People on diets are significantly more likely to cheat on their significant others than those not on diets. Why? Because they are linked by a commom concept – willpower. Or in some ugly cases, lack thereof.
A growing body of research suggests each of us has a single “willpower budget” for everything we do. As this willpower budget drains, we are more prone to give into temptations. Use all your willpower avoiding delicious food at a work conference throughout the day and you may not have any left to stop yourself from other indulgences, like the pretty blonde at the hotel bar later that night.
A more common and far less devastating demonstration of this concept is how dieters always seem to binge in the evening and not at other times. If you deplete your willpower avoiding unhealthy food – on top of exercising, getting the kids off to school, and biting your lip when a coworker asks for your opinion on their stupid proposal – it is easy to understand why most dieters don’t stand a chance against a pint of ice cream at 10 p.m.
With countless daily demands attacking our willpower, the prospects seem bleak. But there’s hope.
Perhaps the country’s foremost expert on willpower and author of the book The Willpower Instict, Kelly McGonigal, says that much like a muscle, we can increase the strength of our willpower by using it. More than anything, McGonigal recommends that when you feel a craving emerge – like a donut, or the urge to lay on the couch instead of go to the gym – and you are about to give in, force yourself to “pause and plan.”
Here’s how you can bulk up your willpower muscle:
Pause and take a few deep breaths
Think about your overarching goal – losing weight, running a marathon, staying married – and how good you will feel if you accomplish it. Then ask yourself: does the action that you are about to take support that goal? The simple act of pausing is critical because it shifts our orientation, and a part of our brain, from the primal and instinctive (i.e., “eat that now”) to the uniquely human and highly-evolved rational (i.e., better not eat that since I don’t want diabetes).
Ignore the impulse
Plan your next move thoughtfully instead of being driven by impulse. Depending on your willpower challenge, this means hiding the peanut M&Ms in a desk drawer, simply getting your gym bag together (probably the most important step toward actually exercising), or heading back to your hotel room (alone) to call your wife.
You still need to recover
As you train your willpower muscle, you will quickly amass more of it. Just remember to take small steps and include recovery time – care-free activities like listening to your favorite music, meditation, and perhaps most important, sleep. If you overdo it and totally exhaust your willpower, much like any other muscle that is over-trained, it will fail.
Rely on yourself when willpower is high. Rely on your environment when willpower is low.
Since no one has infinite willpower, it’s important to realize when your willpower is likely to be high (for most people, this is at the start of the day since sleep tends to replenish willpower), and when it is likely to be low (for most people, this is at the end of the day, after fighting off temptations for the past 12 hours). When willpower is high, tackle your most important challenges, and don’t worry about having the Snickers bar on your desk, you will beat it in a staring cotest. But when you know that your willpower is lagging, tweak your environment in a way that makes it impossible to give in. For example, if you notice late night snacking is a recurring problem, rid the freezer of ice cream and clean the cabinets of sugary cereal. This way you won’t have to rely only on diminishing willpower to not eat junk late at night.
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Brad Stulberg is a Population Health consultant for a large integrated health care system, specializing in behavior change. His portfolio of work includes exploring innovative ways to keep people healthy. He moonlights as an endurance athlete. Follow him on Twitter @Bstulberg.