Marks Daily Apple
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5 Oct

Dear Mark: Low on Willpower

Dear Mark,

I’ve been following the blog for a couple of months now and have been trying to get into a regular exercise routine like you describe. Unfortunately, I get some fitness momentum going and then lose my willpower once I hit stressful or busy times. I feel like it’s a game of two steps forward, one step back (at least). What do you say to someone who’s trying to hit a fitness stride but keeps backsliding? Do you have advice on how to boost willpower? Thanks!

Your question is a timely one. Much was made over a recent study (PDF) that demonstrated willpower as a limited resource. The crux was this: we have a finite amount of willpower in a day (so to speak), and when it’s used up, that’s it. In a given day we might defend against donut cravings at the office all morning, force ourselves to keep our head off the desk in an afternoon slump, resist the opportunity to chew out the neighbor for letting his dog poop on our lawn yet again, and make ourselves go out into the rain to set out recycling and put the kids’ bikes in the garage. Finally, we push ourselves to stay up late in order to finish a company project. Surely, we can be proud of our resolve, our diligence, our commitment to family, work and neighborhood accord. Nonetheless, we’ve left ourselves with neither the time nor remaining willpower to pick up the weight set. Too many tasks, too little energy and too much frustration have zapped our self-discipline, and the balance is zero when we go to direct some toward the day’s workout. The research says this: as much as we’d wish otherwise, we don’t have separate willpower accounts for different areas of life.

The researchers examined the concept of willpower distribution by subjecting some participants to tricky and tedious cognitive exercises and then asking all subjects to dip their hands in ice water for as long as they could. Those whose willpower had been tested before with the cognitive activities weren’t able to hold their hands in the water as long as those who hadn’t been previously taxed.

Moreover, other research suggests even the string of mundane daily decisions (e.g. what to have for dinner, what gift to buy for your cousin’s wedding, etc.) can challenge us enough to weaken our overall resolve by fatiguing our brain. As a result, our motivation and self-organization abilities suffer. (Hmmm…maybe this explains why I find shopping so exhausting….) Self-control not only appears to be a precious commodity; it can be sabotaged by extraneous mental clutter in our lives. Score another point for Grok and the simple existence, I guess.

Nonetheless, researchers say, willpower is like a muscle. The more we use it, the stronger it gets. The key is to direct it well and not expect instant results. Slow and steady will give you best results in this kind of training.

First off, I’d say don’t get discouraged and scrap the whole project. Transitions are usually rough to some degree. Stick with your overall fitness endeavor, but adjust the goal for a while. There’s nothing wrong with taking lifestyle changes in small steps. Some days you might not be able to do everything, but most days you should be able to do something. The key is to make time for yourself and simply keep the date. I’m not used to quoting Woody Allen, but he was on the money when he said “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” Don’t focus on the “work” of the workout ahead. Just summon the will to put your shoes on and walk outside. Skip the gym if you want and just head out the door for a walk. Then see what happens. It might be more productive and/or fun than you expect.

Second, do an inventory of the logistical and personal demands you field on a given day. As the research demonstrates, if you’re spread too thin or distracted too much, you’re setting yourself up for flimsy self-control. I call it the chronically overloaded condition. Far too many people’s lives fit the description, and far too few see it as a central problem for their overall health. Cut out the “noise” of life and overload of duties as much as possible. Avoid the break room altogether if you know temptations reside there. Learn to live with the neighbor’s “issues,” or place them on his sidewalk if you prefer. (I’m remaining neutral on this one.) Enlist the kids to put their own bikes away and put the recycling out while they’re at it. In short, reduce the need to use willpower in other areas of life wherever possible. Are there circumstances that zap more of your energy and will than others? Maybe some self-assessing and creative brainstorming are called for.

At the heart of life’s chaos and infinite demands, I suggest embracing the notion of “paying yourself first.” You’ve likely heard it as a financial concept, but I think it applies to self-care as well. Maybe figure out a way to pay yourself – i.e. workout – early in the day when your willpower stores haven’t been ravaged by the day’s stresses and responsibilities. Aside from devoting your willpower to exercise itself, work on building your self-regulatory power as a whole. Eating Primally will offer a consistent flow of energy and help you avoid the crash and burn of carb dependency. Sleep, not surprisingly, has been shown to directly impact self-control. Likewise, “positive emotions” can boost our self-regulatory resources. “Motivational factors” like “laughter” and “powerful memories” can enhance willpower, as can keeping your eye on the ball. In other words, keep your fitness goal in sight and mind with some kind of visual reminder or daily progress log.

Finally, I suppose one lesson might be to not always fight the willpower shortage. When you have the motivation, work hard and go the full distance. However, when willpower wanes and you can’t muster up the energy to exercise, maybe it’s a sign that you legitimately need a break. Rest days are an important part of just about any exercise program and there’s nothing wrong with skipping the odd workout. As long as these days don’t become frequent occurrences, they won’t be enough to derail your overall physical progress. In fact, they might help you stay on course and reinvigorate your commitment as well as your physical energy. If you feel your workout plan actually fits your life, you’re probably more likely to stick with it. Use the occasional rest day to take it easy and truly recharge.

Primal readers, what say you? Do you depend on willpower to exercise? Why or why not? If so, have you been able to boost your willpower or even overcome it to some degree? Do you depend on it less now than you did early on? If willpower comes and goes (as I suspect it does for most of us), what helps to fill the gaps for you?

As always, thanks for your questions and comments. Keep ‘em coming!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. i think will power is a bit of faith; it takes me believing that every problem is solvable, it just usually takes longer than I think will to solve. I have to trust that baby steps are, in fact, progress made.

    Also I think willpower is mostly just talking myself out of my own bs.

    janice wrote on October 7th, 2009
  2. I just made it through ten days without starch/sugar. When is okay to start partaking in sensible indulgences without undoing everything?

    Sarah wrote on October 8th, 2009
  3. This is easy. Your excercise should be something you like. I don’t care for jogging but I can suck it up and do a few miles a couple times a week. My main things are mountain biking and skiing though. I don’t to imagine life without those activities. Find intense excercise you have fun with. Do it.

    glorth2 wrote on October 9th, 2009
  4. Mark, I thought a lot of this post; I’m glad you wrote it.

    I’ve been mulling over the “willpower as a muscle that can be exhausted” theory since I wrote about a 2007 New York Times blog post that was written about similar research. I think there’s probably something to the conclusion people are reaching from the research, but at best it’s an oversimplification, and at worst it’s an erroneous conclusion. After all, the effects of the study could also be explained other ways, for instance: let’s posit that a person doing something they don’t like tends to inspire resentment (a negative emotion based on a thought along the lines of “I shouldn’t have to do that”). This doesn’t seem like a stretch. Then let’s posit that when people are feeling resentful, they are less compliant. This would seem to explain the results just as well as the “willpower as muscle” idea, with the important difference that if it’s about resentment and compliance, then a little idea repair (also known as “cognitive restructuring”) could remedy the situation and leave willpower unaffected.

    I don’t mean to suggest that we should assume that this alternate explanation, or some other explanation, is the real one necessarily–just that there are a lot of skills (like idea repair) we can apply to willpower that will boost it, and that rather than expecting it to run out, we may want to learn as many of those skills as possible and get all the juice we can out of it.

    Luc Reid
    The Willpower Engine

    Luc Reid wrote on January 4th, 2010
  5. Amazing once again Mark! A post relevant to SO many of us!

    Chris wrote on August 28th, 2012
  6. Like many have said already, Mark, this couldn’t have been better timing for me to read. I’ve been mentally ‘throwing in the towel’ a bit because my will power has been close to zilch. And reading this post – especially that we have limited stores of will power – makes me feel so much better! I’ve been under tremendous stress: caring for my husband (who’s finishing college), two young sons, house, some extended family, now work, and just inching through the financial stresses of living off mostly financial aid (in California!), I just don’t have anything left to give to myself. We’re about to move to a new city, so I’m fixing to head into squaring away schooling for the kids, finding a new home, etc, etc, but I just know that really taking the Primal leap (no pun intended) will make it all easier. It’s just getting through those first few painful days…Here’s to hoping I can do it!

    denisedb wrote on March 22nd, 2013

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