Addressing the concept of willpower head-on feels daunting, especially during a pandemic when my surge capacity is depleted. Every day, I'm questing for the well of willpower that got me through starting two businesses and finishing grad school - at the same time. I know I am capable of managing A LOT, and yet lately that capacity is sorely lacking!
I know I am not alone.
The Webster dictionary describes willpower as "control exerted to do something or restrain impulses." This definition provides the perspective that with practice, your willpower can be strong enough to get you anything you desire. Here are some ways we can flex that willpower muscle and attain our dreams:
- Take breaks: You've got to give your willpower breaks so it can recover, just like your muscles need to recover after a hard workout. If your goal is to cut back on sugar-sweetened foods, you can't expect yourself to be successful for very long if you're surrounded by candy. Give your willpower breaks by getting the candy out of eyesight.
- Give yourself something else to focus on: This is especially important if you're trying to take something away from your diet. It's so easy to fixate on the thing we removed from ourselves, so replace that thing with something else - ideally something you look forward to. When I'm coaching a client through removing a food or food group from their diet, I'll focus first on what we're adding in. (No sugar? Let's talk about all the other delicious foods you're going to work into your meal plan!)
- Deconstruct the habit into tiny, manageable pieces: No habit is complete on its own. Instead, habits are comprised of many, smaller habits. Take that habit of not eating sugar-sweetened foods. That habit can be broken down into:
- Knowing what foods contains sugar and what does not (spoiler alert: most packaged and processed foods contain sugar).
- Considering alternatives to sugar-sweetened staples in your cooking.
- Trying out different no-sugar added beverages to find options you enjoy.
- Deciding how you will handle birthdays, holidays and other celebrations where there will be sweets.
- Getting comfortable requesting ingredients lists for foods, like sauces, at a restaurant that may contain sugar.
- Mapping out sugar-free foods that can be packed easily or be available when you're traveling.
Ok, so willpower is a muscle that can be strengthened with intention and dedication. Got it. (Step 1. Consider what I get from playing Candy Crush.)
Now, here's a piece of the willpower concept that keeps tripping me up: why is it that sometimes willpower is strong and sometimes it is so weak, fickle, laughable?
Psychology researchers acknowledge this in their broader definition of willpower. In their expanded definition, they acknowledge that willpower is a limited resource capable of being depleted. We learned that flexing our willpower too much will deplete it - we need to be able to chill out sometimes. What else could deplete willpower?
Would the stress of living through a pandemic be enough to deplete willpower?
Would existing alongside a social reckoning be enough to deplete willpower?
Would the threat of economic collapse do the trick?
How about food insecurity?
A demand for physically distancing that keeps you out of the arms of your loved ones? Celebrating life's important moments with a screen and many miles between you and your people? Confining your life to the walls of your home where you have to really work at it to escape yourself?
And what about living through and alongside all of those things at once? Would that be enough to deplete willpower?
I think yes.
Here's my point: do the things and then let go of the times you don't do the things. Your willpower is probably not at it's strongest right now. But that doesn't mean you should put off working on yourself. Now is a great time to work on your health and wellbeing. Now is also a very challenging time to work on your health and wellbeing. Your progress will probably be slower. That's ok!
Remember that your health is made up of tiny choices you make all day, every day. Focusing on those small choices one at a time makes a difference, and adds up to big changes.
Now might be a good time to ask for some help and get support. Engaging with someone outside of yourself will give you perspective so you can celebrate those small victories and recognize when your willpower is even the slightest bit stronger.
It all counts.
How to boost your willpower by Denise Cummins, PhD
What you need to know about willpower: The psychological science of self-control