When I think of weight loss and willpower, I think about white knuckling my way thru a maze of temptations. It's not a good feeling, nor does it lead me to feeling empowered. But there is more to the act of exercising willpower than being deprived, in fact, willpower can become one of our strongest allies.
Willpower, in its simplest terms, is the ability to control our attention, emotions, and desires. That seems easy enough, yet most people feel in control one moment and overwhelmed the next. The American Psychological Association lists the lack of willpower as the number one reason people say they struggle to meet their goals.
According to Kelly McGonigal, from Stanford University, there are three elements to willpower:
1. “I Won't” – Saying no when we need to say no. (I won't eat the brownie)
2. “I Will” – Saying yes when we need to say yes. (I will get up and exercise)
3. “I Want” – Remembering what we really want. (I want wear the clothes in my closet again)
The "I Won't" and "I Will" powers are the two sides of self-control. But to be effective, we also need the "I Want" power. This is the power that helps us remember what we really want. The "I Want" power helps keep us focused on our long-term goals, it reminds us of our motivation when we need to remember what matters most.
What Drives Willpower
Our brain's prefrontal cortex is what controls where we focus our attention, as well as, our feelings and thoughts. It's what drives us to do difficult tasks, and keeps us from following every impulse or craving. But it also has the difficult job of keeping track of our long-term goals and core values.
At times, it can be as though we have one brain, but two minds. One mind that will make decisions based on our goals, and one that is focused on our immediate desire. As if, our present self is driven towards the brownie, but our future self is focused on our goals. This is because our decisions are being made in the part of the brain that is the most active at the time. We may feel like two completely different people, depending upon which part of the brain we are using. Even though we are the same person, we will meet the challenge differently depending upon our energy and stress levels. So whether you choose to eat that brownie will change from one day to another.
By improving the function of the prefrontal cortex, we are helping to regulate the systems that redirect us away from immediate gratification. When our brain is under fueled it becomes under active and has difficulty keeping us focused on what we really want.
Training our Brain to take the Willpower Challenge
It is possible to train our brains because they respond to mental exercise in much the same way as our muscles respond to physical exercise. We can also help provide the resources that our brains need to improve their performance. All 4 of the methods below will help train your willpower physiology. Although, they may take a little willpower in the beginning, in the end, these methods will pay huge dividends in helping you tackle your willpower challenges and achieve your weight loss goals!
1. Sleep - By getting less than 6 hours of sleep a night, our brains become under fueled and less active, reducing our control impulses and leading us away from our goals. The ability to remember our "I Want" is dependent on fueling our brains properly. Getting 8 hours of sleep each night can make a big difference in our decision making.
2. Mediation – Studies have been conducted on people who have meditated as few as 10 minutes a day over the duration of a couple of months. Researchers found that their prefrontal cortex actually increased in size, and became denser and better connected. With just a few minutes of daily meditation, researchers also found that the quality of sleep people experienced improved, and they were better equipped to make decisions aligned with their goals.
3. Physical exercise – Exercise will also yield the same results that mediation provides, and both are excellent methods of improving willpower. In addition, studies have shown, that when individuals begin exercising, it not only becomes easier to continue but also to make better food choices!
4. Low-glycemic and/or plant-based diet – This type of eating helps keep our blood sugar levels consistent, thus helping us think clear and stay focused on our goals. Large swings in blood sugar levels have a negative impact on how our brains use energy, and we become more likely to react to our impulses.
Although not realistic for everyone, there is growing evidence that eating a vegan (plant-based) diet is the best choice for our health. But even by simply increasing the amount of plants we eat, we can have a positive impact on the way our brains function.
"We all have the capacity to do the harder thing,
We also have the desire to do exactly the opposite."
- Kelly McGonigal