How To Hack Your Willpower

-Juliet Burgh, Nutrition Director

One of the most controversial topics discussed by philosophers is the question of whether or not human beings have any free will and willpower, or if our thoughts and actions are all predetermined. Although I’m not qualified to say, I certainly feel like I have the ability to make my own decisions. I’m sure that millions of people everywhere who are working hard to change their lives and better their health through nutrition and physical activity are also convinced that they influencing their lives, and are proud of those choices.

Assuming you operate under your own free will, you should take steps to make sure that your ability to make choices isn’t degraded in any way.

The major way willpower is compromised is by decision fatigue.

Decision fatigue is a depletion of the ability to fully express one’s willpower in making choices after making many decisions throughout the day. When your willpower is depleted, you are more likely to make decisions that have negative outcomes for yourselves or others.

ate will powerThe term “decision fatigue” was coined by social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister. Dr. Baumeister conducted experiments that showed a “finite store of mental energy for exerting self-control”. After making choice after choice, a person’s will to “choose correctly” becomes worn down. The limited store of energy for right decision-making is depleted over time, disconnecting us from the choice that we ought to make. For example, when subjects were offered some sweets and turned them down, they were more likely to give in to some other temptation or bad habit later on. One extreme situation, a parole board’s decision-making, was analyzed in a report by Jonathan Levav of Stanford and Shai Danziger of Ben-Gurion University. They take the position that the time of day and thus their level of engagement, affected the parole board members’ decisions.

Dr. Nicole Lipkin recently appeared on the show I cohost, the Insatiable Podcast, in an episode called “The Role of Discipline and Weight Loss”, told us that “no matter how powerful you are, or how successful you are, we all begin the day with a tank of willpower and by the end of that day, our willpower is depleted.” Decision fatigue can manifest itself in many ways. One of the most common problems I see with my nutrition clients is that they start the day making the right decisions with regard to their eating choices, and towards the end of the day they hit up the vending machines and order takeout for dinner, leaving them feeling powerless and upset at their lack of discipline.

will powerOne of the most powerful techniques that you can employ to hack your willpower and make it stronger is habituation.

Once a daily activity becomes a strong habit, it requires very little willpower to continue making decisions in line with that habit. Habituation takes a significant amount of time: 66 days on average, according to a University of London study, although for some people a habit can be formed in as few as 21 days. The 66 day average shouldn’t be daunting, though: every day will require less willpower and the right decision will be end up being less trying. On the topic of habits, Dr. Nicole Lipkin told us: “there’s this trend going on that it has to be a little bit fun if it’s going to be sustainable, but I say it has to be a habit if it’s going to be a sustainable. Whether it be exercise or food, I think we really underestimate how much we operate within habits and then when we aren’t operating within those habits, how much that can mess us up and veer us off the path.”  The truth is, there’s really nothing that fun about having to restrict your diet or force yourself to go work out repeatedly, especially when you’re exhausted and would rather be on the couch watching your favorite television show. But If you can accept and become realistic about the fact that not everything you do will be pleasurable or fun, then you can meet those challenges with a more understanding attitude.

All of us have hard lifestyle choices in regards to taking care of our health. In particular when it comes to making good food choices there are certain physiological responses that happen in our bodies that affect our willpower. When you are experiencing low blood sugar you are also experiencing low willpower. When you’re very hungry, you immediately crave calorie-rich foods, which probably aren’t in line with your nutritional goals. One way to curb this is to have moderately portioned meals that are a balance of protein, unprocessed carbohydrates and healthy fats. Keeping the time between feedings down can also help you maintain your energy, which is required to make healthy decisions.

It’s also easy to underestimate the power of a good night’s sleep. Sleep deprivation can also have a serious impact on decision-making. When you’re sleep deprived, it’s actually easier to focus on negative thoughts than it is on positive thoughts. Focusing on these negative thoughts can lead you straight into bad choices. This is also one of the reasons why insomnia is linked to depression.

Effective ways to improve your willpower are:

  • Creating and maintaining positive habits that don’t require psychic energy.
  • Preparing meals in advance or utilizing a meal delivery service rather than considering infinite food choices and running the risk of making a compromised decision.
  • Simplifying wardrobes to create a kind of “uniform” so as to not need to make many decisions about what to wear; this technique has famously been employed by Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, who became famous for the consistency in their attire.
  • Letting go of feelings of entitlement to pleasurable but unhealthy behaviors, i.e., “I deserve that cake and wine, because I’ve had a long day”.
  • Reducing external clutter, which reduces confusion and internal clutter.
  • Not overwhelming ourselves with too many commitments and overpacking our schedules.

If you’re interested in hearing more of Dr. Nicole Lipkin’s thoughts on willpower and how it relates to weight loss and health, listen to my Insatiable Podcast episode The Role of Discipline & Weight Loss.