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!

TAGS:  dear mark

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending more than three decades educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates flavorful and delicious kitchen staples crafted with premium ingredients like avocado oil. With over 70 condiments, sauces, oils, and dressings in their lineup, Primal Kitchen makes it easy to prep mouthwatering meals that fit into your lifestyle.

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