Willpower, the problem with willpower, Laura Buckley MS, RD

Willpower has let you down.


If you’ve ever tried to make lifestyle changes relying on willpower, it likely didn’t stick. And don’t worry, you’re not alone. Willpower is cited as the #1 reason for not making permanent lifestyle changes.

So, what is willpower?

According to the dictionary, willpower is, “control exerted to do something or restrain impulses.” The American Psychological Society defines willpower as “the capacity to override an unwanted thought, feeling or impulse.”

And why doesn’t it work?

Willpower takes energy. A lot of it. And it competes for the same energy that you use for everything else- problem solving, exercising, restraining from making a snarky comment, and focusing while you’re stuck in traffic. Energy, and therefore, willpower, is finite, you have a limited amount. You may notice on days when you are tired, it’s harder to fight an urge. Or that evening cravings are harder to deny than the ones that creep up earlier in the day. That’s because willpower becomes depleted.

But that's not all!

Utilizing willpower is seen by the brain as a form of deprivation. This can be very stressful and lead to making decision from a place of lack. When we are in this position, it’s much harder to think clearly and stick with those good intentions that were set earlier in the day.

Willpower literally decreases your blood sugar and when our blood sugar is low, we crave higher-sugar, higher-reward foods. That hardly seems fair considering that resisting those same foods is what decreased blood sugar in the first place!

What do we do if we don't use willpower??

The goal is to find other ways to commit to healthy lifestyle changes so that you are not relying on willpower.

I believe the most powerful thing you can do is to decrease desire for the unhealthy habits and increase your desire for the healthy foods. Yes, this is possible. But how? Warning – it may require willpower initially, but once these systems are in place, you can move beyond that need.

  1. Create an environment where the only option is to choose foods that are aligned with your goals – when you have plenty of access to fruits, vegetables, lean proteins and healthy fats, you don’t have to use energy to resist temptation or to decide what to eat. Decision is made in advance. Food is available. Don’t even think about it.
  2. Find your why! Once you know the real driver of wanting to maintain a healthy lifestyle, it takes less energy to commit to it. Get very grounded in why you are making changes, and suddenly, you don’t need willpower. I wrote about this in July. You can check that post out here.
  3. Utilize healthy distractions. Instead of focusing on food, focus on other emotion-provoking activities such as dancing, listening to music, writing, reading, or meditation. Your appetite will likely be satisfied without a bite of food.
  4. Express lots of gratitude for the new way. Honor what you are doing for your health, for your body, and for your mind. Express gratitude for both the changes you’ve made and the benefits you are enjoying (more energy, less bloating, clearer thoughts, improved self-confidence, pride??)

Bottom line

Make the new way what you WANT to do instead of what you HAVE to do. Lead from a place of choice, not deprivation. Own the decision to change and give yourself the power to make your goals a reality. 

You've got this!

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