When we think about what it takes to succeed with a new diet or fitness program, one word comes to mind: willpower. But, is it as simple as having or not having enough willpower to get X,Y and Z done, or to resist common temptations, or avoid sabotaging yourself? The answer is NO. We tie our success to willpower without actually understanding what it means and how to use it effectively.
Today, I wanted to share a chapter from one of my favourite books ‘The One Thing’ by Gary Keels and Jay Papasan, which talks about the timing of willpower. When I was reading it, I had so many lightbulb moments going off in my head and I thought I had to share it with anyone doing a paleo reset or other similar diet programs.
I highly recommend reading the whole book as it’s full of valuable tips and insights on how to get extraordinary results in life, whether it be your career goals, health and fitness, or personal development. This post is a little long, as I didn’t want to paraphrase the author too much, although I have omitted a few paragraphs here and there to make it shorter. Long story short, this might give you a new perspective on what willpower actually means and how you can use it to reach your goals. Grab a cup of tea and enjoy. I’d love to know what you think, so come and share your thoughts on Facebook or in the comments below. And, get the book!
From THE ONE THING, Chapter 7, Willpower Is Always On Will-Call:
Widely regarded as the singular source of personal strength, willpower gets misinterpreted as a one-dimensional prescription for success. But for the will to have its most powerful way, there’s more to it than that. Construe willpower as just a call for character and you miss its other equally essential element: timing. It’s a critical piece.
Willpower is always on will-call is a lie.
Most people assume willpower matters, but many might not fully appreciate how critical it is to our success. One highly unusual research project revealed just how important it really is.
In the late 60’s and early ’70s, researcher Walter Mischel began methodically tormenting four-year-olds at Stanford University’s Bin Nursery School. More than 500 children were volunteered for this program. The devilish experiment was called ‘The Marshmellow Test’. It was an interesting way to look at willpower.
Kids were offered one of three treats – a pretzel, a cookie, or the now-infamous marshmallow. The child was told that the researcher had to step away, and if he could wait 15 minutes until the researcher returned, he’d be awarded a second treat. One treat now or two later.
Left alone with a marshmallow they couldn’t eat, kids engaged in all kinds of delay strategies, from closing their eyes, pulling their hair, and turning away, to hovering over, smelling, and even caressing their treats. On average, kids held out less than three minutes. And only three out of ten managed to delay their gratification until the researcher returned. It was pretty apparent most kids struggled with delayed gratification. Willpower was in short supply.
Initially, no one assumed anything about what success or failure in the marshmallow test might say about a child’s future. But, starting in 1981, Mischel began tracking down the original subjects. He requested transcripts, compiled records, and mailed questionnaires in an attempt to measure their relative academic and social progress. His hunch was correct – willpower or the ability to delay gratification was a huge indicator of future success.
Success in the experiment predicted higher academic achievement, SAT test scores that were much higher, higher feelings of self-worth, and better stress management. One the other hand, “low delayers” were 30 per cent more likely to be overweight and later suffered higher rates of drug addiction. When your mother told you “all good things come to those who wait”, she wasn’t kidding.
Willpower is so important that using it effectively should be a high priority. Unfortunately, willpower is not on will-call, and putting it to its best use requires you to manage it. Just as with “the early bird gets the worm” and “make hay while the sun shines”, willpower is a timing issue. When you have your will, you get your way. Although the character is an essential element in willpower, the key to harnessing it is when you use it.
Think of willpower like the power bar on your cell phone. Every morning you start out with a full charge. As the day goes on, every time you draw on it you’re using it up. So as your green bar shrinks, so does your resolve, and when it eventually goes red, you’re done. Willpower has a limited battery life but can be recharged with some downtime. Because you have a limited supply, each act of will creates a win-lose scenario where winning in an immediate situation through willpower makes you more likely to lose later because you have less of it. Make through a tough day in the trenches, and the lure of late-night snacking can become your diet’s downfall.
Everyone accepts that limited resources must be managed yet we fail to recognize that willpower is one of them. We act as though our supply of willpower were endless. As a result, we don’t consider it a personal resource to be managed, like food or sleep. This repeatedly puts us in a tight spot, for when we need our willpower the most, it may not be there.
Stanford University professor Baba Shiv’s research shows just how fleeting our willpower can be. He divided 165 undergraduate students into two groups and asked them to memorize either a two-digit or a seven-digit number. Both tasks were well within the average person’s cognitive abilities, and they could take as much time as they needed. When they were ready, students would then go on to another room where they would recall the number. Along the way, they were offered a snack for participating in the study: either a chocolate cake or a fruit salad.
Here’s the kicker: students asked to memorize the seven-digit number were nearly twice as likely to choose cake. This tiny extra cognitive load was just enough to prevent a prudent choice.
The implications are staggering. The more we use our mind, the less minding powder we have. Willpower is like a fast-twitch muscle that gets tired and needs rest. It’s incredibly powerful, but it has no endurance. As Kathleen Vohs put it in Prevention magazine in 2009, “Willpower is like gas in your car…When you resist something tempting, you use some up. The more you resist, the emptier your tank gets, until you run out of gas.”
While decisions tap our willpower, the food we eat is also a key player in our level of willpower.
Food For Thought
The brain makes up 1/50th of our body mass but consumes a staggering 1/5th of the calories we burn for energy. Most of our conscious activity is happening in our prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain responsible for focus, handling short-term memory, solving problems, and moderating impulse control. It’s at the heart of what makes us human and the centre of our executive control and willpower.
Here is an interesting fact. The most recent parts of the brain to develop are the first to suffer if there is a shortage of resources. Older, more developed areas of the brain, such as those that regulate breathing and our nervous responses, get first helpings from our bloodstream and are virtually unaffected if we decide to skip a meal. The prefrontal cortex, on the other hand, feels the impact.
Advanced research shows us why this matters. A 2007 article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology detailed nine separate studies on the impact of nutrition and willpower. In one set, researchers assigned tasks that did or did not involve willpower and measured blood-sugar levels before and after each task. Participants who exercised willpower showed a marked drop in the levels of glucose in the bloodstream. Subsequent studies showed the impact on performance when two groups completed one willpower-related task and then did another. Between tasks, one group was given a glass of Kool-Aid lemonade sweetened with real sugar (buzz) and the other was given a placebo, lemonade with Splenda (buzzkill). The placebo group had roughly twice as many errors on the subsequent test as the sugar group.
The studies concluded that willpower is a mental muscle that doesn’t bounce back quickly. If you employ it for one task, there will be less power available for the next unless you refuel. To do our best, we literally have to feed our minds, which gives new credence to the old saw, “food for thought”. Foods that elevate blood sugar evenly over long periods, like complex carbohydrates and proteins, become the fuel of choice for high-achievers – literal proof that “you are what you eat”.
One of the real challenges we have is that when our willpower is low we tend to fall back on our default settings. This begs the question: What are your default settings? If your willpower is dragging, will you grab the bag of carrots or the bag of chips? Will you be up for focusing on work at hand or down for any distraction that drops in? When your most important work is done while your power wanes, the default will define your level of achievement. The average is often the result.
Give Willpower The Time Of Day
We lose our willpower not because we think about it but because we don’t. Without appreciating that it can come and go, we let it do exactly that. Without intentionally protecting it every day, we allow ourselves to go from a will and a way to not will and now way. If success is what we’re after, this won’t work.
Think about it. There are degrees of willpower strength. Like the battery indicator going from green to red, there is willpower and there is ‘won’t’ power. Most people bring won’t power to the most important challenges without ever realizing that’s what makes them so hard. When we don’t think of resolve as a resource that gets used up, when we fail to reserve it for the things that matter most, when we don’t replenish it when it’s low, we are probably setting ourselves up or the toughest possible path to success.
So how do you put your willpower to work?
You think about it. Pay attention to it. Respect it. You make doing what matters most a priority when your willpower is at its highest. In other words, you give it the time of the day it deserves.
- What taxes you willpower
- Implementing new behaviours
- Filtering distractions
- Resisting temptation
- Suppressing emotion
- Restraining aggression
- Suppressing impulses
- Taking tests
- Trying to impress others
- Coping with fear
- Doing something you don’t enjoy
- Selecting long-term over short-term rewards
Every day, without realising it, we engage in all manner of activities that diminish our willpower. Willpower is depleted when we make decisions to focus our attention, suppress our feelings and impulses, or modify our behaviours in pursuit of goals. It’s like taking an ice pick and gouging a hole in our gas line. Before long we have willpower leaking everywhere and none left to do our most important work. So like any other limited but vital resources, willpower must be managed.
When it comes to willpower, timing is everything. You will need your willpower at full strength to ensure that when you’re doing the right thing, you don’t let anything distract you or steer you away from it. Then you need enough willpower the rest of the day to either support or avoid sabotaging what you’ve done. That’s all the willpower you need to be successful. So, if you want to get the most out of your day, do your most important work – your ONE thing – early before your willpower is drawn down. Since your self-control will be sapped throughout the day, use it when it’s at full strength on what matters most.
- Don’t spread your willpower too thin. On any given day, you have a limited supply of willpower, so decide what matters and reserve your willpower for it. If your goal is to stick to healthy eating, then make sure you reserve some willpower to do so. That might mean compromising on other tasks and goals that require willpower, you decide what is important on that day. Manage your stress levels, get plenty of sleep, meditate – whatever helps you recharge that battery.
- Monitor your fuel gauge. Full-strength willpower requires a full tank. Never let what matters most be compromised simply because your brain was under fuelled. Eat right and regularly. If you skip a meal or have a meal that is high in sugar or refined carbs that will result in your blood sugar levels falling quicker, your willpower will suffer and you are more likely to make bad food choices. So, avoid skipping meals or perhaps avoid getting too hungry, and choose more sustained and satiating fuel (which is what HBF program is all about!)
- Time your task. Do what matters most first each day when your willpower is strongest. If you struggle to fit in your exercise, do it when you have the most willpower. Use high willpower time to pack those healthy snacks and lunches, so you have fewer temptations later on. Do the meal prep so you have fewer decisions to make later in the week when the willpower is down.
- Getting through the weekends. The reason why weekends are so hard in any diet program is that you’ve most likely used up a lot of your willpower during the week. Give yourself some downtime in the lead up to the weekend, so that you have a more recharged battery when faced with situations that can sabotage your plan, or try to avoid having to make those decisions on the weekend.
Don’t fight your willpower. Build your days around how it works and let it do its part to build your life. Willpower may not be a will-call, but when you use it first on what matters most, you can always count on it.