Your Willpower is Like a Muscle … How to Train Yours to be Strong
© 2022 Health Realizations, Inc. Update
You've been good all day -- whole-grain oatmeal for breakfast, a salad for lunch, fresh veggies as a snack … but now come dinner that cheeseburger and fries is calling your name. Or maybe you got to work early, stayed late finishing up a major project and now feel like going home to veg on the couch instead of hitting the gym.
Is it coincidence that when we've been pushing our willpower to the max, urging ourselves to keep going on that diet, work schedule, exercise routine, cleaning schedule or you name it … it seems we can only go so long before we need a break?
Not at all. In fact, you only have so much willpower so when you use it for one task you have less leftover to use on the next.
What Science Says About Willpower
Researchers from McMaster University used a Stroop test designed to deplete the self-regulatory capacity of study volunteers. The test has, for example, the word "RED" in blue ink, and subjects must say the color on the screen rather than reading the word.
After participants completed the test, they didn't exercise as hard as those who had not done the test. Further, the more people worked on the cognitive task, the more likely they were to skip exercise sessions during the next eight weeks.
"You only have so much willpower," Kathleen Martin Ginis, associate professor of kinesiology at McMaster University, who led the study, told LiveScience.
A similar study published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research also found that after completing a task that required self-control, participants had less physical stamina and impulse control and increased difficulty with problem solving.
Fortunately, there are strategies you can take to improve your willpower and make it easier to make healthy and productive choices.
"Willpower is like a muscle: it needs to be challenged to build itself," Martin Ginis told LiveScience.
Too Many Decisions Also Deplete Your Willpower
Your level of self-control can also be depleted by simple, daily decisions, research shows. This may be because self-control and decision-making are both controlled by the same area of your brain, the prefrontal region.
"Even if you just have to decide between two cups of coffee at Starbucks, it's a small choice, true," she said, "but doing that over the course of a day will, by the end of the day, render you less able to be good at self-control," said study co-author Kathleen Vohs, a marketing professor at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management, on LiveScience.com.
How to Rejuvenate Your Willpower
When your willpower begins to deplete, there are two major strategies to help restore it:
Sleep: Your willpower is more likely to fail if you've already used it numerous times throughout the day and not yet recharged your batteries with sleep.
Regular challenges: If you make it a point not eat to chocolate or exercise a bit longer each day, it will increase your self-regulatory capacity.
Further, you can help to preserve some of your brainpower by delegating unimportant choices to others. For instance, let your spouse decide your plans for the weekend or let your waiter or waitress recommend a good entrée to order when you eat out.
In terms of exercise specifically, researchers found listening to music and making a specific commitment to exercise (setting a time and place) can help rejuvenate your willpower.
You may also find, if you have trouble gathering up your willpower and committing to your regular workouts, that choosing a fitness routine that addresses both your MIND and your body may be very helpful.
If you are currently in a state of mental unrest, be it financial worries, overworking, relationship troubles or any other negative emotional pattern, it will be very difficult to make your health a priority.
When you stop to think about it, how you react to the events happening in your life is the only outcome of any event that you can consciously determine. Control your emotions and your body will follow!
One Final Strategy … Avoiding Temptations
Northwestern University researchers have also found that people tend to overestimate their ability to resist temptations and, ironically, those who believe their willpower is strongest may be most likely to cave in. So according to those researchers, the best bet is to not rely on your self control to keep you making positive choices, but rather avoid situations that provide too many temptations.
This advice is referring to "temptations" such as food, alcohol, drugs and other forms of addiction, but you can apply it to many other aspects of your life, including work, family, and relationships, as well.
"To desire is to obtain; to aspire is to achieve."
— James Allen
Psychology and Health