August 24, 2009

Willpower and Won'tpower

Photo: chotda

Remember that annoying article in Time Magazine claiming that exercise won't help you lose weight? Well, I still think they cherry-picked the research, ignored lots of relevant studies, and came to a silly conclusion. However, they mentioned some research along the way, in the course of causally discouraging millions of overweight sedentary folks from getting more active, that I thought was quite interesting. Did you catch it?

According to Time, self-control studies suggest that "self-control is like a muscle: it weakens each day after you use it. If you force yourself to jog for an hour, your self-regulatory capacity is proportionately enfeebled. Rather than lunching on a salad, you'll be more likely to opt for pizza."

So we only have a limited amount of willpower and then it runs out? And if we use it up doing one set of "good" things, we won't have any self-control left to accomplish other virtuous goals we might have?

Well, I'm not sure the research is in unanimous agreement over this--I seem to recall a study that suggested the opposite. It found that people who tried to make a whole bunch of healthy changes at once (diet, exercise, quitting smoking etc) actually were more successful meeting their goals than the folks who concentrated on a single thing at a time.

But of course I can't find that study anymore! And at the time, I remember thinking it was hooey.

Because I actually do wonder if we have natural limits on our willpower, and can only tackle so many challenges at once. At least I observe this phenomenon in myself all the time.

Anyone else find that if they're putting a lot of mental effort into one goal, the other stuff starts to slip? If I've been keeping up with my cardio and weight training and eating lots and lots of vegetables and no cupcakes, then I might start forgetting to floss my teeth or work on my novel or correct my crappy posture. There'll be tumbleweed-sized dust bunnies drifting lazily across our bedroom floor and I will see them and say "hi, dust bunnies" instead of chasing after them with a mop or a broom.

It's like there's a concrete amount of willpower in my psychological bank account. And if I try to write too many self-improvement checks? The damn things start bouncing.

So, would you like some tips on maximizing your self control and getting the most out of what limited willpower you've got? Well then what are you doing reading Cranky Fitness instead of a real self-help blog?

But hey, while you're here, I'll pass on a few ideas. I'm hoping that people who are not known McSlackers can contribute better tips in the comments.

Crabby's Tips For Conserving Precious Willpower

Dreading something? Then Stop Rehearsing It. Well, not if what you're dreading is a your acting debut in a Broadway play and you haven't bothered to learn your part yet. In that case, rehearse already, dumbass!

But, to use a completely hypothetical example: say you're trying to muster up the willpower to go to the gym, even though you've recently decided you hate the gym. Then why on earth would you keep going over in your head how much you hate doing leg presses and rows and all the rest of it, and then remind yourself how crowded and hot it's going to be when you get there?

Every time you envision something you're not looking forward to, you are giving yourself an opening to bail. And then you have to squander precious willpower to say "no, there's no backing out, you must go. And goddamnit that sucks!" Instead, tell yourself once that you're going, then forbid yourself from dwelling on it and imagining it in vivid, unpleasant detail. The only thing you're allowed to rehearse in your mind is how good you'll feel when your done.

Avoid temptations. Gosh, what a fresh, original piece of advice! Yet I still struggle with this one sometimes. I see some lovely junky treat at the grocery store or the bakery, and I buy it just in case I might feel like it later. Well, duh. If it's in the house, and it's junk, I'm gonna feel like it later. I've learned it works much better for me to keep a semi-healthy reasonable treat like dark chocolate in the house, and save the more decadent treats for when I'm having a total craving. In that case, I can make a special trip and go out and get it--ideally, on foot.

But if I know there's a container of super-premium chocolate ice cream in my freezer, I use up willpower every time I think about it and tell myself "no." And I might say "no" twenty times in an evening, then finally say yes and eat a huge bowl. All that wasted willpower, and I still end up eating the ice cream! Arrrgh!

Prioritize. Don't waste will power on unimportant stuff. So many folks squander buckets and buckets of their limited willpower keeping up "appearances," whether it's their personal appearance or the state of their houses or their gorgeous shiny new automobiles or whatever.

Of course if you love car detailing, or housework, or personal primping, then go ahead! Obsessively waxing your convertible or your kitchen floors or your legs will not use up any precious self-discipline if you like doing it. But if you hate these chores and are doing them so frequently because you're "supposed to?" And then, perhaps, rewarding yourself with half a pan of brownies because you were "good"? Bad bargain! Instead let all the superficial stuff go mostly to hell until there's a special occasion, like a hot date or a dinner party or a sincere threat of divorce.

Accentuate the Positive: Well, as is probably obvious, I'm too Crabby to have thought of this one. Mizfit has a great video about thinking about it as "Willingness" instead of "Willpower."

Build Up Bigger Willpower Muscles: Oddly enough, the Time Magazine article that was citing the research about our self-control "muscles" getting "enfeebled" from too many demands forgot to mention another section of the same article. The author also says:

"Not only does self-control show short-term fatigue effects like a muscle does, it also shows long-term improvement, just as a muscle gets stronger through exercise. In other words, there is a long-term effect of gaining strength with practice."

Aha! That's much better news. You may be stuck with a limited amount of willpower on a given day... but if you practice saying "yes" to lifting weights and "no" to eating banana splits, you may find that "willpower" muscle getting stronger.

And common sense tells us that as we move further away from a mindlessly self-indulgent lifestyle to a mostly healthy one, a lot of what seemed like a "sacrifice" starts to feel normal. Because as exercise and nutritious foods become habit, they don't take nearly as much self-control to stick to.

Er, most days, anyway.

So what about you folks, does it feel like there are only so many self-improvement projects you can tackle at once? Or do you have unlimited willpower? Any tips or tricks?


  1. Make as many things a sheer habit as possible.

    It is simply a habit for me to not walk down the chips aisle at the store. I just go past it every time, and don't even think about it any more.

    Then you are saving your willpower for other things.

  2. about torture, my second week on phase one of the southbeach and you have the most delicious looking doughnuts on your blog...*sigh*

  3. Well, I loved this post & your tips & tricks! Me, I am one with unlimited willpower for my workouts & healthy eating. I think I just love being strong & having muscles so much that it keeps me going PLUS I keep finding ways to challenge myself & that is not too hard the older I get! :-) I like the foods I have chosen for my food program so eating them is not hard AND with time, I have learned how to fit in treats without worry & my beloved bread that I will not give up!

    Although you are right, my willpower in the "I must get to finding work or a way to make money" is lost in there... and the cleaning of the house too!!! :-)

    As for my workouts though, I have gotten better & stronger at keeping up with them. I do change it up all the time so maybe that variety helps for me!

  4. I agree - make as many things habits and part of your daily life as possible. Then they "just happen" even when you don't quite feel like it.

  5. Methinks I'm one of the ones who has not exercised her willpower for so long, it's done broke and can never be fixed....

  6. Dr. Judith Beck takes the exact opposite stance of the Time Magazine article on will power. The entire philosophical basis of her book is that will power is just like a muscle - the more you use it, the stronger it gets.

    I tend to agree, though there are times when one has had to white-knuckle it through a very strong temptation, say, a big Thanksgiving dinner, when it's all over and the letdown comes, THAT is the time that is very, very dangerous. It has happened to me!

    Also, the comments above about just making it a part of your daily routine....both to work out and skip the grocery aisle that tempts you....these are so true!

  7. I've recently started experimenting with giving myself options for things I'm having trouble making myself do.

    For example: After work I can choose to a) go for a run, b) do some pilates, or c) at least go for a short walk outside. The idea is that it will increase the chance of me doing something, even if it's not the run.

    I've just started this experiment, so it may go down in flames like other things I've tried to motivate myself. But having options seems to help dispel the all-or-nothing mentality that I too often have.

  8. I agree with Messymimi... if it's a habit, then it doesn't take willpower. Just /train/ yourself not to hear the siren call of the chocolate eclair... hmmmn, actually that sounds pretty good right now...

  9. And I meant to say that I'm hoping by nixing the all-or-nothing mentality, it will require less motivation. We shall see.

  10. Dang, I meant willpower, not motivation. Ok, I'm stopping now.

  11. As messymimi says, make good habits and you don't need willpower. Making those good habits in the first place isn't always easy, but you only have to get through the first few weeks for it to become second nature.

    What worked for me on cleaning up my diet was instead of saying, "I can't have that," I started saying, "I don't eat that."

    The "that" in question wasn't foods, but ingredients. Believe me, once you decide that you don't eat HFCS, partially-hydrogenated oils, and artificial sweeteners, you're left with foods that within a few weeks leave you with fewer diet-sabotaging cravings.

    Can I eat cookies? Of course I can! But the all-natural ones I bake for myself satisfy me at just one or two, and taste much better than store-bought cookies full of unpronounceables that set off cravings.

    Also, don't overthink things. If I debate my morning workouts, I'll talk myself into going back to bed. Just get up, get dressed, and get out the door before you can talk yourself out of it.

    And don't overthink the diet, either. Many of us have an inner Indulgent Grandma who pesters us into thinking we want something when we don't. "Look at the pretty cupcakes! You know you like cupcakes, so you must want one. Oh, come on, of course you want one. How could you not? You're full? I doubt that! Have one, pleeeezzz?"

    Ignore your inner indulger. She's doing you no favors. If you didn't want a donut before your co-worker brought in a dozen for the office, you still don't want a donut. Really.

  12. I'm in the opposite of Time Magazines view also! I haven't been reading Time since they started picking those terrible people for person of the year!

  13. Just reading the words "leg press" has me jones-ing to go to the gym and do them.

    Yes, I read that part about the "will power" muscle and questioned it. Because muscles do get stronger over time with use and he ignored that part of the equation.

    I found after a couple of weeks of eating really healthy I am not tempted by baked goods, chips, or other non-healthy foods. I can walk through the bakery (in my store-located on the way to the fresh produce - how mean) without giving it a second glance.

    Let me slip too much, however, and the cravings return. My mind now honestly has connected grocery stores with Heath bars. Must break that connection pronto.

    But I do feel there is limited "self-improvement" in a day. And it does feel more mental than physical. If I make myself go to the gym and do a hard workout I let myself slip on the housework or other challenging things.

    Perhaps that's one reason why we push for BALANCE in our lives?

  14. I try to put as many decisions regarding maintaining a healthy life on auto-pilot as possible. Prime example, if I don't buy it at the grocery store and bring it home, it won't be there to tempt me. I try to make decisions about things when it is EASY, not when it is HARD.

    I pack my lunch the night before, utilizing healthy good food leftover from dinner. I make the choice about what I will eat for lunch the next day when it is EASY to make the decision. I try NOT to rely upon willpower.

    I try to get up and get my exercise done. The less I think about it, the better. It's a habit.

    Those are just some of my easy/lazy ways to health and fitness.

  15. I tend to be all-or-nothing which is very healthy and balanced.


  16. I think I'm a Roxie clone...I do everything she does - and it works really well for me. Over time, willpower becomes habit. Which makes it all easier to just do, no thinking about it.

  17. Limited amount of willpower? Sounds like an excuse to stop doing what you NEED to do after a short burst. If you have the drive, willpower comes in abundance IMO.

    But, I DO believe in will power becoming stronger, just like any other muscle. In fact, I read one study where they said that every time you DENY a craving that's shit for you, your IQ gets a spike. Hm... not sure about this, but sounded interesting.

  18. I use up all my willpower 3/4 of the month and then leap head-first off the wagon when I'm PMSing. And that's when I start calculating the nutritional value of the neighbor's children...

  19. Not to be too simplistic, but practically every healthful decision we make is an exercise of willpower that gets stronger the more it's used. And I've found that starting off one healthful activity each day (exercise) sets the tone for the rest of the day, making it easier to eat healthy, go to bed early, walk more, etc. I just don't get this Time article AT ALL.

  20. i "try" to come from the less is more and burn to earn mentality... especially when i'm literally and figuratively getting too big for my breeches :)

    my mom always said.. the best diet is to push yourself away from the table

    happy trails all

  21. So, the Time article contradicted itself? First you have a limited amount, but then you get more?
    I say the more you use it the stronger it gets because you build on all the times it worked for you.

  22. there are only so many things that I 'have' to do that I can get through on any given day. However, it turns out that some of my 'have-tos' have turned into 'want-tos' which is MUCH nicer and easier & doesn't use up any of that precious willpower that I need for cleaning!

  23. I think that Time magazine article was a contradictory snarl better aimed at generating controversy than answering legitimate questions.

    They should have hired YOU to write for them. Not that I'm sucking up or anything, but your writing is clear, balanced, and fair.

  24. Hi Crabby,

    "Dreading something? Then Stop Rehearsing It."

    I spend my life saying, "Oh, darn I have to_______ (whatever) before I finally do it.

    I am so done with that! Or, at least, will try to be!!!



  25. I just came to the same conclusion as you regarding "rehearsing" things you don't want to do.

    It's so hard for me to make myself go to the gym at 5:30 am every morning. But the more I think about it, the less I want to do it, so now I try to avoid having it in my mind. Makes me less likely to hit the snooze button.

  26. So, there is now research for making small improvements, and one at a time! Focus on one until it becomes habit and then move one once the will power for it has been strengthened? That's what I got out of it!

  27. Apparently these Time writers are never gonna get to Carnegie Hall. I think I have a better idea now why the subscription rates are plummeting.

    I have to really care about what it is I'm doing to activate the old willpower - otherwise I just undercut myself and the infection of apathy spreads like wildfire. Use it or lose it.

    BTW, the donut porn shot was completely uncalled for. But Mmmmmm-donuts.

  28. Personal experience tells me that if you over exercise you're bound to burn out.

    Physically or mentally.

    Mentally I controlled my physical actions for SO long. For about a year I let myself ONLY take 1 or 2 bites of something 'bad' when out on special occasions (and begged to "PLEASE share") I could turn down any food temptation, have the most intense workouts, and feel great!

    Now, however, my willpower is taking a time out. Life is too short to not enjoy some of the things you love: be it a cupcake, a donut, or a sip of wine. What kind of fun part guest or friend are you if you don't ENJOY every now and then?!

    Yes, my willpower is on hiatus for now - but my calendar is filling up fast :)

  29. I find that I have to hit the gym first thing in the morning before my will power (or lack thereof) has a chance to bite me in the ass.
    Plus I have to keep healthy options in the house like fat free choc. milk instead of choc. ice cream or 100 calorie baked cheetos instead of the entire yawning bag of cheetos. That way if I slip a little every now and then it's not gonna throw me comletely off track.

  30. For me, eating healthy is easy enough, once I make the connection that my feeling stagnant after eating junk is because I ate junk. Going to the gym also got easier when I started limiting my time there.

  31. laaaaaaate to the soiree today (d*mn visiting family cutting into the me time :)) and Ive already yammered what I think--but I wanna rechime in :)

    first? you are funnier than I can ever hope to be.

    next? I love the idea of willpower as a muscle I can exercise.

    tomorrow morning Im SO making mine do deadlifts.

  32. I find myself powerfully turned away from junky junk food (like 2 minute noodles and popcorn) when I exercise a lot

  33. Thanks for the advice to stop "rehearsing", that is really an excellent way to put it!

  34. I agree with messymimi when she says it's all about habits. The lives that we live are just a bunch of habits and all we can do is try our hardest to replace the good ones with the bad ones. One thing I noticed when I was making working out and eating right a habit was that after the initial 21 to 30 days, it wasn't that hard to motivate myself.

  35. Wait, isn't this the same blog that introduced me to "exercising my resistance muscle"? (

    So yeah, like any muscle if you don't use your willpower, it fails easily and quickly. Use it more, you get longer, more sustained results.

    I, however, am currently slacking on this portion of my exercise regime.

  36. I get the concept of over-exercising willpower in one area and finding everything else fall apart eleswhere. My messy house and overweight body tell me I've used up too much willpower on blogging...


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