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For well over a month, it was like Christmas at my house. The mailman was dropping off a package almost every day. Some of the things were really useful, like new books. Other things were completely unnecessary, and items that I certainly didn’t need.
“What’s going on?” my roommate asked. “There are packages showing up here every single day.”
“Isn’t it obvious?” I replied. “I’m dieting.”
Willpower is that seemingly elusive quality that so many people feel they lack. Whenever willpower is mentioned, most people’s thoughts default to dietary restraint, but that’s only a small portion of our lives that calls for a little self-discipline.
We call on willpower more often than we might realize. We refrain from snapping at our spouse after a long day. We hold back from flirting with a coworker because we know it’s not proper workplace behavior. We stop before that third glass of wine on a work night. We begrudgingly get out of bed when we’d rather sleep in, to go to the gym, go to work, do the laundry, walk the dog. We brush and floss our teeth at night, even though we are drop-dead tired.
All of these things call on our self-control just as much as avoiding certain types or quantities of food or drink. Yet, we don’t seem to think about that. Instead, we believe these things are merely a part of life. While that may be true, they still require willpower to persevere — or, like health psychologist Kelly McGonigal says, “I Won’t” power.
But, back to my shopping.
Two winters ago, I spent about four months working hard on physique change. I was dieting fairly aggressively, using a whole-foods-only approach. Simultaneously, I was also following an intense training program four to five days a week. The dieting, along with giving it my all in the gym, was very demanding, both physically and mentally. There were days when I didn’t want to train, and countless days when I just wanted a friggin’ carrot cake.
However, I stuck with my plan and carried on. This certainly wasn’t my first rodeo, and I had managed to white-knuckle my way through diets far worse, particularly when I was prepping for a Figure show.
During this most recent stint of dieting, I noticed something interesting about myself: I was shopping online a whole lot.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’ve always liked to shop. This was different, though. I was unable to restrain myself. I would normally find satisfaction in simply browsing, but this time around I was clicking the ‘Buy’ button over and over again.
This went on for weeks before I noticed.
When I finally realized something was awry (mostly because my bank account balance was rapidly decreasing), a light bulb came on: My willpower tank was on empty.
You don’t have multiple sources of willpower; it all comes from the same supply.
For example, several studies have been done on students who were preparing for big exams. Time and time again, they have shown that students are more likely to drink, smoke, make poor food choices, and neglect personal hygiene during that time, because their willpower is being depleted by completely devoting themselves to their studies1.
This means that whether you’re trying to:
… whatever the case may be, it’s all coming from the same supply of willpower.
Eventually the tank will be empty, and something, somewhere, has got to give.
This is part of the reason why so many people gain weight when they quit smoking, or cut back on drinking. They exhaust their ability to exercise self-restraint by avoiding cigarettes or alcohol, and have far less self-control to avoid overindulging in food.
You may have noticed something that is crucial to my story:
I was dieting over the winter. The holidays. This is inarguably the most difficult time of the year to diet. I was attending holiday parties without partaking in the food or drink. As a matter of fact, I packed my own food to Christmas dinner that year. I was also working in an office at the time, and was constantly avoiding all of the tempting holiday cookies and candies.
When I finally broke, instead of giving in on my diet, I turned to a different vice: shopping.
Like I said, something, somewhere has got to give.
At this point you may be thinking: “Oh no! How can I preserve willpower?”
First of all, relax and know that it’s normal. Everyone deals with this sometimes. The first step is to do some introspection, and ask yourself the important question: how am I depleting my willpower?
As you work toward conserving and even building up your willpower, it’s important to figure out what’s scarfing it up in the first place.
Temptation these days is at an all-time high, and most of it is because everything is right at your fingertips. The constant ding of Facebook notifications, the email alerts, and the candy jar calling out to you from you co-workers desk — all these distractions and decision-making are vying for your attention and causing you to draw on your willpower, leaving you fatigued and vulnerable in other areas of your life.
Once you have figured out what your biggest willpower hogs are, the next step is figuring out how to tone them down or eliminate them completely.
For example, I love going to the coffee shop to get an iced coffee, but every time I go in there I have to talk myself out of getting a cinnamon roll. Whether I consciously realize it or not, this is taking a huge toll on my willpower, leaving me more susceptible to give in to something later in my day. In order to end this frequent struggle, I started buying cold brew coffee and making my beloved iced coffee at home. No more pastry temptations.
If staying off of social media during work hours is constantly lingering in your mind, download one of the many apps that forces you to stay off of it during certain hours. This way it’s a non-negotiable, and there is no longer a choice to be made.
Maybe you pass a plate of cookies in your office break room every time you go in there to refill your coffee cup, and you have to fight with yourself to refrain from having one. Cover the cookies with foil, or place them in a cupboard. “Out of sight, out of mind” works brilliantly when it comes to preserving willpower.
The things that eat up your precious self-control aren’t always easy to notice, but like anything, being aware and mindful is key.
If you take time to notice the things that you’re forcing yourself to do (or not do), you can start identifying ways to minimize choices and decisions that could be draining your willpower tank.
Ultimately this will make things easier and you might find yourself coasting right past that next temptation, giving you some time to replenish and preserve willpower in your tank.
As you work on managing your environment and your “decision-making landscape” do you feel like you could use some support? We’re here to help!
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1. M Oaten and K Cheng. Academic Examination Stress Impairs Self-Control. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology: Vol. 24, No. 2, pp. 254-279.