to identify different ways to work out each kind.

We can start with food. Not all food. Not even a type of food, like those high in unhealthy fats or sugars. Just one specific food that you know you probably shouldn’t eat, but do anyway.

Which one? That’s completely up to you, but before you decide, I strongly recommend that you start using a food journal or app to keep track of what you eat over the span of a week or two. Studies show that the mere act of recording what you eat increases your chances of maintaining a healthy weight by up to 500 percent.

This journal or app will also help you better understand what your food choices actually look like. Your food journal or app then becomes your accountability device.  The same thing can be done for exercise or anything else that is a struggle for you.

An accountability device is like putting your willpower muscles on steroids. This accountability device doesn’t even have to be a journal or app but could even be a person like a personal trainer.  Basically it could be anything or anyone that keeps you accountable with yourself.

As long as you use an accountability device, you won’t fatigue your willpower muscle trying to eat right and exercise every day.  Rather, you’ll be able to keep your willpower muscle strong for the other challenges in your life.

How do you keep your willpower muscle strong?  Please leave your thoughts and questions below.

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8 Comments
  1. Thanks for the article! I think there is probably a positive and a negative version of willpower. I have found recently that when I try to force myself to do something I really don’t want to do–like stop eating sugar (I mean I want to but I don’t want to) then it’s like pressing down a spring inside of me and when I can’t hold it any longer then it forcefully uncoils and results in binge-like eating of exactly what I’m trying to avoid. And the guilt that follows is no fun. So for me, that’s the negative version of willpower that just hasn’t been working. Maybe that’s similar to what you are saying about how willpower can zap your strength. For me, that kind of willpower zaps my will to continue!

    But on the flip side, I still have a desire to eat less sugar and more healthy food and you certainly can’t do that without some effort (a positive version of willpower). For me right now it’s as simple as not giving up, reading a lot about nutrition and other people’s success stories, and doing small things that I know I’m capable of so that I’m never pushing myself beyond my emotional limits (and getting into the negative willpower territory). Your newsletter often contains tips that are helpful for that last one, so thanks for that. 🙂

    • Hi Lisa,

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

      Interestingly, studies show that when it comes to healthy eating it harder to “stop” eating something unhealthy rather than to start eating something healthy. Thus, it may require less willpower to focus on eating more vegetables, etc. Perhaps the good can crowd out the bad to achieve the same goal but with less willpower…

      Best,

      John

  2. Great article! In psychology we call it environmental programming. As you mentioned in the article above, reduce the need to make decisions by creating an environment that is as free as possible from temptations. I avoid buffets because if I go to one I over-eat. We only keep healthy snacks in the house and help keep each other accountable for the decisions we make. I also know it’s best (research supports this) to weigh yourself every day as it acts as a reminder of where you are relative to your goals. Keep up the good work Dr. Day.

    • Hi Jim,

      Thank you so much for reading and commenting!

      I love your examples. I use many of them as well.

      All the best,

      John

  3. The times I am most successful in area of my life is when I have some sort of accountability. Thank you for the reminder. My food and exercise accountability is My Fitness Pal! It really makes a difference. Every time I eat something I ask my self if it is worth those calories. Very effective method of helping me make better choices.

    • Hi Kay,

      Great point! I have also seen so many patients benefit by using My Fitness Pall, Lose It, HealthWatch 360, etc.

      I am the same way. Too often I feel that it is too much of a hassle to record something so I just don’t eat it–alternatively, if something is healthy it makes me want to eat it to improve my stats for the day.

      Best,

      John

  4. I equate will power with guilt. I have found that, for me, guilt is not a good long term motivator whether it is weight or some other thing I am trying to get myself to do.
    So, what is it that seems to work?
    1. Vision – I need an idea or strategy that I like and think is important.
    2. Belief – I need an idea or strategy that I can actually see myself doing.
    3. Success – Small successes build the foundation for more successes.

    • Hi Gil,

      I completely agree, guilt is not a good motivator. In fact, it is generally a “de-motivator.” I love the vision, belief, and success framework.

      Best,

      John