Most people think that if they had more willpower, their weight loss dreams would come true. Willpower is a powerful force, but in order to use it to its full advantage, we need to understand what willpower is, what drains it, and how to best harness it for weight loss. This is #3 in The 15 Shifts to Become a Real Loser series.
Wonderful Wizard of Willpower
Back in the olden days when I was a kid, before Netflix, before VCRs, and even before cable TV, all of America tuned into network TV to watch movies. Once a year they would re-play certain classics like The Sound of Music, The Ten Commandments, or Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.
One of the classics on my must-see list was The Wizard of Oz. Every kid my age knew the beauty of Glenda the good witch, the terror of the flying monkeys, and the evil laugh of the wicked witch. The magic of this movie was that you felt a whole range of emotions. You felt happy, sad, worry, terror, and then back again.
One of the most emotional moments was when Dorothy had pinned all her hope for deliverance on the Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and then discovers he wasn’t what she had hoped. All seems lost, but then Dorothy finds the answers within herself.
Believe it or not, I see the same epic struggle play out with my weight loss clients. Many of them pin their hopes for weight loss on the Wonderful Wizard of Willpower. They tell me that if they just had more willpower, all their weight loss dreams would come true.
But like the Wizard of Oz, willpower is misunderstood. It has power, but not like we think.
I’m going to pull back the curtain on willpower, teach you what it really is, and how to best harness its power for weight loss.
No ruby slippers required, but if you have some, Hey, put them on. That would be so cool.
It’s important to understand what willpower is, what we are up against, and why we struggle with it. When my clients say to me,
“I don’t have enough willpower.”
I tell them,
Let me explain...
Full Bucket O' Willpower
Willpower is like a bucket filled with water. Every morning when you wake up you find that your bucket of willpower has been refilled while you slept. You start the day with a full bucket.
Empty Bucket O' Willpower
Throughout the day, every time you make a decision or use willpower, it’s like a cup has been scooped from the bucket and dumped on the ground. As the day goes on, our buckets become empty.
That’s why we start off our day thinking,
“This is going to be the best day ever. I’m only going to eat kale and carrots.”
But by the time we come home from work, we’re rifling through the cupboards looking for any morsel of chocolate.
There is only one willpower bucket, but lots of things take scoops out and empty our willpower reserve.
Most of us think of willpower as mostly saying no to things—that’s part of it. Researchers call that impulse control. But scoops are also taken out of the bucket when you try to control your thoughts, control your emotions, or try to stay on task and do what you are supposed to do.
Kelly McConigal, PhD, in her book, Willpower Instinct, explains,
“Anytime you fight an impulse, filter out distractions, make a decision, learn something hard, or concentrate, you use more of your willpower strength. This even includes trivial decisions like choosing between the twenty brands of laundry detergent at the market.”
There are a myriad of ways that our willpower gets drained throughout the day.
Half Full Bucket O' Willpower
It’s also important to realize that certain conditions, can make us start off the day with a half-empty willpower bucket.
If we are under a lot of stress, we're hungry, we’re sick, we don’t get enough sleep, or we even have PMS, our bucket doesn’t get totally re-filled while we sleep.
In those situations, we run out of willpower early in the day.
We can all relate to these low willpower conditions.
If we snap at our husband when we are hungry, we are said to be “Hangry.”
Certain times of the month we transform from our mild-mannered, loving selves to some evil-tempered shadow self.
My dog kept me and my husband up most of the night a couple days ago. The next morning I caught myself snapping at my husband for no apparent reason (except my willpower was all used up even before I started the day).
Low Brain Glucose Causes Low Self-Control
Scientists have traced low willpower in times of stress, hunger, sickness, sleep deprivation, or PMS to issues of glucose availability in our brains.
Glucose or blood sugar is the fuel that your brain uses to do its work. All of these conditions/ situations change the amount of glucose fuel that goes to our brains.
Self-control actually takes a lot of brain fuel.
If the brain starts noticing its gas tank of glucose is heading towards empty, it hoards the glucose on hand for more essential tasks like controlling breathing and pumping your heart. Fueling the part of the brain that controls willpower is lower on its list of priorities.
Did you spot a problem here with dieting?
I just said that hunger, aka dieting, can actually make your willpower bucket start off half-empty.
Roy Baumeister, a leading researcher on willpower, calls it the Dieting Catch-22. He explains:
1.“In order not to eat, a dieter needs willpower.
2. In order to have willpower, a dieter needs to eat.”
So, reduced glucose in the bloodstream causes overall willpower to be lower.
Then, your body knows that sweet foods are the quickest way to raise glucose levels again, so you start craving sweets.
Finally, low willpower and low glucose stores cause a person who is depleted to feel emotions, desires, and cravings more intensely.
These all add up to willpower challenges that Baumeister in his book, Willpower, nicknames the Perfect Storm of Dieting.
Now it makes sense. No wonder dieting is so hard. The very act of dieting itself drains our willpower and causes intense sugar cravings.
What to Do About It?
Researchers know that willpower is finite, and there are special problems associated with willpower and dieting. Now the question is what to do about it.
It's not hopeless. There are strategies that we can use to make sure that we are using willpower to our greatest advantage, and I'll lead you through the process.
Basically, there are four ways we can improve our willpower:
· Monitor the level of willpower in our bucket and ration it.
· Refill our willpower bucket.
· Take less scoops of willpower out throughout the day.
· Get a bigger bucket of willpower.
Stay Tuned for Part 2
Understanding willpower and reading this post has probably taken a lot of concentration and drained some willpower out of your bucket. Writing it has definitely taken some scoops out for me. I need a break, and I don’t want to be responsible for you running on empty;-). So stay tuned for Part 2 of this blog post.
We'll meet back and I'll teach you the most powerful strategies to finally optimize your willpower for weight loss.
Until next time,
get the Guide to Losing Weight without Dieting!
What are the secrets of the most successful losers? After coaching hundreds of people, I found these 15 habits and mind shifts in my clients who lose weight and keep it off. Now I'm sharing the guide to losing weight without dieting with you. Get the guide here...
Hi, I’m Treva, your weight loss coach! I'm a dietitian, personal trainer, and health coach who helps women who want to lose weight, but are done with the deprivation and disappointment of traditional dieting. I help you develop a weight loss habit plan that is personalized for your body, your preferences, and your lifestyle. Want Help Losing Weight?