"I just don't have any willpower."|
It's an age-old, oft-uttered excuse. Maybe you've used it to account for polishing off that pint of ice cream, eating one (or four) too many pieces of chocolate or ditching the gym in favor of some quality couch time.
The American Psychological Association defines willpower—which is also referred to by its many aliases, like self-control, self-discipline, determination and resolve—as "the ability to resist short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals." It can apply to everything from making healthy food choices to sticking to a workout routine or kicking a smoking habit.
It's easy to blame excess eating and poor food choices on a lack of willpower—but is it really a legitimate obstacle to reaching your goals, or just a convenient cop-out? After all, it's not a measurable, tangible thing, and you have no control over how much you've been allotted—or do you?
Roy Baumeister, social psychologist and author of "Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength," writes on his website that research shows willpower is like a muscle that can be strengthened. Personal trainer Kasey Shuler agrees: "Every time you use a muscle, you strengthen the neuron pathways that send signals from the brain to the body," she says. "Doing that action consistently over time becomes easier because the pathway is more ingrained, just like blazing a trail through the woods. Willpower works in a similar way—the more you choose a specific action, the more you will choose that without thinking. Willpower is stopping to think before acting, and choosing intentionally on a consistent basis."
Tyler Spraul, head trainer with Exercise.com, believes we have more control over our willpower than we might think. "While some research does claim limitations on willpower, I think we tend to look for the easy excuses," he says. "The human body is capable of so much more than what most people think, and our mind is usually the limiting factor."
Next time you feel your motivation flagging, resist the urge to blame it on a willpower deficiency, and try some of these expert-recommended ways to ramp up your resolve.
Keep your goal(s) front and center.
One of Shuler's favorite quotes is from Ashley Null: "What the heart loves, the will chooses, and the mind justifies." She believes that in most cases, if we change our desires, our willpower will follow right along.
Along these lines, the first step is to determine what you desire. The most obvious might be to lose a certain amount of weight, but there are likely other measures of success. Maybe you want to have enough energy to climb stairs or play with your children. You might want to get to a place where you no longer need to take diabetes medication, or perhaps you just want to lower your cholesterol.
"I think it is impossible to care about having willpower without having a timely goal in mind," says registered dietitian nutritionist Ilana Muhlstein. "Why wouldn't you have another piece of chocolate if you never plan on going on a scale and have no specific event, occasion or goal you're working toward? But if you know that you want to lose five pounds by Christmas, every extra piece of chocolate will count and your inner willpower muscle will turn on."
…But be realistic.
If you've vowed to cut every ounce of sugar from your diet overnight, don't be surprised to find your willpower to be in short supply. Muhlstein believes that everyone has the capability to be focused and disciplined, but that it starts with having realistic and practical expectations.
"Too many people focus on telling themselves 'no' all day, which is so destructive and counterproductive," she says. "If you tell yourself 'no carbs, no carbs, no carbs' all day, you are actually saying 'carbs, carbs, carbs,' which will create a fixation on them and always make you feel like you don't have willpower when faced with temptation."
To improve resolve, Muhlstein says it's more effective to have a positive focus. For example, if she is craving a sweet treat, she will walk away, drink some water and eat something healthy. Then, if she still wants the treat 30 minutes later, she comes back for just one and really enjoys it. This is a more realistic and attainable approach to willpower.
Don't equate "willpower" with "harmful."
So often we think of willpower in terms of abstaining from something that's harmful—such as smoking or bingeing on sugar—which surrounds the concept with an air of negativity. Instead, fitness trainer Michael Blauner recommends associating willpower with actions that are beneficial and focus on keeping those in your daily life.
"The more positive things you add, the less room there is for negativity," Blauner says. "It's easier to stick with good things than it is to get rid of bad habits." Some examples might include spending a few minutes stretching every morning, walking a mile every afternoon or adding more servings of vegetables to your daily diet.
And speaking of eliminating the negative, try to adjust the language surrounding willpower, as well. Instead of continually saying or thinking, "I have no willpower"—which can quickly become a self-fulfilling prophecy—reframe it as "I need to work on my willpower, but I can improve it."
Take time to recover.
This might not initially seem related to willpower, but think about it: Wouldn't you be less likely to make it to yoga class if you're so stiff and sore that you can barely make it up a flight of stairs, much less into downward dog?
Spring Faussett, competitive athlete and founder of Tiger Tail USA, says many people—especially those just boarding the workout wagon for the first time—make the mistake of trying to jump in at 100 percent with no days off.
"The willpower of working out regularly can be difficult if your muscles are really sore and hurting," says Faussett. "Foam rolling, body rolling and muscle care tools can help you relieve minor aches and muscle soreness, and if you’re not sore it will be easier to power through your next workout; your muscles will tell your brain it’s okay to keep going."
Faussett says self-care and recovery are important steps in building the habit to keep pushing your body in ways that you haven’t previously. During your off days, take the time to appreciate how you’ve been able to perform that week while focusing on your goals. These simple steps will help you build up more reserves of willpower to push you through your upcoming scheduled workouts.
Set yourself up for success in advance.
In most cases when willpower is waning, it's usually at a time when we're blindsided by a sudden tough decision for which we're not prepared. When we're under the gun and swayed by external temptations, our self-discipline tends to shrivel up and disappear. To prevent this tendency to crumble under pressure, Spraul recommends taking steps to set yourself up for success before you reach a crucial decision point, so there's no actual willpower needed when you reach the proverbial fork in the road.
For example, instead of leaving your lunches open-ended and vulnerable to fast-food shortcuts, apply your willpower at the beginning of the week to choose healthy groceries and prepare your meals ahead of time. Then, when decision time comes, all you have to do is grab lunch out of the refrigerator and go. "This really helps to reduce the willpower factor in the moment, because the decision was already made long before your tummy started rumbling ahead of lunch hour," Spraul explains.
Lean on your support team.
We hear a lot about the importance of having supportive people in your corner, with good reason: It works. Muhlstein cites partnership as one of the essential ingredients in building willpower.
"Whether you have a coach, a friend, a co-worker, a spouse or even a personal journal, it always helps to openly state an intention for willpower prior to being faced with a harder situation," she says. "For instance, I will tell my husband in the car when pulling up to a dinner party, ‘Honey, I really don't want to have the dessert tonight at this party, I am going to request tea or just focus on the company and conversation because it will be very late and I want to wake up early and exercise and feel good later.’ Even if he is barely listening, it makes me feel more in control and strengthens my inner willpower and intentions to proceed with my plan."
Blauner also recommends finding a mentor in your area of desired improvement. If you're struggling to stick with a new running program, connect with successful runners who inspire you, or if you're trying to complete a tough strength-training program, draw motivation from an accomplished powerlifter. "Who do you know that typifies your desired result? Study them, copy their positive behaviors and then make their good habits your own," he suggests.
Remember the afterglow.
The day is filled with hundreds of decisions, each one an opportunity for self-improvement and forward momentum. When all else fails, remind yourself of the sense of accomplishment that comes with making a smart choice. Personal trainer Treva Brandon sums it up: "Remember the fantastic feeling you get after exerting your willpower—satisfaction, accomplishment, pride and, if it’s exercise, an awesome endorphin rush."