Most people think they need to rely on willpower to lose weight. But, as much as possible, you want to rely on making good habits instead and use willpower only in an emergency. Learn how to increase your willpower reserves with a few easy hacks for when you do need to harness willpower for weight loss. This is part 2 of the third shift in The 15 Shifts to Become a Real Loser series.
If you missed it, last week I wrote a post called Pulling Back the Curtain on Willpower, where I talked about what willpower is and what drains it. If you missed it, go check it out and then meet me back here. Don’t worry. I’ll wait...
Now in this post, The Willpower Solution, I’m going to teach you how to harness the power of willpower for weight loss. There's a lot to cover, so if you'd like the Cliff Notes version, check out my summary infographic.
Ok, there’s one thing you need to know before we get started. I’m going to let you in on a secret. The most important thing to know about willpower is…
That’s right. We shouldn’t rely on willpower if we can help it.
Use Willpower in Emergencies
Most people think that when it comes to weight loss, it's all about willpower. That's not true. Willpower is actually an inefficient, costly process.
Sure you can run on pure willpower for a few weeks after January 1st or before a High School Reunion. But long-term, you just can’t spare the willpower resources. We’ve got real lives and real responsibilities that are using up our willpower reserves with little left for a weight loss journey.
We should only use willpower as a last resort or in an emergency. And that's because at some point our bucket of willpower will run out.
In fact, half the time we try to control our impulses, we fail. So if you're trying to keep yourself on the Straight and Narrow Diet Path, by “willpowering” through every urge you have to eat chocolate, you are going to fail ½ the time.
Let that soak in. It’s not just you. It’s everybody. Nothing wrong with you-- it’s just the nature of willpower and impulse control.
Personally, I don’t like those odds.
Use Habits Instead of Willpower
So if we only use willpower in times of emergency, what do we need to do the rest of the time to lose weight?
Roy Baumeister, author of Willpower says:
“People with good self-control mainly use it not for rescue in emergencies but rather to develop effective habits and routines in school and at work…People with high self-control ...use their self-control not to get through crises but to avoid them. They give themselves enough time to finish a project; they take the car to the shop before it breaks down; they stay away from all-you-can-eat buffets. They play offense instead of defense.”
So, what makes up a good offense?
I’ve already explained how our personal health rules can help us to achieve our goals naturally without willpower. But, I’ll explain in later posts how to keep from using willpower by setting up habits (shift #12), controlling your environment (shift #13), and increasing your social support (shift #14).
Every once in a while we'll have to switch to willpower when we're caught off guard. But the key to using willpower for weight loss, is to use it as infrequently as possible.
Better Willpower? Yes, Please!
It happens though. Sometimes we need to use our willpower. So let’s say that we find ourselves, in an emergency willpower situation, what then? Time to get out that willpower bucket.
Last post I mentioned the four ways we can improve our use of willpower reserves. I said that we could--
Monitor our use of willpower and ration it.
Refill our willpower bucket.
Take less scoops of willpower out throughout the day.
Get a bigger bucket of willpower.
Monitor your Willpower and Ration It
Roy Baumeister says that when it comes to willpower, you need to know your limits, watch for symptoms of low willpower, and pick your battles.
Know Your Limits
We know from the last post that all sorts of things can use up our willpower—fighting temptation, filtering out distractions, deciding, learning, or concentrating. The problem with willpower is that there is no clear indication of how much willpower we’ve used and how much is left in our buckets.
It’s like a car with a broken gas gauge. If the driver doesn’t monitor her fuel use, she’ll find herself on a freeway off-ramp on a Saturday morning calling her husband to bring her some gas (In my defense, my car’s gas light is hid by my steering wheel.)
The same thing can happen if we don’t monitor our willpower bucket. We'll find ourselves in a situation relying on willpower, only to find we haven't any left.
Watch for Symptoms of Low Willpower
Baumeister says that there are some questions you can ask yourselves to see if your willpower is running low.
Do things bother you more than they should?
Is it hard to make decisions?
Do you find yourself being more distracted and less able to concentrate?
Are impulses or temptations more tempting than usual?
I'm willing to bet that you can already see the patterns of willpower in your life. For many people, they're particularly low after work/ before dinner or right before going to bed. But, if you happen to be a night owl, maybe early mornings are the hardest for you and you tend to increase in willpower as the day goes on.
I think it’s helpful to notice the times when you typically “mess up” and to notice how low your willpower energy is then.
If you know the patterns of your willpower depletion, plan your day and week accordingly.
Plan the things that are the most taxing when your willpower or energy is the highest. (This is one reason people are more successful exercising in the morning than evening). Never make big decisions or have important conversations when you know your willpower and energy levels will be low.
Pick Your Battles
Baumeister also recommends rationing your willpower use by picking your battles-- meaning that you should,
“Focus on one project at a time. If you set more than one self-improvement goal, you may succeed for a while by drawing on reserves to power through, but that just leaves you more depleted and more prone to serious mistakes later.”
He credits the tendency to try and change way too much at once and running out of willpower the reason for failed New Year’s Resolutions.
In summary to lose weight consistently,
plan your day and week to maximize your willpower. Pick your willpower battles and only work on one nutrition or activity change at a time.
Refill your Willpower Bucket
If you want to refill your willpower reserves, there are many things you can do to top off your bucket. Most of these you've probably used in the past, but it's helpful to see them all in one place.
Pick Something to Refill your Willpower
If you're feeling depleted, do one of the following things that research has shown can increase your willpower:
Make a list of several things you're grateful for
Eat a high protein, slow carb snack
Spend time with friends and/or family (WARNING--Spending time with your teenagers might not replenish your willpower:-)
Tidy up (It's super lame for us ladies with lots of kids, but being in a clean environment gives you more willpower)
Take a nap (but not while meditating)
Have a religious or spiritual experience (you know-- pray, read, or journal)
Take a walk (particularly out in nature)
These activities can help you feel refreshed and ready to take on the world again. For me, a walk on our local greenway perks me right up.
All of these replenishing activities are powerful, but what if you find yourself too depleted to do them or don't have the time?
Kelly McConigal, author of The Willpower Instinct, to the rescue. She says that in an emergency willpower situation all we have to do is take some deep slow breaths.
“You won’t find many quick fixes … but there is one way to immediately boost willpower: Slow your breathing down to four to six breaths per minute. That’s ten to fifteen seconds per breath—slower than you normally breathe, but not difficult with a little bit of practice and patience. Slowing the breath down …shift (s) the brain and body from a state of stress to self-control mode. A few minutes of this technique will make you feel calm, in control, and capable of handling cravings or challenges.”
I like to breathe in for four seconds, hold for two, breathe out for 6 seconds. Go ahead. Try it right now. It feels so good.
I only do the breathing about four times. That’s all I need to make the shift from fight-or-flight stress mode to pause-and-plan and in control mode.
In summary to lose weight,
Refill your willpower by taking some time to do an energizing activity. For a quick pick me up, when faced with a food challenge, breathe slowly a few times to refill your willpower.
Take Less Scoops of Willpower Out
It's surprising but researchers have found that people who seem to have great willpower actually use less willpower than the rest of us because they have great habits. This mean they’ve set up their own personal rules and habits to keep from taking scoops of willpower out of their buckets.
This is one of the most important lessons that I teach my coaching clients.
Using habits and personal rules allow us to take less scoops of willpower out of our buckets throughout the day because willpower works on the thinking or executive function level of the brain. We have to be paying attention to use willpower. But, habits and personal rules work on the sub-conscious level of our brain. These choices are on auto-pilot, no thinking, decisions, or willpower involved.
There's a common myth that it takes 21 days to make a habit. Actually, it can take a lot less time or more time depending on the habit. If you tried to make a habit to eat ice cream every night, it'd take you two days tops. But being active every day can seem to take months.
Don’t fear though. I am going to teach you a hack that can help you skip the long drawn out habit-making process. It’s an extremely powerful life hack that will allow you to make habits and personal rules by literally just writing done one sentence.
This habit magic is called implementation intentions. Implementation intentions are an incredibly effective way to pre-commit your brain to an action by skipping the thinking part of the brain and working on the sub-conscious.
Now I know the name implementation intention, is totally awkward. Definitely dreamed up by a scientist. I just call them Willpower Solution Statements with my clients. Whatever their name, you'll call them super simple and so easy to use.
To make them all you have to do is come up with an If____, then____ statement to identify the willpower challenge and the solution that you want your brain to choose.
So let’s say, I want to stop eating all afternoon once my kids come home from school (not that I know anything about this). I would make an implementation intention that says, ”If it’s time to give my kids a snack, then I will eat one serving of nuts.” That’s it. Problem solved. Now my brain will know that this is the course of action to take instead of mindlessly snacking all afternoon.
I know it sounds super simple. It is. But it works.
Walter Mischel of The Marshmallow Test, says
“In life, employing If-Then implementation plans has helped adults and children control their own behavior more successfully than they had imagined possible. If we have these well-rehearsed plans in place, the self-control response will become automatically triggered by the stimulus to which it is connected. (‘If I approach the fridge, then I will not open the door’; ‘If I see a bar, then I will cross to the other side of the street’; ‘If my alarm goes off at 7 a.m., then I will go to the gym’). The more often we rehearse and practice implementation plans, the more automatic they become, taking the effort out of effortful control.”
Download my Willpower Action Guide and make some implementation intentions to fast track your habits and find instant solutions to your willpower challenges.
You've gotta try this. They’ll change your life.
In summary to lose weight,
To avoid using willpower, when faced with a food or activity challenge, make an If____, then ______ statement.
Get a Bigger Bucket of Willpower
Ok, onto our last step to improving your willpower--getting a bigger bucket. The holy grail of willpower. This is the wish of all my clients. “I just want more willpower.”
Practice a Small Willpower Challenge
Surprisingly, getting more willpower can be simpler than you think. Practicing one small willpower challenge can increase your willpower for other tasks. Researchers have found that subjects doing small willpower challenges like using their non-dominant hand, not using contractions when they talk, and standing up straight improves their willpower in all areas of their lives in a few weeks time.
If you want to get more willpower for weight loss (and all parts of your life), pick a small willpower challenge and practice it.
I think it's a good idea to pick a challenge of something useful. You can choose any small non-important willpower task, but I'm partial to the idea of standing up straight. I have no long term goal to use my left hand, and I like using contractions in my writing. But standing up straight, I could definitely use more of that.
Increase Willpower by Believing You Can
There is one more simple way to increase the size of your willpower bucket.
All you've got to do to supersize your willpower, is change the way you view it.
Experts like to describe willpower like a muscle. Every time you use your willpower muscle, you may wear it out, but you will ultimately build your willpower strength by doing tough stuff. But apparently you have to believe that you are getting energized, getting stronger, and getting more willpower by doing tough stuff, for this to work.
I know. Mind blown.
You can't think, "Wow. I worked so hard. Now I am all out of willpower." Thoughts like this will prevent the willpower growing effect.
You have to think instead, "Wow. I worked so hard. Now I am supersizing my willpower. Yeah, me!"
Walter Mischel explains,
“If you believe that persisting on tough tasks is energizing rather than depleting, will it protect you from fatigue? Indeed yes: when people are led to think that effortful tasks will invigorate rather than drain them, they improve their performance on a later task."
In summary to get healthy and lose weight,
Get more willpower for weight loss by working on a small challenge like standing up straight. Also, believe that working on your food and activity willpower challenges will make you stronger in the log run.
We covered a lot in this post about willpower. But, this infographic will help you remember all the great things you learned. Here's to you becoming a willpower ninja! (Yeah, I'm helpful like that;-).
I got a request from a reader to make the infographic into a downloadable pdf. I'm glad you asked. No email required. Click here or click on the image below for a printable refrigerator version.
If you want help conquering a specific willpower challenge, remember to download The Willpower Solution Action Guide to make an instant new habit.
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...
I'm a dietitian, personal trainer, and health coach who started asking all the tough health and weight loss questions-- like how do we get more willpower, why can’t we stay motivated, and why is getting healthy and losing weight so tough?
I discovered that the answer to all these questions is simply--Your Brain.
I help you stop the health and weight loss struggles by understanding your brain and then working with it—instead of against it. Then, I teach you how to put your personalized healthy habits on autopilot for results that last.
I believe that you deserve the health and energy to live your best life.