Some Thoughts on Willpower

So I’ve been thinking a little bit about willpower lately.  On two separate occasions in the last two weeks I’ve been told that I have impressive willpower.  On both occasions it was in reference to my ability to resist crappy food.

Do you want to know the truth?

I DO NOT have impressive willpower. I’m just as susceptible as the next guy to the different temptations that are around. For instance, it is an epic struggle not to finish off the entire jar of almond butter every time I crack it open.

Every. Single. Time.

I’ve also been known to pound an entire 2 pound bag of cherries in one sitting. While these examples may not seem as egregious as O.D.ing on chocolate or cookies or chocolate frosted chocolate chip cookies, it’s still an instance of not having the willpower to stop when I know I should.

So what’s the difference?  What gives me impressive willpower in certain cases and not in others? Why can I turn down that post dinner bowl of ice cream with ease but the lure of a seemingly healthy food can do me in?

I believe it has less to do with having “impressive” willpower and more to do with how I manage it.  Everyone has a finite amount of willpower. Each time they make a conscious effort or choice to avoid a certain outcome or activity, part of that is used up.  Over the course of the day, or week, that finite source gets depleted and once that’s gone all bets are off.
willpower
So let’s take an example. Say a coworker brings in doughnuts to celebrate a birthday (this happens all the time where I work) and I’ve just started a diet to cut out processed foods. I may only be able to walk by those doughnuts once or twice before all of my willpower is depleted and I decide to scarf one down.

It’s one bump in the road. It happens to us all. So I get back on track and do a fairly good job of laying off the processed junk.  I’m feeling better. Maybe I’ve lost a pound or two on the scale. A month down the road there’s another doughnut smorgasbord at the office.  This time I can pass by that delicious looking tray of doughnuts 5 or 6 times before I cave.

So what happened? Did my willpower improve?

No, not really.  It just took more withdrawals from that finite storage bin to cause the tipping point and the bad decision that ensued.  Furthermore, it was the establishment of positive daily habits that allowed me to manage those withdrawals. Knowing how good I’ve felt in the past few weeks without doughnuts (or conversely how bad I’ve felt after a doughnut) allows me to draw less from that willpower pool.

Imagine what can happen as you continue to build on your good habits over the course of year. Suddenly you find yourself at the break table at work surrounded by 6 coworkers all eating doughnuts (birthday celebration) AND cake (retirement celebration) and you have that “Holy Shit!” moment where you realize, “Man, I have no desire to eat either of those.”

And that’s the trick. It has taken NO willpower to resist, not impressive willpower. I didn’t even have to think about it. Like putting on clothes before I leave my house for the day, it’s automatic.

Willpower has been managed through positive habit formation. Some good habits just take longer to form than others, like putting down the almond butter spoon.

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