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Why you don’t need as much willpower as you think

By June 22, 2014No Comments

So you’ve decided to start eating healthily and exercising.  You want to lose a few pounds, tone up, have more energy and feel better about yourself.  And this time it will be different…. if only you can maintain enough willpower to stick with it.  Sound familiar?  And if your willpower wanes you’ll start beating yourself up for giving in to temptation and then give up…. again.  Does this also sound familiar?

We generally think that willpower is like a muscle which needs to be worked, strengthened, and constantly flexed.  But it’s much more helpful to think of it as a state of mind which is constantly changing as a result of your physical and emotional environments.   Concentrate on changing some of the environmental factors rather than on flexing a mental muscle which doesn’t really exist and you’ll reduce the amount of pressure you feel you need to put on yourself.

Firstly, you only need willpower during times of temptation.  If you’re not being tempted, then you don’t need willpower.  So consider how you can remove temptation from any environments which you can control, starting with your own home and your office space.  If you don’t want to find yourself eating crisps out of boredom in front of the TV in the evening, don’t have crisps in the house.  If you don’t want to find yourself eating a whole packet of chocolate biscuits at your desk, buy individually wrapped ones, one at a time.  Then it doesn’t matter if you feel you have no willpower – you won’t need it, there’ll be nothing to tempt you.

Consider other situations where you can easily remove temptation.  If you’re tempted by the bread basket when you’re eating out, ask your friends to put it at the other end of the table, out of your reach.  If your friends don’t want the temptation either, ask the server to take it away.   What’s your own personal temptation and what can you do to remove it from view or place it further out of reach?

Be aware that many salty and sugary foods are purposely formulated to be moreish.  Remember the old slogan for Pringles, “Once you pop you can’t stop”?  Pringles are essentially salty, refined carbohydrate (ie. sugar) and that slogan said it all – you’re meant to keep eating them until they’re gone.  And you’re meant to find them so irresistible that the next time you go shopping you buy more.  The problem isn’t you, it’s the food.  So ditch the guilt, but ditch these foods too.  Know that you are never going to be able to flex that imaginary mental muscle enough to eat them in moderation, so keep them for a very occasional treat.

Also, if you do eat a sugary or high carbohydrate snack or meal (and that includes many low calorie, low fat foods), don’t be surprised if shortly afterwards your energy levels slump and your mind turns to food – the food you just ate will have given you a blood sugar spike followed by a blood sugar low, which then causes cravings.  Those cravings aren’t a lack of mental muscle but a physical condition.  So try to avoid meals and snacks which are mainly carbohydrate and choose foods which have a good proportion of protein and good fats; these will give you a more prolonged, steady supply of energy and most importantly no extreme blood sugar peaks and troughs.

If you’re trying to stick to an exercise regime, make it as pleasant as possible for yourself.  If you put on some tired old leggings and a washed-out tee shirt you’ll feel tired and washed-out when you’re out running or looking at yourself in a gym mirror.  You won’t look forward to exercising if that’s how it makes you feel.  Invest in some well-fitting kit in appealing colours – you’ll enjoy wearing it and you’ll feel so much better about yourself when you’re exercising.   If you go running and like to listen to music make sure you’ve got your most uplifting music on your iPod.

And understand that exercise does not have to be painful, boring or unpleasant.  Exercise shouldn’t feel like a punishment.  So if you don’t like running don’t go running, and if you find your gym intimidating try a different gym or get outside instead.  Exercise should be energising, enjoyable and satisfying, so get imaginative and try something new – Zumba, hiking, dance, cycling, martial arts – the list is endless.  When you find something you enjoy, it won’t feel like a chore, and you’ll be much more likely to stick with it.

Then make sure you fully commit to your plans.  Take note of the language you’re using – when you say “I’m going to try to go to the gym three times this week” you’ve already given yourself a get-out clause by using the word “try”.  Commit to your plans by removing that word, and then tell others what you intend to do.   It’s always easier to let yourself down than it is to let others down, so make a commitment to go running or do a dance class with a friend who will expect you to show up.

Speaking of friends, endeavour to surround yourself with supportive and positive people.  If your friends are constantly trying to tempt you to eat what they know you don’t want to eat, and try to persuade you to go to the pub rather than the gym, then you’re going to struggle to stick with your plans.  Ask for their support and if they are good friends they should be happy to give it.

Finally, understand that healthy living does not have to be 100% perfect.  No one can be 100% perfect, and life would be pretty boring if you were.  Aim for 80-90% healthy, and don’t beat yourself up for the occasional treat.  If you’re eating a bar of your favourite chocolate with a side order of guilt, you won’t enjoy it, and what’s the point of that?  Savour it instead, embrace the pleasure it’s giving you, and know that it’s not the end of your healthy intentions – pleasure is a nutrient too.

So the next time you’re feeling guilty about having no willpower, give yourself a break.  Expend that energy on developing different approach instead.  Remove the temptations (particularly foods which have been designed to break your resolve), make exercise as enjoyable as possible and commit fully to your plans.  Add supportive friends and the occasional guilt-free treat to that mix and you have a recipe for success which doesn’t involve an imaginary mental muscle.