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Training The “Willpower Muscle”

“I just have no willpower.”

It’s a phrase we’ve all said. And newsflash - no one has willpower.

Whether it’s Salt-and-Vinegar flavored potato chips, Halloween candy, or those awesome bakery-fresh croissants with a Sunday brunch mimosa, we all have those triggers that cause us to exclaim “what’s willpower?!”

But guess what?!

We all have willpower and we can strengthen it!

First, we have to know what it is. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), “willpower is the ability to resist short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals.” What that means is resisting that urge to open a bottle of wine on a Friday (who are we kidding?! More like a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday… you get my drift) night so that we can fit into that dress for our best friend’s wedding.

Sound impossible? Maybe. But maybe just because your “willpower muscle” just hasn’t done enough overhead dumbbell presses.

Willpower researcher Roy Baumeister, PhD, a psychologist at Florida State University, breaks it down like this: First, establish the motivation for change and set a clear goal. Second, monitor your behavior toward that goal.

As you see, once again we’re back to that idea of “what’s your why?” Why do you get up at 4:30 every morning to get to the gym? Why decide to reach for an apple instead of a chocolate covered almond? Is it because you want to be around for your grandkids? Is it because your doctor just told you that you’re pre-diabetic?

Is Willpower a Limited Resource?

Even more interesting/annoying is the fact that willpower has also been shown to be a limited resource. So after resisting all the temptations you might run into at work - those doughnuts that Mary brought in, or that always M&M filled bowl on John’s desk - you come home and binge on that box of Famous Amos that has been burning a hole in the back of your pantry.

As explained by APA, there are a number of different studies that have been done that show willpower might be a limited resource. I won’t go into all of those studies (you can check them out here) but it’s been shown that people whose willpower was depleted by self-control tasks had decreased activity in the anterior cingulate cortex part of the brain, a region involved with cognition. In another study, subjects asked to exert they willpower during lab tests had lower glucose levels (glucose fuels all of our functions) than the subjects who did not go through willpower lab tests.

So What Can You Do?

So now that we’ve gone over how it’s not your fault that you “don’t have willpower,” let’s figure out what we can do to train the little willpower that you DO have. So here’s your program for training that willpower muscle:
  • Employ the “out of sight, out of mind” principle -  keep the snacks in the pantry, or better yet, in the grocery store (see what I did there?)
  • Set one goal at a time
  • Plan for “dangerous situations” with “if-then” statements. For example: IF go out to dinner with my friends and they all order martinis, THEN I’m going to order a soda water with lime.
  • Find your motivation - remember that “WHY?”
  • Eat regularly. If you make sure you’re eating healthy foods at regular times, you’ll be less likely to have that “I’m so hungry I’m going to literally eat everything in my kitchen, even those disgusting 3 year-old jelly beans that my mother-in-law bought me that one Christmas that I keep saving for who knows why.”
  • Exercise. And I’m going to quote APA directly here: “Regularly exercising their willpower with physical exercise, it seemed, led to better willpower in nearly all areas of their lives.” So, literally - you CAN flex your willpower muscle! 

So yes, you DO have willpower - you just need to load it up with some “strategy weights” and get to flexing it!