What No One Tells You about Willpower
Updated: Jan 8
Willpower. We think we need it to make any progress on our goals. And we fault the lack of willpower for our poor choices.
We assume those around us experiencing success must have some magical gene, giving them MORE willpower than we seem to have.
But what is willpower? According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, willpower is "energetic determination". Other words associated with willpower include restraint, self-discipline, self-control, and drive.
Well, I'm calling BS. Sure, willpower and motivation may help you get started on your goals, but it certainly won't help you maintain them long term. Because the thing is, a healthy or fit person doesn't have any more willpower than anyone else.
Willpower is unreliable. It is inconsistent- it rises and falls; it is a crutch people use as an excuse as to why they didn't follow through on their goals. We know what we should be doing to reach our goals, but one poor choice, followed by another always get blamed on that "limited resource" called willpower.
But what if I told you there was a better way to follow through on your goals? That white-knuckling it through the day until you can no longer take it, is the wrong way to go?
That, in fact, reaching your goal is less about willpower and more about avoiding decision fatigue?
Would you believe me?
Hear me out.
Lets say you get up at 5:30am, skip the office doughnut for a smoothie, choose a salad at lunch instead of a burger, but later in the day you've found yourself leaving the gym after aimlessly walking around for 30 minutes trying to decide what to do; now you feel frustrated about having to think about what to have for dinner, so you hit up the drive-through on your way home instead. Every step of the way, from the moment you wake up, you have had to make a choices that either align with your goals or not, IN ADDITION to your other daily decisions: whether or not to hit the snooze button, what to wear, what to eat, whether or not to fill your gas tank up before or after work, which route to take to avoid traffic, when to check emails, going to the gym and so on. As the day drags on, more and more decisions are being made.
With every decision you make, you expend mental energy.
Have you ever noticed, it is MUCH easier to make decisions that are in line with your health goals at the start of the day? And by the end of the day, choosing a healthy meal option for dinner or getting in a workout seems damn near impossible?
That is because it has nothing to do with willpower, and everything to do with decision fatigue. We feel drained at the end of the day because we are having to make the same decisions over and over, day in and day out.
So how do we conserve our energy to make the important decisions? How do we ensure we can make the best choices for ourselves, even after a long, draining day?
According to James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, there are 5 ways to overcome decision fatigue and "boost your willpower".
1. Plan ahead. This is one of my favorites. Planing out your dinner menu for the week ahead of time and stocking up at the store with what you need, avoids the ever-dreaded conversation of "what should we have for dinner?" with your significant other. Pick a day each week to do the menu planning and grocery shopping.
How else can you plan ahead? Choose what you want to wear to work, the night before. Better yet, create a capsule wardrobe or create your own uniform. Ever wonder why Steve Jobs wore the same type of turtleneck, blue jeans and sneakers every day? He knew he needed to conserve his mental energy by limiting his daily decisions!
2. Do the most important thing, first. What is it you are working on right now? What is your main priority? Is it getting gin shape? Wake up 30 minutes early and put your best energy into your workout. Is it finishing a school paper? Work on that, before any other task. Is it finishing a presentation for work? Don't even think about wasting precious mental energy sifting through your emails first thing.
3. Stop making decisions, and start making commitments. Instead of just saying you want to reach your health and professional goals, and hoping you make the daily decisions to align with them, we need to take the action of scheduling in the activity required to reach them. Instead of hoping you'll feel like getting to the gym after work, actually put it in your planner or schedule it on your calendar. Instead of relying on "willpower" to turn off the TV and write your paper, actually schedule in the timeframe to work on it this week. Avoid decision fatigue caused by hoping you'll feel like getting it done, take the decision making out of it, and follow the schedule you planned.
4. If you have to make good decisions later in the day, eat something first. Going out to eat with colleagues? Don't wait until you are starving to look at the menu and think you'll make the best decision. Have a snack before you go. Going straight to the gym after work? Finding the focus to perform your work out will be a heck of a lot easier after you've had a nutritious snack to fuel it.
5. Simplify. By debunking the idea of willpower and the need to rely on it every hour of every day, you can instead simplify. Simplify your choices, simplify your life. If it's not important, don't give it much thought.
What can you streamline?
Maybe it's alternating between the same 3 breakfasts throughout the week.
Maybe it's choosing an at-home workout program that tells you exactly what to do, instead of having to get in your car, drive to the gym, and wander around for an hour deciding which machines or weights to use.
Maybe it's always ordering water when you go out to eat.
Or creating a capsule wardrobe.
Or using a grocery delivery service so you're not wasting precious energy deciding what time to go to avoid the most people.
What decisions can you make ahead of time, so as to not have to make those choices in the future? What habit can you reinforce, by planning ahead and scheduling it in?
If you need any guidance, schedule your complimentary session, here!
In Love and Health.
Katie Valley is a Certified Holistic Nutritionist and Registered Health and Nutrition Practitioner. She loves to share all things wellness in her Monthly Newsletter, on Facebook and Instagram. Katie works one on one with clients seeking to make changes to their lifestyle using a Holistic Approach to optimal Health.
Sign up to her FREE Healthy Habits Program, here.
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