APU Health & Fitness Original

Why Relying on Willpower to Get Healthy Is a Bad Idea

We’ve all been there. In a situation where we think if we try harder and white-knuckle it a little longer, we’ll get the fitness results we want. If we could just follow the diet we know will work, get in those long workouts or meal prep like a boss, we could finally achieve the healthy lifestyle of our dreams.

The problem with this scenario is not the desired outcome of getting healthier or even the habits of eating well and moving more often. The issue is the mindset behind the action. When we approach new habits with the attitude that we just need to try harder, we’re telling ourselves we need a bit more willpower and we’ll be set.

That’s the problem. Our daily willpower has limits, and no matter how much you exercise it, you won’t really be able to gain more. Think of willpower like gas in a tank. The more it’s used, the less you have.

Imagine all the decisions your brain makes each day. Each one takes up a little bit of “gas” to make the best decision.

As an example, imagine that it’s 4 p.m., you’re starving and exhausted from a full day of work, the kids are screaming in the car, and you have no gas left. Consequently, you will easily give in to the easiest options for food, exercise or housework, because you have no gas left to make a better decision.

This is not your fault. The fault is in the system and the lifestyle that’s been created around relying on willpower. Willpower is a great tool, but it is limited. Therefore, we need to use it where it counts and automate everything else.

Ready to ditch the cycle of trying really hard and still giving in? Switch from using daily willpower to creating automatic habits. Here’s how.

Use Pre-Decisions to Avoid Needing Willpower

Deciding ahead of time what your choice will be in a given situation is a great skill to hone. That’s because when we’re not in a situation where we have to make a decision on the spot, it’s easier and takes less willpower to choose the best option.

Consider working out. If you wake up Monday morning and head downstairs to your living room for an at-home workout, it’s going to be a lot easier to just follow a plan than stare at YouTube videos, wondering which workout to do.

The fix? Pick your workouts ahead of time. Maybe set aside 30 minutes on Sundays to choose and save the workouts for the week. Then, when the day comes, no willpower will be needed because you’re just executing a plan.

Use Willpower to Build Automated Habits

Another strategy to avoid willpower burnout is to really be conscious and smart about when to use willpower to your advantage. The biggest bang for your buck? Use up that willpower to work and build new healthy habits.

Habits are automated choices we provide to the subconscious mind. It takes some willpower to build these choices, but once they’re locked in the brain, they become the default decision for our brain and our need for willpower diminishes.

It will no longer take willpower to get up and go for a walk because it’s a habit. It won’t take willpower to remember to drink water because it’s the automatic and desired choice of your brain. Willpower is an extremely useful tool; we just need to learn how to use it properly.

Identify and Focus on Healthy Habits with the Biggest Impact

Another method to get the most out of your willpower is to identify the habits that will make the biggest impact on your healthy lifestyle goals. These look different for everyone, because we all have different lives and goals.

The reason it’s important to focus on the decisions that will help you become healthier is that each of those choices takes willpower. There’s no need to waste your willpower on something that won’t have a big impact! 

To identify what some of your healthiest habits may be, consider keeping a journal for a few days. Do you have a less desirable habit that seems to keep coming up? 

Maybe you consistently don’t get enough water and as a result, you have daily headaches. Perhaps you’re great at focusing on nutritious foods for breakfast, but your work lunch is a constant struggle. Whatever your vice, consider if changing it could make a big impact on your lifestyle.

One note: Don’t be fooled by thinking the change itself has to be huge. If it’s a negative habit that occurs often, the cumulative impact of changing a daily habit will make a much larger change than something big that only happens every now and then.

Once you identify some new habits, consider tracking these metrics in a journal. Did you make your lunch for work each day this week? Check it off!

Tracking your metrics daily will help you see how you’re doing week over week. These daily habits are a great place to use up your willpower and make the biggest dent in your overall goals.

Avoid Using Willpower for Things Not Associated with Your Goals

Figuring out where you spend your willpower is important. One simple way to discover where your willpower is being spent is to identify some difficult decisions you make each day. These decisions can be about work, life, kids, the house or anything else. Every decision we make consciously takes up some of that willpower “gas” in our tank.

Consider if there are areas in your life, not associated with your healthy lifestyle, that you can automate, therefore decreasing the use of willpower. Not only will that be directly tied to having less stress in general, but it will also allot more willpower for the decisions you need to make to build new habits.

In the end, it’s important to remember that trying harder is not the answer. You won’t be able to struggle through a healthy lifestyle forever. Why? Because it’s a lot easier to build a lifestyle off of intrinsic motivators and automated habits than to feel like we’re in a constant battle.

It’s time to figure out how to use willpower to our advantage and build a healthy lifestyle we truly enjoy.

Dr. Herrenbruck is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sports & Health Sciences. She earned her Ph.D. in Exercise Physiology from the University of Kentucky and is a Certified Exercise Physiologist through the American College of Sports Medicine. Her research interests focus on skeletal muscle physiology and she has a passion for discussing the convergence of science and healthy living.

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