Willpower is like a muscle…and it gets tired

When I think about willpower, I think about resisting the urge to press the snooze button in the early hours of the morning. I think about saying “no thank-you” to the offering of a pastry with my morning coffee at the local coffee shop. I think about the conscious decision to have a side salad in place of fries when out at a restaurant. All of these situations require us to make a decision about something. And this is just one of HUNDREDS of decisions we make each day. There are decisions we make without even consciously thinking about it!


When it comes to willpower, Psychologists have come up with a few different, but related definitions:

  • the ability to delay gratification, resisting short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals;
  • the capacity to override an unwanted thought, feeling, or impulse;
  • the ability to employ a “cool” cognitive system of behaviour rather than a “hot” emotional system; 
  • conscious, effortful regulation of the self by the self; and 
  • a limited resource capable of being depleted.


We often start new training programs, diets, etc. with iron resolve. This time around we’re going to have more self-control to eat right, not miss a workout, and always say no to those office treats! And can we guess what happens each and every time? We ultimately end up giving in. Whether it be missing numerous workouts, indulging in a plate of nachos after work, or dipping into the office donut stash, we will invariably cave. And we’ll feel like crap about it…guilt, shame, negative self-talk. We blame ourselves and our lack of self-control. While this might partly be true, it’s often primarily a result of what scientists refer to as ego depletion.


First coined by researcher Roy Baumeister, he used the term to describe people’s diminished capacity to regulate their thoughts, feelings, and actions. Ego depletion essentially results in slower brain circuitry, meaning that there is sluggish activity in the brain, specifically in the area that is crucial to self-control. As the brain slows down, people have trouble controlling their reactions and the struggle to accomplish tasks that would get done much more easily if the ego weren’t depleted.


Sure, it’s easy to describe what happens in the brain, but we can’t really see that happening unless we’re hooked up to a bunch of wires attached to a machine. Pretty impractical, right? More recent research has tapped into external signs of ego depletion. The biggest one? Not a specific signal but keep an eye out for a change in the overall intensity of your feelings. If you find yourself especially annoyed by frustrating events, saddened by unpleasant thoughts, or even happier about some good news – it could mean that your brain’s circuits aren’t controlling emotions as well as usual. Of course, intense emotions are a part of life, so aiming for complete monotony is not the ultimate goal. But be aware. Especially in times when temptation is high, if you’re trying to resist, and you notice the feeling is stronger than usual, this could be a sign.


Knowing this, it makes a lot more sense that our cravings are more difficult to deal with on certain days (menses and hormonal fluctuations aside of course). It makes sense that some days we can walk by the candy in our colleague’s office with no issues, and other days we can’t seem to stop ourselves. It makes sense that some days feel easier to get to the gym versus others. While our willpower is only one piece of a giant puzzle, it sure as hell plays a HUGE role!


So what can we do then? Are we slaves to this thing called willpower that will inevitably fail us? Not necessarily, as there are a number of ways we can work at slowly strengthening the willpower muscle. At the same time, it’s important to keep in mind that willpower is finite. It WILL get depleted, so there is no point in trying to fight that inevitable outcome. Instead, utilize and practice some of these tools to continuously strengthen your resolve.


1. Keep that brain well-fed!

Our brain’s ability to provide us with the necessary willpower to make decisions is influenced by whether it’s sufficiently fed. Don’t skip meals and try to stay away from too many sugary treats that will ultimately result in a crash.


2. Keep it simple, change one thing at a time.

When we typically start something new, we want to dive in head first and overhaul EVERYTHING; our diet, our workouts, our daily routine. We get excited about the possibility of change and want to change all of the things! Great, but our willpower can’t handle that much work! Especially when life gets stressful, which of course it will just when things are starting to get easier. So instead, focus on one thing. Adjust the diet for a week, that’s it. Then get into the gym. Slowly add things, and start small.


3. Make sleep a priority. 

This one is a no-brainer but is much more difficult to actually implement than we might think. Demands on our time are high, and often we push sleep to the back burner. Think you can reach your goals on minimal sleep? Think again…adequate rest improves our self-control and reduces the need for glucose. When we’re tired, our bodies generally don’t deliver enough glucose to our brains.


4. Preemptively “cheat” now to give yourself a break.

Saying “no” all of the time can be exhausting. Especially when all we really want to do is say “yes” every once in a while! So my suggestion? Say yes every once in a while. Maybe not yes to the donuts, but have a few pieces of dark chocolate, 1/2 of a protein bar, a latte with 1/2 the sugar, etc. Having something smaller and just as rewarding to the brain now can give your willpower a bit of a break to be able to further your resolve later in the day.


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