When it comes to eating healthier and working out, there’s knowing what to do and actually doing it. In my experience as a dietitian and trainer, lots of people have at least some idea of how to reach their goals. Where they struggle is actually making themselves do what they need to do. In fact, that’s one of the most common questions I get in my practice–how to have more willpower.
And to take that “in fact” one step further, I’ve gotten that question SO MANY times that I did a deep dive and actually wrote a video mini-course on it last year.
In the process of writing that course, I learned a couple of things.
First, willpower in and of itself is not the solution for lasting results. You can’t white-knuckle your way through every random food craving and party and trip to the break room. And, you can’t just suck it up and force yourself to go to the gym every time you feel like skipping. Eventually, you’re going to give in (hang with me for a minute and I’ll explain why).
Is it worthwhile to try to cultivate stronger willpower? Absolutely. It just can’t be the only tool in your box.
My second realization was, the first question really shouldn’t be about how to have more willpower. The question should be, why do I struggle with it?
In this post, I’m going to explain one big reason why you do.
Uses of Willpower
Before we get into why you struggle with willpower, let me ask you a quick question.
What do you think of when you hear the word “willpower”?
I’ll tell you the first thing that comes to mind for me. It’s saying no when you want to say yes (ugh, I KNOW! The worst, right?!).
And technically, that’s not wrong. The American Psychological Association describes willpower as “the ability to resist short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals.” So yes, delayed gratification is a big part of willpower.
And. But. There are so many other ways you use willpower every single day without even realizing it.
Ray Baumeister and John Tierney, authors of the book Willpower, describe four different types of willpower:
- Control of thoughts, which involves ignoring things that are useless, counterproductive, harmful, or annoying. Have you ever seen the part in the movie Office Space when Peter is tuning out Milton’s ramblings about his desk relocation and his beloved stapler? That would be an example of control of thoughts.
- Control of emotions, or avoiding moods or feelings that are uncomfortable or that you perceive to be inappropriate. Acting happy when you’re really sad, angry, or frustrated is a common way in which we all control our emotions from time to time.
- Impulse control is what we described above–fighting the urge to give into a temptation. We do this with diet and exercise, but also in other areas of our lives. Have you ever had to resist the desire to flip off someone who cut you off in traffic? That’s impulse control.
- Performance control refers to focus on a task. This applies to household and work projects, studying, or other acts that you want to do well.
If you’re like most people, you probably use most if not all of these types of willpower pretty regularly. And that brings us to an important next point.
Your Willpower Reserves
If what I just told you about uses of willpower surprised you, this next fact is going to blow your mind.
Do you know how some people have separate spending accounts for various expenses in their lives, like education and housing? Yeah, willpower doesn’t work that way.
Studies suggest that your willpower comes from one reserve.
This idea first came to light in 1998 with what has to be the rudest study EVER.
The Chocolate and Radishes Study
In this study, researchers had 67 college students fast.
(Side note: If you’re a research geek like me, you’re probably pshaw-ing the small sample size. Just know that there have been thousands of subsequent follow-up studies on this concept and roll with me here).
So after the students fasted, the researchers had them come into a lab that had the smell of fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies wafting through the air. The researchers had placed some snacks in the room as well; specifically, cookies, chocolates, and (wait for it) radishes.
Researchers invited one group of students to eat the cookies and the chocolates. A second group of students could only eat radishes.
If that’s not some BS, I don’t know what is! And unsurprisingly, the radish group suffered. The researchers noted that the radish group stared at the cookies, and a couple of students even held and sniffed them.
Here’s where it gets interesting. After snack time, both groups (as well as a third group that fasted but skipped the snack part) were asked to complete some geometry puzzles that weren’t actually solvable. The researchers measure the amount of time the students worked on those puzzles before giving up (yep, performance control).
The cookies and chocolate group worked for about 20 minutes, which was pretty similar to the group of late joiners.
The radish group lasted a piddly 8 minutes, on average.
The take-home here is that using a lot of willpower earlier in the day doesn’t leave you as much later in the day. You’ve spent down your bank. So if you’re neck deep in a tough work project, and your toddler insists on listening to Baby Shark on repeat in the car, and you’re actually kinda pissed at your spouse but you haven’t let them know that…saying no to cookies or wine or French fries at dinner is going to be tough.
That’s not to say all hope is lost if you’re a busy people pleaser!
How to Have More Willpower
The great news is, willpower is like a muscle. You can actually train yourself to have more of it with some brain exercise, just like you can build up big muscles that you use to squat heavier at the gym.
I walk you through this in my mini-course, Where’d My Willpower Go?!
This course details what you need to know about willpower as it relates to diet and exercise, including:
- What it is and why you should care.
- Common mistakes you might be making that actually increase the need for willpower.
- How to train your brain to have more willpower in the moment.
The course includes 7 instructional videos totaling more than 60 minutes of content, helpful worksheets, email encouragement, and my bonus webinar on goal setting. And, it’s currently on sale! Click here to get started today.
Kim Yawitz is a registered dietitian, a CrossFit L-1 Trainer, and the owner of Two Six. In addition to her work at the gym, she’s also the author of the Renaissance Periodization guide to Nutrition for Pregnancy and Breastfeeding and has served as a nutrition expert for several national media outlets.