Willpower. It’s almost a tease of a word. We all want it, we want loads of it, we feel like its elusive and mysterious and we blame the lack of it for all our failures. It almost sounds like a bad relationship.
Turns out that willpower is in fact, a limited commodity. While we all have some, it dwindles steadily all day, every day as we go about our lives. This explains why despite our best intentions to not eat chocolate at night, we do anyway, reluctantly drawn to our stash even as we say “no, no, no” in our heads (perhaps not having a stash in the first place is one way to limit this). It also accounts for broken New Year’s resolutions as well as overspending, catty comments and instant gratification.
In his new book, conveniently called Willpower, Dr. Roy Baumeister, well respected psychologist and observer of human behavior, dissects and examines willpower and explains why it is so hard for us to overcome our base instincts despite our great desire. He then offers suggestions to help us fortify willpower in order to get more done.
As he explains it, we each have only one wellspring of willpower that we parcel out for every aspect of our lives. There are no separate willpower sources for eating well and another for maximizing our workday. It all comes from one source and it is a limited source at that. So, not only do we have limited capacities for willpower, it is also readily diminished as we live our lives and some of our daily habits and ways of being are exactly the things that work against our greatest desires.
What weakens willpower? An awful lot, according to Dr. Baumeister, and most of us are engaging in at least one of these habits every day.
The primary thing that weakens willpower is not being properly fed, which in turn limits the amount of glucose your brain has available throughout the day, making it hard to not only think clearly, but also to eat properly. This accounts for that 4 o’clock candy binge that happens in offices across the land.
Secondly, lack of proper and restful sleep.
So far, he’s talking about the two major issues that plagues almost everyone who walk in my door. And there is no doubt about it: besides the fact that when we don’t give the brain and body proper nutrition, it becomes increasingly difficult to focus and function, not eating well leads to sleep issues which in turn leads to more bad eating. It is a vicious cycle.
While it might be obvious to some that willpower is weakened when nutrition and sleep habits are off, you might be surprised to learn some of the other factors that dwindle our limited capacity for willpower. They include ego depletion and having to make a lot of decisions throughout the day. Let me explain…
Ego depletion is in action when you say to your boss, “Of course I can get this done in an hour, no problem,” when what you really want to say, “look you slave driver, this project is enormous and will take more than a day, much less an hour, so go to hell!” It is basically sublimating yourself and your true feelings in order to not create problems. Think about how many times in a day we are doing that. We do it in our careers and in our personal lives. If we went around telling people exactly how we feel we might have no friends, lovers OR a job. But this habit of suppressing our inner true feelings, actually depletes our inner reservoir of willpower.
So also does having to make lots of decision within the day. Because I work for myself, and own an apartment, and have all the decisions that come with a full life, I can totally relate to this. I’m making decisions every second of the day, all day long, figuring out the best course of action or what to do next. The decisions that need to be made are never-ending. But I also do something that makes this far worse than it has to be. I tend to be very indecisive.
A couple of years ago I read about a tailor on Seville Row in London who said the secret to his worldwide success was being decisive. Everything that hit his desk, he decided on immediately, finding that being indecisive slowed him down and crowded his mind. I was so impressed by this and tried to do it myself and was able to stick with it for only a short time. The problem with being decisive is not what you are choosing, but it’s letting go of what you are not choosing. If you choose to go to London, then you may not be choosing to go to Paris and this might make you sad. If I’m choosing to write a blog then I may not be choosing to see another client or create another nutrition video or hang with my boyfriend. And because I like options, I often find myself mired in indecisiveness, which weakens my willpower to get to Yoga class on Tuesday nights or hop over to Physique 57 for a morning class. And of course, this makes me feel bad, which simply weakens my willpower even further.
So this year, I am deciding to be decisive. At the end of the day, I have to make the decisions of my life anyway, as they will not disappear no matter how long I linger over my choices. If I procrastinate or worry over my choices for too long, all I am doing is utilizing precious glucose that my brain could use for more important endeavors. Not deciding doesn’t make the tasks of my life go away. Instead they sit in my head and haunt me, weakening my resolve and keeping me from optimal fitness.
This year resolve to strengthen your willpower by engaging in one willpower-enhancing habit, whether it be eating well, getting restful sleep or making timely decisions… But whatever you do, be kind when you tell people exactly how you feel about them 🙂
Wishing you all a happy and healthy New Year!