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“I want a donut! I have no willpower!”
When was the last time you thought that? Maybe you have even shouted it, as you reach for a second donut at the office, or into that bag of dark chocolate covered almonds for the second—third?—time that evening?
We all want more willpower. But what is it?
Willpower is the ability to force yourself to do things that you really do not want to do. You are using the force of your mind to override what your emotions, habits, environment and peers want you to do.
Willpower is strong. Willpower will help you accomplish tasks that are unpleasant, or difficult, or contrary to your personal preferences. Willpower will help you reach deadlines. Willpower will make you look like a superman!
And you can run out of willpower.
Why? It is so frustrating. You would think that the closer to your end goal, and the longer your chain of successes, the easier it will be to power through to the end. But how many of you pick a goal, make a lot of progress and then stumble, fall, and never get up?
It happens. It is happening to me, right now. Last week we talked about being stuck, and how to un-mire ourselves. That isn’t my problems right now. Nope, right now, I am running out of willpower. I simply don’t want to keep fighting the weight battle. And it’s more than that, I don’t want to keep doing anything.
What happened to me? I’m Coach T! I help everyone find more success…and yet I’m telling you that my only desire is to plant my butt in my recliner and watch Game of Thrones.
What’s wrong with this picture?
According to Baumeister and Tierny (2012) in their book “Willpower: Rediscovering the greatest human strength” willpower is not supplied infinitely. The more you use your mind to override your habits and preferences, the less you have and the harder it is to keep “powering on.” When you are on a weight loss journey, you are required to make constant decisions using willpower. Every day, for the entire journey, you need to make the same decision. Eat or not eat? Even if you pack a lunch (as I do) there will always be temptations around. Maybe someone brings a box of donuts to the office. Maybe you smell popcorn when you go to the gas station to pay for tank of gas. It might be the sight of pizza, or burgers, or chicken, in a television commercial.
Maybe your goal is to write a book. You have been working on this for months. You average 1000 words a day. When you sit down at your computer, you want to write a day’s worth of words….but you notice those dirty dishes. Or you check your email. Or you watch a dozen cute kitten videos on YouTube. You don’t plan to procrastinate the day away, but your ability to override your curiosity (or bad habits) is not strong enough.
Many things can happen to derail you off your planned path. Let’s look at some of the more common causes.
- Are you bored?
- Are you depressed?
- Are you under stress (outside of this goal?)
- Are you ill or injured?
- Now that you are making progress, did you decide that the goal is not worth the effort?
Let’s look at the first three, because they are connected. Boredom, depression, and stress are all emotional responses to our current situation. How we address each is based on the source of that feeling.
Boredom might signify that your goal is not challenging enough. If your goal is weight loss, and you find yourself bored, you might need to make a change. Maybe you can change your menu for a while. Try a vegetarian—or vegan—diet for a month or two. Maybe you need to find a new cookbook, a new regional cuisine and make three new recipes a week. Maybe you divert from weight loss as your primary goal and switch to a fitness goal. (You can train for a half marathon, or a century bicycle ride.) Maybe simply adding a new activity, like swimming or yoga will be enough to give you a new appreciation for this goal.
Depression is powerful but can come on very subtly. Find a trusted confidante and talk about it. Maybe when you verbalize your feelings to someone, you can start to face the problem. I’m not talking necessarily seeing a counselor, but a good friend can sometimes be just enough of a listening ear. Sometime (at least for me) I find that when I talk to my wife about my problems, solutions seem to suddenly become more obvious. That does not guarantee improved results, but it does sometimes open my eyes to new possibilities.
External stress is tough. Maybe it’s the job, or the family. Maybe you are overcommitted to local groups and people. We all have only 24 hours in a day, and getting up earlier isn’t always the solution. Maybe you need to reduce obligations, and set boundaries. I try to never look at email after 7pm every evening. I have yet to read an email that arrives in the evening that could not have waited until the morning. And sometimes those late night emails only serve to add to our baseline stress. Set limits. And carve out time for yourself and your family. You—and they—need that as much and more likely more than your employer.
Illness and injury play a major role in this, and in looking at my situation, I think that is a major part of my problem. My knees are shot. I am less than 4 weeks from planned bilateral total knee replacement surgery. They hurt. All the time. From the time I awaken, to the moment I fall asleep. I can take narcotic painkillers to reduce the pain but it never goes away. That constant physical and mental stressor saps a lot of internal strength. When I get place in a position where I need to make a good decision, sometimes I just don’t.
It’s not that I don’t know the right decision. It’s that the amount of mental and emotional energy needed to make that decision is just beyond my capacity right now. And believe me, that lack of decision-making frustrates me more than you would believe!
What if you no longer want your goal? That happens. For a while, I had the beginning of a business plan for a brewpub (brewery and restaurant.) I had a floor plan sketched out, a menu, and beer recipes all planned out. I had a few buildings in mind. I only lacked the funds, and I knew several business bankers that might have been in a position to help me.
And then I started thinking about the long term. Yes, I love cooking, and I love brewing beer. Without being over-egotistical, I am good at both. But did I really want to commit myself to that job, day after day? Did I want to put myself in a position where my ability to improvise, to create meals and beers using new ingredients, making changes every time to find something a little better, is stifled because the restaurant and brewery demand consistency?
Did I want to buy a job? Because until—and if—that business became successful, I would be committed to working every aspect of it. Every day. Without vacation.
Was my love of cooking and brewing strong enough to overcome those challenges?
The answer was “no.” And when I finally came to that realization, I immediately had more enjoyment when cooking and brewing, because now I was doing it for the love of it, not because I was preparing for the business of it.
My goal had changed. It was not sudden, but after more than six years of tinkering with the plan, my excitement waned. And I am lucky! Can you imagine if my excitement had lasted long enough to start the business, only to find the monotony of consistency killing my joy?
It is possible that your willpower has dissipated because you subconsciously realize you no longer believe your goal is work the effort. And if that is the case, don’t fret about it. We all change over time. Just try to find another goal worthy of your efforts.
Okay. Now we know common reasons for our willpower to weaken. That’s great. But what are we going to do about it?
Willpower is used when two or more choices are given to you, and usually one of the choices has a greater immediate appeal (the taste of that double scoop of ice cream) over the alternative (go home and eat a yogurt or an apple.) That makes sense because if the “correct” choice was also the preferred choice, you would not need willpower, right?
Since decisions frequently integrate willpower, how can we reduce our total decisions in a day? We can plan and automate our life to reduce choice overload. In other words, we stop putting ourselves in positions where we need to decide.
Going back to the “Willpower” book, the authors suggest that reducing the number of choices we make will allow us to make better decisions. The best way of reducing decisions is to make them when our willpower tank is still full. Decide in advance!
I like to plan my meals in advance. Using my LoseIt app, I can log all my foods one or more days in advance. In doing so, I do not need to think about what I want to eat, I simply look at what I have already logged. Many times that is enough to keep me on the right path, but not always. I will admit it: sometimes I make choices that are not in my long term best interests.
So I enhance that pre-deciding by working together with my wife, so that we have both decided on daily menus. That way, if one of us seems to be slipping, we can help reinforce our decision. Working on lifelong goals is easier if you are not alone.
Something else we do together is grocery shopping. Oh, usually I am the one who actually walks the stores and buys the foods, but after we plan out meals for the next 7-10 days, we create a very specific shopping list. I buy only what we need to make the foods we want to eat. That way, my only decisions are which brand of each item I will buy. (And frequently, I use another question by using “which item has the lowest sodium content” as my deciding factor.)
When we have our meals planning in advance, and I only buy the foods I need, that greatly limits my options, and removes some of the mealtime decisions.
I talk about “5 Secret Tricks” of weight loss where I go into greater detail on how to plan ahead for weight loss success in my episode at MYST/5Tricks
Okay, so you know all about planning ahead. But still, even I fall victim to poor choices. So what else can we do?
Another great book by Charles Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit” (2014) where the author talks about how habits can cause problems, but we can also use our ability to create habits for positive results. A habit is nothing more than a response to a stimulus, repeated often enough that we can take that act without thinking.
How many of you drive a manual transmission car? I remember learning, and it was painful. At first. I shifted too early, or too late. I let the clutch out too fast, or too slow. I was terrible.
Until I had driven for a while. After a few weeks (maybe not even that long) I had learned how to shift based on the sound of the engine without thinking. I learned that in 1985. I hadn’t driven a stick shift since 1998, but I recently borrowed a friend’s car and drove it with hesitation. Habits don’t go away easily.
What about the habit of distractions? When you are trying to write your book, but see nothing but everything else that you need to do? How can we break that habit? Well, with a combination of planning and habit creation.
Let’s say you work at home. Make a new habit. Before you even turn your computer on, or open your legal pad, you make a circuit through the house. Any small task that you can complete in less than 5 minutes (for any given task) do it immediately. That may mean taking care of the dishes, or folding a basket of laundry, or making the beds. Whatever the tasks, they are small but distracting. Create your new habit:
- Stimulus: Plan to write
- Action: Take care of small distractors
- Response: Sit down and complete your writing assignment
But when you are clearing those small tasks, you will certainly find things that need to be completed that will take longer than five minutes. That is when you implement the “Decide in Advance” model and create a schedule. For example, maybe you pre-decide that after a five page minimum, as soon as you seem to hit a sticking point that is when you will take the dog for a 20-30 minute walk. By leaving the trigger open ended, you are not creating an arbitrary time to walk your dog. It could be that after five pages you discover that you found a very smooth rhythm. Stopping because of an arbitrary time signal could ruin the flow of thoughts. But by setting a minimum threshold, you guarantee some productivity before you take your first major pre-planned distraction. (And going for a 20-30 minute walk may be exactly what you need to recharge your creative center.)
After the walk (or whatever your task was) return to your previous assignment, and again, stop when you have reached a stagnant spot after hitting that minimum trigger level, and go on another pre-planned task.
This creates the habit of clearing the simple distractions, and building in escape route when your creativity dissipates.
What about eating habits? You will need to find an acceptable alternative to your trigger foods, and using the pre-decision model, you will either buy your foods in small single serving portions or you will repackage them after you bring them home. Yes, that will either cost more in money or time, but you will benefit in the long run. One of my triggers is potato chips. I can’t leave an open bag alone. An open bag will rapidly become an empty bag. So I only buy chips in single serving sized bags. When I find that I need chips (which is rare, as long as the bag is sealed) I can go outside (to the storage shelves in the garage) and bring in the one bag that is on the shelf. I can get my “chip fix” but it is self-limited.
Actually, that habit is also from Brian Wansink’s “Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solution for Everyday Life” (2014) because it requires that I not walk to the kitchen, but out to the garage and that extra walk is usually enough to let me reconsider my actions.
When my wife and I drive somewhere (and the drive is more than an hour in duration) we always pack a travel bag of healthy snacks. We created that habit because otherwise we would stop for gas or coffee and end up buying the immediately available foods (which are rarely good choices). We drive from Green Bay Wisconsin, to Boston Massachusetts, to Maine, Ontario and home one summer. We covered more than 3200 miles, and we always had our snack bag in our car. We were able to maintain good control because we A) pre-decided our snacks and B) created the habit of packing our snacks.
We all need to make good decisions, every day. But if we use a little planning, we will be able to make fewer decisions especially later in the day when our willpower well is almost empty. And when we plan ahead, we can circumvent our old habits and lay down a new habit pathway.
Some links (but not all) within these show notes may be Affiliate Links, meaning that I may receive a small commission when readers click on them and then purchase something. This does not increase your cost at all, but it does help me cover some of the cost associated with this podcast. Thanks!
Music composed and performed by Jason Shaw, courtesy of Audionautix.com
Voiceover courtesy of Matt Young. Matt is a professional voiceover artist. If you have any need of voiceover work, for your podcast, radio spot, or whatever, you can reach Matt by a variety of methods. He is on LinkedIn. On Twitter. And Google+. And you can read his really nice, contemplative blog. Matt was also my guest on MYST 54. Give his story a listen!