The Willpower Myth

This is a guest post by my good friend and coaching partner Kevin Geary. He's the writer, researcher and podcast host behind the Rebooted Body.

You adopt a new eating plan with a personal trainer, you’re hitting the gym a few times a week, you’re “on plan” and rockin’ it for a while. And then the slip comes. And then another.

You’re snowballing. You felt in control and now you couldn’t be more out of control. You reach out for support, talking to friends and family. You give your trainer a call.

Everyone alludes to this thing called “willpower” that you just don’t seem to have. There’s a lot of talk about “buckling down” and “sucking it up” and not “losing focus.”

What you’ll never hear them say is, “It’s not your fault.” But, that’s what they should tell you, because it really isn’t your fault. They expected you to rely on willpower, but willpower is unreliable.

In fact, it’s negligent that they would expect you to exercise a significant level of self control.

When two million online participants were asked by noted positive-psychology researcher Martin Seligman to choose their greatest strengths out of a list of 24 traits, self-control ranked at the very bottom. Not only is willpower unreliable, but you already think you can’t consistently exercise it.

A study on willpower

There’s a common misconception that willpower is a tool we can use at any time to self-regulate and avoid temptation. If that’s what you believe, you’re in for a long, hard road.

If you take two groups of people and have one group tackle problem solving skills that require deep cognitive processing and have another group relax and do nothing and then offer both groups a plate of cookies, the group that engaged in thinking and decision making is exponentially more likely to binge and eat lots of cookies than participants from the group that relaxed.

What gives?

It turns out that willpower is a finite resource that depletes throughout the day in relation to: how many decisions you have to make, how much stress you're under, whether or not you tend to suppress emotions, how much sleep you got, and other factors.

In other words, completely unrelated tasks and events deplete willpower. Stress from an interaction with your boss depletes willpower just as avoiding the vending machine in your office does. Both activities make it less likely that you'll self-regulate later, regardless of the thing you're trying to avoid later.

Emotions such as sadness, shame, anger, frustration, and depression also take their toll on willpower and make self-regulation less likely, especially if these emotions are suppressed.

Addiction and dependency compound self-regulation problems because the brain knows it can temporarily escape via certain substances such as sugar, which trigger neurotransmitters -- the feel good chemicals in your brain.

Make no mistake, you HAVE willpower. You just have to understand it better in order to be successful.

Willpower in the morning

Have you noticed that you can avoid temptations best in the morning and then completely fall apart as you work your way through the day? This process of weakening self-regulation is called Ego Depletion.

It’s important to note that you don’t necessarily have a filled willpower tank every morning. If you got low quantity or low quality sleep, you start the day off with depleted willpower. Bad sleep sets you up for failure. Chronic stress also leaves you starting each day with a depleted tank.

But, for the most part, the morning is as good as it’s going to get. Understanding this, there are some steps we can take to insure that our willpower stays as high as possible throughout the day.

Healing Ego Depletion

The first step toward increasing your ability to self-regulate is to be aware of ego depletion -- most people are affected by it and don't even realize it.

Before now, if you knew willpower was finite, you still probably thought that it was only depleted when specifically using it. Now, you know that’s not the case.

Manage stress

Avoiding and limiting stress in your life, getting adequate play time, getting consistent exposure to sunlight, spending time with your family and friends, and laughing all recharge your willpower.

Those are basic stress management activities. More in depth strategies would require you to do things such as: quit your soul-sucking day job; perform a priorities audit and use those findings to trim your overbearing schedule; and audit your relationships, limiting or quitting the investment you’re making in the stress-inducing people in your life.

“Find the people who make more withdrawals than deposits at the bank of you and send them a notice that you’ve closed their account.”

Stop Suppressing Emotions

Since suppressing emotions depletes willpower, use your success journal to write about any interactions that triggered an emotional response and your thoughts about that. Allow yourself to cry whenever necessary. Talk often with a friend or coach to unload your emotional backpack.

We’ve already talked about feeding emotions (previous chapter). I keep repeating some of the same things because it’s important to connect all of the dots. You don’t just suffer from one trigger -- you suffer from the way many of these triggers interact with each other.

Feeding emotions suppresses emotions, which depletes willpower. I want you to see how all of these things are intricately intertwined because you have to address all sides of the issue to be successful.

The good news is that snowballs work both ways. You can create a success snowball just as easy as you can create a failure snowball.

Prioritize Sleep

Getting adequate sleep -- both quality and quantity -- recharges willpower. Lack of sleep severely depletes willpower.

Most people think that sleep is only needed for physical health and recovery. The truth is that low quantity or low quality sleep tear down mental and emotional health even faster than it affects physical health.

Failing to prioritize sleep is the fastest way to start building your failure snowball. Make sure to get 8 to 9 hours of sleep per night in a pitch black room, no questions asked.

Break the Restriction Mindset

Lastly, the act of "dieting" and "restriction" inherently deplete willpower. Change your mindset to, "I eat real food and don't eat food that will hurt me because this is who I am." Taking a lifestyle approach gets you out of the harmful restriction mindset and into a more positive, empowering mindset.

Overcoming the unhealthy eating trigger of ego-depletion and escaping the willpower myth is possible with the right information, the right mindset, and some simple adjustments.

What has your experience with willpower been? If you have any additional tips, share them in the comments.