The Willpower Muscle
You may have been neglecting a very important muscle in your body, the one that has a huge impact on whether you’re going to stick to your diet or make it to the gym tonight. The one that says no to ice-cream but yes to a bowl of Greek yogurt. And although not a true muscle, willpower has many of the same characteristics, such has having limited working capacity each day.
Like a true muscle, once willpower is over-worked it needs fuel and rest to recover back to its full strength. So yes, that means you can only exert so much self-control in one day before you give in to that pizza and beer…mmmm….
Being fit and healthy as you are, you know that willpower plays a huge part in helping you reach your fitness goals, whether it be sticking to a healthy diet or maintaining a regular workout schedule. So what if we could “hack” our willpower and make it work for us?
Rather than succumbing to those junk food cravings at night you could stay on top of your diet with ease. Not to mention your mental game will stay sharp by mastering the willpower beast!
Before we dig in let’s define what willpower is exactly and why it’s limited each day. The term willpower comes from the word ‘will” which means we have the ability to make conscious decisions. “Willpower” is the motivation to exercise that will (1). So simply put, “willpower” is consciously doing or not doing something that requires mental energy.
So choosing not to eat that slice of cheesecake in the fridge is exercising willpower and it may require a lot of it. Some decisions require very little willpower, such as not eating the cheesecake because you don’t like cheesecake.
And some decisions use virtually no willpower at all because they are habits or unconscious decisions, such as brushing your teeth before bed.
Which is a good thing because if we used up all our willpower resisting the cheesecake we may not have enough willpower left to brush our teeth, which is gross.
In a popular study done by Roy Baumeister in 1998 the idea of “limited willpower” was tested by participants having to either resist eating delicious fresh-baked cookies or were encouraged to eat them.
All participants then had to solve a tricky puzzle. It was found that the participant group that had to resist the cookies were more likely to give up on the puzzle, whereas the second, cookie-eating group were more likely to complete the puzzle (2).
This study shows us that if we use up willpower in one demanding task we have less willpower to use in the next task. So if you spend all morning trying to focus on writing a paper and then end up skipping the gym later on, your depleted willpower reserves may be to blame.
After these findings many more studies were done to look at willpower depletion (also called, “ego depletion”) and it was repeatedly found that we in fact can exhaust our supply of willpower in a day, similar to exhausting a muscle in the gym.
Although there is still no absolute truth regarding how willpower is replenished, how much willpower we have each day, or what tasks exhaust willpower the most, there is the general accepted belief that willpower is limited each day.
After Baumeister’s popular willpower study in the 90’s, he did further studies which included looking at the effect of glucose (i.e. carbs) and sleep on willpower. He highlights these findings in his book, “Willpower”, co-authored by John Tierney.
They found that a lack of sleep does not affect willpower however willpower is replenished after a good night’s sleep. So if you pull an all-nighter it won’t deplete your willpower but you also haven’t had a chance to replenish your willpower stores from the previous day. So unless you have a discipline-free day, I wouldn’t recommend skipping your much-needed sleep.
Their findings get more interesting when they looked at the effect of glucose on willpower. Similar to the fact that you need glucose for muscular energy, they found that situations that require a lot of willpower use up glucose, like a muscle does.
Move over cardio, here’s a new way to use up that stored glucose!
They also found that willpower can be replenished within the same day by ingesting glucose, i.e. carbs (3). One more reason for a high carb day! These studies may explain why you indulged too much after a long and mentally taxing day or why you seem to skip more evening-scheduled workouts than morning ones.
It may not just be your lack of discipline but rather a depleted willpower reserve. Remember our analogy that willpower is like a muscle? Well it seems this is even truer.
We have the most willpower after a good night’s rest and a good dose of carbs, sounds a lot like what we do to prepare our muscles for the next workout….
Have you ever wondered why dieting (especially a low carb diet) is so much harder in actuality than on paper? Well they found that a diet low in carbs puts you in more “sensitive” state where you feel everything more intensely, meaning small irritations seem like major ones and food cravings are even more intense (3).
Perhaps that’s how the feeling of “hangry” came to be…
This means that if you’re already in a low-glucose state you’re starting at a willpower disadvantage. Not to mention you have less glucose stores to utilize when dealing with demanding willpower situations.
It’s a bit of a vicious cycle; you need willpower to stick to your low-carb diet and training regime but you’re in a more sensitive state and have less available glucose to exert said willpower. One more reason why dieting or low-carb diets can be brutal.
So we know that we need willpower is limited each day, that rest and glucose help restore willpower, and that dieting (especially low-carb) sucks.
So how can we hack willpower to avoid those late night binges, not miss a workout, and stay on track with our low-carb diet? Well with a bit of preparation and planning we can make the most of our limited willpower, and I have 3 solutions to get you there.
They’re almost as exciting as a high-carb day!
Many of us know the importance of planning your meals ahead of time so you can priotize what meals to eat when, such as the all-so-important pre and post-workout meals. We plan and prioritize our diet for success so why not do that with willpower?!
Whether it’s a day or a week in advance, planning where you want to ‘use willpower” and where you won’t need it, allows you to ration and manage your willpower reserves.
Foresee a long and mentally-taxing day at the office tomorrow?
It may be wise to pre-make all of your meals the night before and schedule the exact time you’ll workout so there’s less chance of giving into temptation. By pre-planning meals or creating a proactive food diary, you are eliminating a self-control decision that may be have to be made under limited willpower, which we want to avoid. Unless of course it’s pizza and beer night, then go crazy because that can’t be missed!
Another way we can plan out our “willpower” rations for the day is to pair it with our glucose (i.e. carb) intake. As was noted earlier, glucose is depleted by tough self-control decisions and if you’re in a carb-depleted state you’re already at a disadvantage.
Say for example that tomorrow you have a day full of work meetings, a work potluck, and a date night with your significant other (where you intend to enjoy that wine and dessert). You want to reserve your willpower for the first at of the day so you can splurge on evening date night.
So get a good night’s sleep, eat a higher-carb breakfast, and watch where your willpower will be used up during the day, trying to ingest carbs after a mentally tough event. Or maybe you know you need willpower for the evening, consider eating more carbs later in the day to help restore your willpower stores to have a bulletproof mind all night.
The key here is to plan where you will need the willpower (and perhaps extra carbs) so you can save your willpower for the decisions that matter and pre-plan meals of diet-friendly carbs. Science for the win!
Planning your day’s willpower leads to the next point, automation! Why else is pre-planning your day including your meals, successful? Another large part of the limited willpower theory is decision fatigue, the idea that the more decisions you have to make in a day the more the quality of these decisions will deteriorate. (4,5).
Your decision to eat that large slice of cheesecake will seem more appropriate after a day of many, many decisions. And that would also be why after making multiple grocery-shopping decisions that a plethora of great, yummy, sugary snacks seem to appear at the check-out till….
So if we want mental strength left at the end of the day we should automate as many decisions as possible during the day. Think of all the quality big decisions you could then make, like if you should run or do bike sprints tonight! Less daily decisions means less willpower potentially used and better quality decisions. A win-win!
One of my favourite automation tips is pre-packing your gym bag the night before or better yet, never unpack it. Eliminate the thought processes of having to pack it every morning before you leave for the day. One less decision to make each day and less chance of forgetting something. Also try automating your regular gym schedule, such as hitting the weights at the exact same time on the exact same days week after week.
Deciding when (or rather, procrastinating) on when to go to the gym is a waste of precious brain power (and willpower if you’re forcing or withholding yourself from going). Ever wonder why a lot of bodybuilders or competitors tend to stick to the exact same diet every day (aside from health or diet reasons)?
Well it’s one last thing to think about. When I prepare for a fitness competition I eat the same supper of egg whites, veggies, and cheese every, single, night.
Even with these seemingly easy tips to implement, willpower is still a tricky beast to conquer. This tip may sound a bit “woo-y”, but by being mindful or cognisant of how and where you use willpower will give you greater control over it. And lucky for you, just by reading this article you’re one step closer in recognizing when and where willpower rears its head and what can be done about it!
Just the simple act of understanding what willpower is and that it is limited each day will allow you to choose more wisely in your daily actions.
You’ll be able to increase your focus in decisions and actions which in effect will increase your self-control over them. This means that recognizing you’re low on glucose and recognizing you’re mentally exhausted from the day can allow you to easily say “no” to that cheesecake in the fridge but “yes” to preparing that healthy meal instead.
Like a muscle, you can slowly grow this “mindfulness” part of you, making self-control easier and easier. Meditation can be a great tool in creating and building mindfulness and these days there are many great resources out there to help you!
Let’s recap all the hot points of willpower:
Like a muscle, willpower can be replenished and strengthened and can become your new best bud. To help you get started with the 3 solutions above, first try keeping a willpower diary for a few days to track where you exert the most willpower and to notice any patterns throughout your days. This will help answer questions such as; where do you find you’re using the most energy? What tasks do you feel most mentally (and physically) exhausted after? When do you find you give in to cravings or have no self-control?
After a few days you can start to see where willpower can be saved and where it is needed most. Try automating some of the simple items that you’re currently having to make daily decisions on and try pre-planning your willpower for more hectic days or weeks to ensure you can stay on track to meet your fitness goals. Remember to reference back to this article or your diary to stay mindful of your limited willpower and daily decisions.
Lacking self-control is a thing of the past, time to harness the power of your willpower!
Interested in reading more about how we can harness the power of our daily decisions and actions? Check out this article that dives into the details of habits and how we can use them to quickly reach our fitness goals!
Karen shows crazy-busy ambitious women how to finally get the fit body they’ve always dreamed of, without taking time away from their career or social life.
Throw aside your fear of failure and get her free E-Guide on the EXACT steps to take to get your dream body.
Karen Broda, IDFA Canada Bikini Pro competitor
Originally published at www.healthylivingheavylifting.com