Understanding Willpower

I often hear my clients say, “all I need is more willpower!” when it comes to losing weight. However, research into the subject of willpower holds some useful guidance for all of us when it comes to managing our weight. Behavioral science studies show that willpower is a “depletable resource.” Think about willpower in terms of a fuel tank—the more you use, the less you’ve got…until you refuel. This is a helpful analogy for weight loss. Instead of aiming to use your willpower more often, most of us could benefit from drawing on our willpower less frequently, so we have a nice full tank when we really need it.

Have you ever been on a diet and somehow managed to avoid eating birthday cake at a party, only to arrive home and eat everything in sight? You spent all your willpower at the party and arrived home with an empty tank…a very precarious situation to be in! The demands on our willpower are very high during the holiday season….it seems like everywhere we go we are being offered delicious sweet treats. It doesn’t take long before most of us have run through our willpower and give in to the next sweet we come across.

Help yourself out during the holidays by becoming a “Willpower Resource Steward”—see what you can change in your day to limit how many times you have to “spend” your willpower. This means limiting your exposure to tempting off-plan foods, because if they aren’t near you, you won’t have to use willpower to avoid eating them! Keeping holiday sweets out of the house is very helpful to this end. But because we have ONE willpower tank for all aspects of our lives, we can make other simple changes to protect our willpower resources as well. If you have to use your willpower just to get up in the morning because you haven’t had enough sleep yet, you’ve got less in your tank before your day has even begun. Pay attention for a few days to all the things you spend your willpower on, and then brainstorm anything in your control that could limit your “spending.” (For example, go to bed early enough that you get a full night’s sleep before your alarm goes off.)

The other way to be a Willpower Resource Steward is to find ways to “refuel” your willpower tank. What fills you up, energizes you, makes you feel ready to take on the world? Do more of that! Often! Because each time you fill up your willpower fuel tank, you’re better able to stay on track with your goals. Anything that feels rewarding, like a hot bath, a night out with your pals, a weekend away, laughing at a YouTube video, or getting a back rub from your spouse, will give you power to stick with your plan. And that’s a great gift for yourself!

Wishing you a very merry Christmas,

Lindsay Pasdera, MS RDN

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