Getting up thirty minutes early to go to the gym.
Passing the bread basket for the fourth time without taking a roll.
Smiling at your boss’s request instead of telling him/her what you REALLY think.
Keeping a level head when your kids are reaching previously untapped decibels.
Not snapping at your significant other when they leave the dishes in the sink, yet again.
All require willpower, and if what researchers say is correct, they’re all drawing from the same willpower reservoir. So what happens when we run out? Can we run out? And how do we know?
What is Willpower?
Well, research is conflicted when it comes to willpower, to say the least. One school of thought is that willpower is like a muscle that can be both fatigued, but also built up to be stronger. That we have one ‘pool’ of willpower to be used on all things throughout the day – work, school, kids, relationships, etc. and once we’ve used it up we’re vulnerable to succumb to temptations.
Then there’s another school of thought that willpower is only limited if we believe it is. That by giving ourselves the excuse of using up all our willpower, we’re able to justify actions/decisions that we otherwise wouldn’t have done.
I’m creating my own school and thinking there’s some truth to them both! It’s estimated we make an average ~35,000 decisions each day. That’s SOOO many decisions! Of course our brains get tired. But I also believe that our thoughts and beliefs about ourselves have a huge impact on us as well. So as for defining willpower – still kind of TBD in my mind, but that doesn’t stop us from using some of the ideas to our advantage.
When Willpower Isn’t Enough
Whether willpower is or isn’t finite, the issue I have with willpower is it’s inconsistent at best. Sure, maybe it can be improved or strengthened over time, but it’s often unreliable. Some days we might find it really easy to summon up resistance to temptations, but others it’s near impossible.
At 9pm when I’m overcome with the sudden craving of chocolate while I’m catching up on Real Housewives or Naked & Afraid, I don’t want to have to rely on summoning up some willpower to resist scarfing down an entire bar. Ideally, it wouldn’t even cross my mind as a temptation!
And that’s where we have a choice. If I’m intentional enough ahead of time, I don’t have to rely on willpower every night to resist those delicious Lindt Intense Orange squares (they’re really THAT good).
Engineering Our Environment
There have been plenty of studies done demonstrating our diminished capacity to stick to our healthy intentions when our willpower reserves have been depleted. But those studies were set up that way in specific environments to elicit the results. That means we can also set up our environments to get the desired results… that we’re creatures of environment instead of creatures of habit like we’ve been led to believe.
Think about it – I know I’m the type to eat an entire chocolate bar without thinking while I’m decompressing in the evenings after dinner. But I can set up my environment so it doesn’t become a nightly ritual.
First, I can make sure I don’t have those chocolate bars in the house. While I thoroughly enjoy those little chocolate squares, I also know I will not make an extra trip to the store at 9pm to go get one.
Next, when I decide I do indulge, I make sure to set internal rules for myself such as only indulging on Friday; or only letting myself have 2 squares in one evening (there’s 10 to a bar, so it works out nicely for the work week). This idea goes back to keeping promises to yourself. It’s high time to become the most reliable person in your life and that includes keeping promises to yourself above all else.
Stocking Up On Willpower
When we’re able to engineer our environment and set ourselves up as best we can for success, it removes the need to rely on willpower alone. If we don’t keep certain foods in the house, we won’t be tempted to eat them. When those ‘rules’ for ourselves are automatic we don’t have to use willpower to stick to our goals.
Then when things aren’t in our control – like a girls’ night out, or the kid’s pizza party where there’s (surprise) nothing but pizza – we will have the willpower to resist temptation and/or have some restraint because we didn’t use it all up on the everyday small stuff.
It’s impossible to control everything and that’s where willpower can pick up the slack. But during the majority of the time where you do have control over your environment (home, desk, car, etc) set yourself up for automation, not willpower. Having to rely on willpower 24/7 is like playing self-control roulette – the house (aka chocolate/donuts/[insert your vice]) always wins.