I have been giving a lot of thought to the question of willpower. I can’t say I have it in abundance, but when I do decide to do something (even if it is after many years of not doing anything), I do seem to be able to stick to my guns. So much about our health (by which here I mean diet and exercise) comes down to that often elusive willpower.
Anyone with a slightly addictive personality (which refers to a particular set of personality traits that make an individual predisposed to developing addictions) will know about hitting rock bottom. There is often a trigger for deciding that enough is enough, whether it relates to drugs, alcohol abuse or over-eating. These triggers are very personal, but in my experience there comes a moment of compete clarity after which you know change MUST take place. It is only then that you take control of the problem and make changes.
Firstly then, what exactly is willpower?
The American Psychological Association calls willpower
the ability to resist short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals.
From what I have researched on the subject, willpower has a finite supply. You therefore need to use it wisely, which is a nuisance frankly. I won’t be the only person out there who has thought it was a bottomless well and the issue was how you can harness as much as possible. On the flip-side, the good news is that you can work on building strategies to improve your use of it.
One interesting aspect of willpower is that people will often use up the limited supply on family and professional matters, leaving little for themselves. After a taxing day at the office, or with the kids, it is far more difficult to then find the time to keep on making good decisions about food. A recent study showed that people faced with a very stressful work-related task who were then asked to choose between different foods tended to make less healthy choices. Personally I think this is also compounded by the reasoning that a difficult day requires reward. You have had a very tough day at work, or dealing with 3 kids under the age of 7, or 2 moody teenagers, and a large glass of wine at 5.30pm (“the sun is over the yardarm somewhere”) sounds infinitely justifiable. Or, in food terms, you have a had the day from hell in the workplace, so you decide that a takeaway curry will cheer you up instead of the omelette and salad you had originally planned.
So willpower is definitely a tricky one: it is limited and it can be sabotaged fairly easily too. Sounds like other strategies are required. What are some ways of improving your chances of making best use of willpower when it comes to dieting?
- Have a long-term, achievable goal. Are you going to a wedding in November, to which you would dearly love to get back into your favourite dress? Perhaps you want to be able to run a 5K next year and have realised that shedding some weight will make that goal a great deal easier to achieve? Make a record of your achievements as you go along and set yourself a goal you can meet.
- Stay well rested. Over-tired people make bad decisions.
- If you have a bad day, and your diet has seemingly gone out the window, put it behind you. It is done, nothing can be achieved by dwelling on it (except perhaps to work out why it happened and try to take steps to avoid making that mistake again – learn from it). Get back on track and don’t be too hard on yourself.
- Minimise temptation. We are expecting a lot from willpower – don’t make it doubly hard by putting temptations in your way.
I don’t want to sound preachy, but for those people who say “I simply don’t have the willpower” I would say this: you haven’t hit your rock bottom yet. When you do, and you decide to take control, have an achievable plan and work hard. The benefits are joyous.
Annie Bee x