Treat willpower as the limited resource that it is, and conserve it by building smart strategies into your life — like managing your food environment. No cookies on the counter means you likely won’t crave them.
Is willpower a myth? Yes … and no.
Willpower, otherwise known as self-control, is something most of us use quite successfully every day. When you hold your tongue instead of saying something you might regret later, that’s self-control. When you pay close attention during a boring meeting or when driving on icy roads, that’s self-control. When you focus on completing a challenging work project, that’s self-control. When you decline a cookie or a second glass of wine, that’s self-control.
We have a reserve of willpower, and that reserve can become depleted. Your brain is an energy hog, using about 20 percent of the energy you take in from food. While your brain doesn’t need much fuel to orchestrate routine tasks like brushing your teeth or driving a familiar route, it burns through a lot more when it needs to exercise self-control or make a rational, intelligent decision.
That means when your brain is running low on fuel, you’ll have a harder time mustering up willpower. These five factors are major culprits:
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1. Lack of sleep.This is why willpower tends to be stronger in the morning and wane as the day goes on.
2. Lack of nourishment. Eating nutrient-poor foods, skipping meals or restricting calories (i.e., dieting) can reduce your willpower.
3. Stress.Your brain works hard to control your thoughts, attention and emotions when you are under stress.
4. Alcohol. Alcohol lowers your blood sugar, so your brain has less fuel to make rational decisions.
5. Using willpower. Spend the day resisting cookies and you might not be able to resist pizza that night.
So besides sleeping, eating nutritious meals on a regular schedule, managing stress and moderating your alcohol intake, what can you do? Treat willpower as the limited resource that it is, and conserve it by building smart strategies into your life — like managing your food environment. You really only need willpower when you’re facing temptation. If you are trying to eat fewer cookies, that’s going to be a lot harder if you keep cookies in the cupboard (or worse, on the counter).
But what about the part of the food environment you can’t control? What if you keep stumbling across cookies in the break room, or when you’re in line to buy coffee, or when you’re on your way to the produce section at the grocery store?
An often-quoted statistic from Brian Wansink, director of the famed Cornell University Food and Brand Lab, is that the average person makes more than 200 food decisions each day. As psychologist Kima Cargill, a University of Washington professor and author of “The Psychology of Overeating,” points out, “It’s hard to make 200 good food decisions a day. The people who look like they do, they’ve made a bunch of habits.”
Start building these habits by making decisions in advance, not in the moment. When you “pre-decide,” you are still making choices, but you are making them when you are in a stronger state of mind. For example, I have pre-decided that I never buy anything from the pastry case at coffee shops. Just my drip coffee, please. It’s now a habit that I don’t even have to think about. I have many patients who have pre-decided to never eat “free food” at work. No more agonizing about whether or not to have one of those doughnuts your co-worker brought in.
Habits are automatic in nature, requiring little brainpower, which means that they can make it possible to act in your own best interest — even when your willpower is low.