Okay, I’ll admit it. I’m the first person to curse my weak willpower when I find myself picking at my kids’ sweet treats or skipping my morning BeachBody workout. But I may have to find a new excuse, because apparently I—and maybe you too—have gotten the whole idea of willpower completely wrong.
Most of us believe that willpower is some innate, magical quality that only a lucky few are born with enough of to reach the goals they set for themselves. But according to scientists and psychologists who specialize in this sort of thing, what we call “willpower” is actually just a one-two punch of self-control and smart decision–making strategies.
This is bad news for anyone—ahem, me—who likes to use lack of willpower as an excuse for occasionally falling off the “healthy-eating” wagon. On the other hand, it’s good news because it means you can hone your willpower like any other skill. And, just like doing push-ups, it gets easier the more you do it. Here are 5 ways to boost Your willpower and beat temptation.
1. Change how you define willpower.
You have it or you don’t, right? Wrong. Instead of thinking of willpower as a genetic gift, think of it as a game plan. “Instead of saying, ‘I have no willpower,’ ask yourself how to handle the situation,” says registered dietitian Jill Weisenberger, M.S., R.D., and author of Diabetes Weight Loss—Week by Week. Think you just can’t give up your soda habit? Can’t stick to a gym routine? Can’t make yourself eat veggies? Think again. “When my patients say, ‘I can’t,’ they usually mean, ‘I choose not to,’ or, ‘I haven’t yet figured out how to,’” Weisenberger says. “There is a solution to most problems. You have to look for it and then practice that strategy.” Another fun fact? Through his research, willpower expert Roy Baumeister discovered that those who believe willpower is finite tend to run out of it. Those who believe that willpower is not a limited resource continue to be able to tap into it when they need it. Believe in your willpower, find a few strategies that work for you to set yourself up for success, and voilá, you’ll have the willpower you need.
2. Set yourself up for success.
You’ve probably heard the adage that luck is where preparation meets opportunity. The same can be said for willpower—a little prep work can help you make healthy choices. “One of the best things you can do is create an environment that will help you be successful,” says Mitzi Dulan, R.D., coauthor of The All-Pro Diet. “Avoid buying chips and cookies. If you buy chocolate, buy bite-size.” Look at it this way—if you can resist buying chips at the grocery store, you only have to resist temptation once. If you buy the chips, you’ll have to resist temptation every single time you walk past your kitchen.
3. Respect your R&R.
In House of Cards, Kevin Spacey’s character Frank Underwood quips, “I never make big decisions so long after sunset and so far before dawn.” Sure, Underwood is a manipulative villain, but it’s not a bad strategy—lack of sleep can impair your ability to make smart decisions. “Both stress and sleep deprivation affect hormones that may impact our appetite and food choices,” Weisenberger says. “Adequate sleep and appropriate stress management aren’t optional—they are as critical as eating your fruits and vegetables and being physically active.” No matter how busy you are, make sure you get a good night’s sleep and carve out a few minutes each day to de-stress. It can make a world of difference to your willpower.
4. Keep your sugar in check.
It’s harder to stick to your diet when you’re hungry—not exactly breaking news, right? But it’s not just pure hunger that’s getting in your way, or else you’d be just as satisfied with a handful of carrots as a handful of cookies. The real problem is that glucose levels seem to play a big role in self-control, so the hungrier you get, the harder it becomes to choose healthy foods over calorie-laden comfort foods. Last year, Baumeister wrote in the APA Monitor on Psychology that low glucose levels can reduce self-control—so eat before you’re famished if you want to improve your odds of resisting junk-food faves.
Oddly enough, Baumeister found that it also works the other way around—exercising self-control can actually lower your glucose levels. It’s possible that the more decisions you have to make, the more your glucose levels dip, and the harder it is to make a healthy choice the next time. In other words, resisting that donut on your commute to work might make it harder to walk past the candy dish in the office, or turn down greasy takeout at lunch. So rather than relying on sheer self-control, see if you can find ways to avoid tempting situations—for example, find a route to work that doesn’t pass your favorite bakery. That way, you’ll have plenty of willpower left for the temptations you can’t avoid.
5. Focus on tomorrow’s goal, not today’s mistakes.
When you’re on a weight loss regimen, it’s easy to obsess over the occasional slip-up—a high-calorie snack here, a skipped workout there—and lose sight of your long-term goal. But the ability to rally after a setback may be more important than the ability to make virtuous decisions all the time. Angela Duckworth, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, coined the term “grit” for people who stay focused on a long-term goal, come hell or high water. “The gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon,” Duckworth said in a 2007 study. “Whereas disappointment or boredom signals to others that it is time to change trajectory and cut losses, the gritty individual stays the course.”
So the next time you’re tempted to curse your lack of willpower, remember that self-control is a skill—and like any skill, you’ll screw up a few times while you’re learning it. What’s important is that you keep going. “Determine your weak areas or obstacles and make a plan to overcome them. Put your plan into practice, evaluate it and adjust it if necessary. And expect to stray from the plan and know that you can keep moving forward,” Weisenberger says. “Eating fast food doesn’t make you bad at following your diet any more than having a fender bender makes you a bad driver.”
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