Willpower – the ability to hold back when you need to; to not eat the entire block of chocolate; to go to the gym even when you are tired; to not stop at the fast food drive through even though you really, really want to is a term we often hear about in motivational literature. While some individuals appear to naturally have endless buckets of the stuff – the buffed personal trainers who never let a skerrick of junk food pass their lips or the resolute dieter who can starve their body for months and months at a time; it also appears the way we think about our ability to exert willpower is just as relevant when it comes to exercising self-control.
Early behavioural research exploring young children’s ability to exercise will power and delay gratification was researched in the late 1960’s and 1970’s by psychologist Walter Mishel from Stanford University. The studies found that the largely innate ability of 4 year old children to delay gratification (not eat the marshmallow) for reward, (2 marshmallows instead of 1) predicted success across a range of life domains 20 years later.
Moving forward, as our understanding of physiological variables has increased; our glucose levels have been identified as another significant influence over one’s ability to exercise willpower. Specifically, lab based research studies have shown that some factors associated with the ability to exercise willpower – attention, emotional regulation and suppression are impaired when blood glucose levels are lowered. When this is considered in a ‘dieting’ context, it suggests that fluctuating blood glucose levels caused by dietary restriction of calories and / or carbohydrates may directly impair one’s ability to exercise willpower.
More recently though these findings have been challenged after researchers again from Stanford University found that it is the belief’s we hold about our ability to demonstrate willpower that impacts our ability to maintain self-control and focus. The study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that individuals who believed that their willpower was abundant did not need extra sugar to help them complete challenging tasks compared to the participants who believed their willpower was limited, and then did better on the task after they had consumed a sugary drink. Such as finding would suggest that our beliefs about our own willpower are a factor to address when willpower appears to be limited.
So if you naturally struggle with maintaining your own willpower, here are some simple strategies which may help you to build your willpower muscle, rather than letting it control you.
1) Slow down
Fast, mindless eating leaves us prone to overeating and poor decision making especially for individuals who innately seek out self-gratification without considering the consequences – think the fast drinker or eater who always finishes their meal first. The simple act of pacing; taking time to make considered food and drink choices and then mindfully eating and drinking over longer periods of time naturally helps you to practice self-control.
2) Keep your blood glucose levels stable
We are much more likely to make poor food decisions when our blood glucose levels are low due to poor diet, unstructured meals and snacks, high intakes of caffeine and high sugar tops ups via lollies and soft drinks throughout the day. Regular meals every 3-4 hours that contain both carbohydrates and proteins will support optimal blood glucose regulation.
3) Build your beliefs
Recent research suggests that if you think you can do it, you probably can and if you think you need extra treats and sugars to top you up, you will. Practice positive self-talk to program your natural thought patterns to focus on what you can do, and how you are going to achieve it rather than looking for reasons and excuses not to.
4) Do not leave yourself vulnerable
If you know that you innately struggle to control your food impulses, control your environment so you are not vulnerable. Stop buying the food you are not wanting to eat; or cooking too much and expecting then to not eat it. Often we are our own worst enemies when it comes to controlling our food intake.
5) Know your high risk foods and scenarios
You may be prone to overeating at night, or a 3pm sugar binge. Or you may hate the gym, or exercising in the afternoon. So the best thing you can do to stay on top of these risky times is to actively manage them, rather than waiting to become a victim of them. This may mean scheduling activities in the evening or seeking out another training modality. Put most simply, if you really want to change your diet and lifestyle choices, actively take steps to change to these behavioural patterns rather than repeating past patterns and expecting different results.