By Siobhan Colgan
Let’s talk about your morning.
Did you hit the snooze button at the sound of the alarm? Did you go for a run, make time for meditation, or uphold any of the beneficial habits you promised you would? What about breakfast: healthy fare or sugar infusion?
Whether you did or didn’t do any of the above depends largely on your willpower. Oh, we all know about willpower. According to the American Psychological Association’s Stress in America survey, lack of willpower is the number-one reason people cite for being unable to make healthy lifestyle changes.
And it varies from day to day. Some mornings you just know it’s going to be a great day and you’ll crush it. Others, well, not so much. So why is willpower so inconsistent?
Experts liken willpower to a mental muscle. In the Spartan community, we know a thing or two about muscles. First, we know that they get stronger when exercised. Second, they can be overworked and, unless they’re given room to recover, they can weaken instead of strengthen.
It could very well be the same for willpower.
Roy Baumeister, social psychologist and author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, has written that willpower is finite. He claims that exerting self-restraint repeatedly can exhaust a person’s ability to make positive choices in the long run.
So how do we strengthen our willpower to ensure we have a steady supply to see us through the toughest temptations? Try these four moves.
We know nutrition is necessary for proper brain functioning, but Baumeister and fellow researcher Matthew Gailliot discovered that brain cells need glucose, or sugar, to boost self-control. Without glucose, it seems, the brain becomes more receptive to immediate rewards than future gains (like a few beers and a Walking Dead marathon rather than running a few miles in the rain).
Work your willpower muscle: Fuel your brain with a slow but steady supply of glucose by eating small balanced meals throughout the day that are high in protein and fiber. You should be doing this anyway, so think of it as a good habit that will feed itself.
It’s said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. But according to Peter Gollwitzer, professor of psychology at New York University, good intentions—and willpower needed to execute them—can work just fine with a little planning. The idea is to link a predesigned “if then” response to a tough situation.
Work your willpower muscle: A dieter on a night out might decide “If my friend suggests dessert, then I’ll say, ‘No thanks, I’d prefer a green tea.’” A person resisting their regular workouts could say, “If I don’t feel like working out tomorrow, then I’ll look at my sleeping kids and imagine not being healthy enough to enjoy them growing up.” Have your “if then” response already planned so there’s not much heavy willpower involved. Just apply it and move on.
Take a page from former President Barack Obama’s book, and reduce the sheer volume of the daily decisions you have to make.
According to Baumeister, the average person spends three to four hours a day resisting temptation and this can take a toll. Add to this the fact that self-restraint is also used to manage thoughts and feelings, make decisions, and control actions, and it’s no wonder that willpower evaporates quickly.
Obama famously only wore blue or grey suits during his eight years in office. In an interview he reasoned, “I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing, because I have too many other important decisions to make.”
Work your willpower muscle: Examine where you can limit decision-making in your own day. Can you take 15 minutes every Sunday night to set out your wardrobe for the week? Are you constantly on social media, reacting and re-reacting in posts and tweets? Limit yourself to an hour in the morning and another in the evening when you check and update your pages.
We expend a lot of willpower just staying on track with our goals. We force ourselves not to eat donuts for breakfast because we’re trying to lose weight, only to end up giving in and gorging out at the end of the day when willpower is at its lowest.
Kelly McGongial, a psychologist who teaches about the science of willpower at Stanford, writes that self-control is about holding two opposite options in your mind and choosing the one that’s best for you. That means knowing why you’re doing something difficult, like abstaining from a favorite sweet treat, is crucial.
*Work your willpower muscle: *Get clear on the reason you’re going after your goal. Sure, that chocolate frosted donut looks good, but it’s not going to help you lose weight and get fit enough do the Spartan race you’ve been training for. Recite your “why” regularly, lean on it in tough times, and you’ll almost always make the right choice.
Ready to give Spartan a try? Here’s everything you need to know to find your race.
Originally published on Spartan (life.spartan.com)