Willpower: Man or Myth?

At the beginning of every year a lot of people make goals, set New Year's Resolutions, and have grand ideas of the days ahead.

Are you one of those people?  I am.  There's no shame in that.

It's good to have a source of renewed motivation - no matter where it comes from, cliche or not.

What I imagine happens, though, over time that motivation fades and our power of "want" diminishes.  Why is this?  


noun  will·pow·er  \ˈwil-ˌpau̇(-ə)r\

  • : the ability to control yourself : strong determination that allows you to do something difficult (such as to lose weight or quit smoking)

I think we often say to ourselves that we "just don't have the willpower".  Why do we say this?  Is it an excuse?  Is it the truth?  Why do we feel so empowered during certain times of the year or after having certain experiences?  

I've often wondered why I give in to unhealthy temptations or actions that take me away from my goals when I had such a clear vision three days prior.  Hell, even one hour ago.  

I've heard three schools of thought on the elusive, willpower.

One:  It's a finite resource.  You only have so much.  When it's gone, you are SOL.  Man, that sucks.
Two:  It's a muscle.  You've got it, but you have to keep exercising it to make it work in your favor.  As if I weren't already exhausted enough.  Thanks.
Three:  It doesn't exist.  Well, outside of your own head that is.  Now what?!

One of my favorite podcasts, The No Meat Athlete, mentions this in a few episodes.  I can't recall which one, but it's a topic that's touched on many times.  It's something that comes up over and over with discussion of life in general and moving forward.  I keep waiting for a more detailed episode with their thoughts.  Come on, Matt!

The podcast, Stuff You Should Know, also offered some more really interesting concepts of willpower and presents several different sides of the story.  The most interesting part of the podcast was their example of willpower as a finite resource and "decision fatigue".  It went something like this:

The experiment took place in a parole board setting, with several officials set to review parole for inmates.  The parolees that, with similar histories, were reviewed immediately after the officials had breakfast or lunch were 50% more likely to NOT be released for parole.  The study found that because the parole board had already had to make the decision of what to choose to eat had depleted their decision skills so much that they were unknowingly refusing to make a decision (although, a much more significant decision than what to eat!) and therefore denied the parolees requests.  They felt unprepared to even take the risk of making an informed decision.

I find this fascinating.  This tells me that the more decisions we are faced with throughout the day can diminish our willpower to make good decisions for ourselves (or any one else we are making decisions for!) later in the day, no matter the breadth of the those decisions and/or outcomes.  Yikes.  So, save your toughest decisions for the first part of your day?

All of these are interesting ideas, but which way do you go?  OF COURSE it's probably a mixture of all of these concepts (which infuriates the Type A in me).  
In addition to these few ideas I've just mentioned, our willpower has to battle with our own perceptions, attitudes, the environment around us, unforeseen challenges, goals, rewards, and the list goes on.

So how are we to navigate our own willpower, if we actually have any?

Start.  This may be the hardest step of all for you.  You don't always have to have a perfect plan, but doing one thing that you know is positive towards even a small portion of your vision for yourself will be better than nothing at all.  You can figure it out as you go.  Promise.

Keep Going.  Well, duh lady.  I knew that, but how?!  Ok, ok.  So here are some strategies that have helped me and can help you too.

  • Thinking back to the parole board example, the number one take away is to make a morning routine filled with actions that work towards your goals.  If your morning starts with actions that are routine, then you are no longer making any decisions - you are just acting (ie.  Should I work out this morning or not?  No answer is needed, it's on your schedule as part of your new routine.  It's happening, dude).  This relieves your tired out willpower and reserves some for you to keep going strong at 4pm when your co-workers are pressuring you into happy hour, you feel tempted to drive past the gym, or your kid's unfinished french fries are staring at you.  Double bonus, you are actually working on your goals!
    • I completely want to expand on this, but for now, I will direct you to The 5AM Miracle to get you started.  I just finished the book and have made goals, a schedule, and my willpower is on fire at the moment.  Kind of.  This guy has a book, podcast, emails, etc.  If you are into this, reach out - I need a power partner!  Ps.  I totally just made up that term, but I think it sounds good for some one to keep me accountable to my goals and schedules.  Yes?
  • Don't freak out if your willpower is MIA for a decision or two.  You can always make a positive decision the next time around.  I do believe that willpower is always in there, no matter how squashed.  Don't give up just because you feel like you failed once or twice.  You wouldn't slash your other three tires just because you got a flat, would you?
  • Join an accountability group.  This is my thing, yo.  With regards to fitness anyway.  It's totally easy to say you are going to do something and hide in the background where no one can see you and what you are doing on a daily basis.  If you are serious about getting something done, tell some one.  Find like-minded people to hold you accountable.  Don't know anyone?  Keep asking or bringing up your goals to everyone you meet and you'll find some folks.  If you are looking for some one to keep you accountable with fitness and/or health, um, hello?!  Have we met?  I'm Lisa and I would love to keep you on track.  Click here to contact me and get started!
  • Rest.  For reals.  I'm finally coming around to realizing and accepting that I am a morning person.  I also am realizing that I need 8-11 hours of sleep a night - legit.  This is difficult to make happen.  I also know that if I don't get adequate sleep, I don't want to make any decisions period.  Know how much sleep you need and get it.  Let it go and get some sleep.  
  • Watch your attitude little missy.  I'm guessing my mother used to say this to me and I'm 99% sure I've said it to my daughter.  This puzzles me, because saying this is more or less showcasing the behavior I want changed.  I digress.  Attitude is huge.  If you think your willpower is limitless, chances are you are going to get up and go get 'em!  If you think poor you has no willpower, chances are you will struggle with finding any at all.  If you have to, fake it 'til you make it, baby.
  • Make a plan!  Just don't wait to start until you have made a plan: see above.  When you make a plan and have things set, you don't have as many decisions to make.  You know what is coming.  You are aware of what it will take.  Make yourself a sticker chart.  Hang it up where you can see it every day!  Be proud.  Own it.  This is when the morning routine and an accountability group can also be helpful.  Your plan can give you guidance and comfort in knowing what to do next.
I know there are other ways to keep this going.  I am still learning what works for me.  What have you learned works for you?

Willpower:  Man or Myth?  I think that's up to you.  Some times the man is hiding, but he's there.  Take those steps to show him who's boss.

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