Why Willpower Fails and How to Get More of It
How many times have you tried to start over on a Monday? Back on track with diet, exercise, saving money, or being more consistent with "x", whatever "x" is for you. More times than you can count? I bet. Me, too. We use willpower to describe different terms including self-control, determination, self-discipline and drive. At its core, willpower is the ability to resist short-term temptations in order to achieve long term goals.
One of the problems with willpower is that it can get depleted. Many think of it as a finite resource that gets used up and when it's gone, our ability to resist temptation is much harder. Think about it: it's easier to avoid snacking first thing in the morning but harder later at night. I speak about willpower being like a meter in a video game in this video. I am not saying that willpower is a finite resource and that it can get depleted in every case. In fact, if we believed that, then we could easily blame our lack of willpower on its depletion.
What if we reframed our thinking and thought of willpower as something that ebbs and flows. We don't run out of things like joy or anger or gratitude, so why would we assume that we run out of willpower? Maybe it's a matter of focus and when we lack willpower, we are not focusing on the right thing, or on too many things at once. This is partly related to self-awareness (more about that below).
Saying "no" to something is also saying "yes" to the alternative and saying "yes" to your goals. That is one of the reasons that in my health coaching practice, we start by defining what a client's health goals are. When we say no to the things we don't want to do anymore, we are saying yes to becoming the person we want to be.
The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is the part of our brain right behind our eyes that is responsible for analyzing thoughts, regulating behaviour, and decision making. The PFC is important for self-control. The primitive brain (the amygdala) is, kind of like the child in the room. It's the part of the brain that will kick and scream to get the candy. The PFC is like the adult in the room that will calm the child down and get them to realize they don't need the candy, or to make a healthier choice. When a willpower challenge occurs, the adult must remind the child why they don't need the candy and how it can lead to health issues and cavities.
Willpower doesn't work when we are constantly beating ourselves down. Instead, we need to make choices because they feel good to us and if we do, those choices will lead to more sustainable changes. Think of it as a form of self-respect. Do you think you will be successful at, for example, losing weight if you are terrible to yourself? Is that sustainable? Probably not.
The brain is responsive to experience. It changes based on what you do. How can we increase our willpower and support better decision making? Try these tips below:
Self-awareness: Most of our choices are made on auto-pilot and often, we don't even realize what we are doing. Self-awareness is our ability to recognize what we are doing when we are doing it. If we don't have self-awareness of the choices we are making, it becomes pretty hard to change those behaviours. People who are distracted are more likely to give into temptation.
Meditation: Meditation helps train your brain for better self-control. It has a powerful effect on focus, attention and managing stress. People who meditate will also increase the size and density of their PFC.
Sleep: Have you ever noticed that after you have a poor night's sleep that you are more "cranky"? Getting a good night's sleep consistently can help support the PFC. If we are stressed from not getting enough sleep, our decision making can be impacted.
Physical Activity: Exercise is a great tool that you can use to strengthen your willpower. It's not lost on me that this is an area that people often struggle with and are trying to USE their willpower to get that workout done. Movement can decrease stress and increase self-control. Bonus if you can get outside to exercise. There is a term called "forest bathing" where people who exercised outside saw even greater benefits in terms of stress reduction.
Eat well: Like exercise, eating well can be a challenge for people. However, eating well helps to support decision making.
In the end, perhaps willpower doesn't change anything.
Changing what we usually do changes things.