I’ve been creating content on the internet about nutrition and health since 2011. From the very beginning, you, my readers, have told me that the reason it’s difficult for you to eat well or exercise consistently is your non-existent, insufficient, or otherwise failing willpower. And guess what? You’re not alone! In 2011, 27% of respondents to the American Psychological Association’s Stress in America survey reported that their lack of willpower was their most significant barrier to change.
And while I’ve got some of my own personal opinions and anecdotal client stories about willpower, for today’s post, I decided to really dig into the research. I wanted so badly to walk away from this scientific deep dive with a simple 3 step system to help you strengthen and utilize your willpower to create the life of your dreams.
That would’ve been awesome.
Buuuut it’s not at all what happened. As I combed through the various studies, I came to the conclusion that we should basically forget about willpower and move on with our lives. Let me explain.
First of all, what is willpower?
Here’s what the APA has to say:
- The ability to delay gratification, resisting short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals.
- The capacity to override an unwanted thought, feeling or impulse.
- The ability to employ a “cool” cognitive system of behavior rather than a “hot” emotional system.
- Conscious, effortful regulation of the self by the self.
- A limited resource capable of being depleted.
Willpower has lots of synonyms: self-control, self-discipline, and determination. Big, meaningful words, right? Yeah I know. That’s why when our willpower fails, we tend to blame ourselves and even question our own integrity.
“Gah! Why couldn’t I just say no to that cookie in the break room today?! I have no freaking self-control. I’m such a lazy pig.”
Alright, listen up. I’m not going to let you bully yourself like that, especially if it’s over something as fickle and misunderstood as willpower.
Misunderstood? But what about all the science?
This is where things start to get frustrating. The science is kinda all over the place. Let’s start with what we know. Or knew… Whatever.
Willpower is a finite resource that dwindles over time.
In 1998, Roy Baumeister ran a run little experiment. He put a bunch of people in a room with freshly baked cookies. Some people were told to eat the cookies. Yay. Other subjects had to eat radishes instead. Ugh.
Then subjects from both groups had to complete a difficult geometric puzzle. As the story goes, cookie eaters persevered through puzzle-solving for 19 minutes, while our poor, mentally worn out radish eaters only lasted 9.
The conclusion here was that the radish eaters’ willpower was so depleted from avoiding the cookies, that they didn’t have the mental fortitude to push through the puzzle. Baumeister and other researchers have since gone on to do hundreds of different experiments that confirmed what they now refer to as ego depletion.
Or is it??
After countless experiments, studies, and even books had been published about the implications of ego depletion (and how to use it to your advantage), it’s since come under fire in the scientific community. A 2016 study by Martin Hagger and colleagues looked at 2,000 subjects in 24 different labs across several continents. Like the Baumeister participants, these subjects underwent a two-step process: self-control task followed by a subsequent challenging task. And what did they find? Nothing. As in, no depletion effect.
Er, what?! So now what are we meant to believe? I’m so glad you asked!
All that matters about willpower is how you think about it.
In 2010, Stanford researcher Veronika Job, PhD and her colleagues found that a key matter in the whole finite vs. infinite resource thing is your belief on the subject. Basically, if you’ve gone through life thinking that your willpower can be depleted (a la Baumeister), it will. If you don’t think willpower is something that’s easily exhausted, you’ll maintain your determination. (Side note: I wonder what Baumeister’s and Hagger’s subjects would have to say on the matter.)
Let’s review where we are so far:
First we thought willpower was a finite resource. Now we’re not so sure that’s true. But maybe all that matters is what we, as individuals, believe about it… But then there’s the whole marshmallow thing.
Or maybe some people just don’t have it at all.
One of the hallmark studies in willpower research was done in in the 1960s and 1970s by Walter Mischel. It’s called the Stanford marshmallow experiment. Maybe you’ve heard of it. In this test of delayed gratification, researchers gave preschoolers marshmallows. Each child was left alone in a room with a single marshmallow. If the child waited to eat it until the researcher returned, he or she would get an additional marshmallow.
(I think marshmallows are kind of gross– s’mores aside– so I would’ve won this experiment for suuuuure.)
Mischel followed up with program participants when they reached their teens. As it turns out, those who were able to delay marshmallow gratification went on to score higher on their SATs and received more favorable ratings from their parents about their ability to plan, practice self-control, and manage stress
But wait, there’s more!
Decades later, when the participants were in their 40s, another group of researchers got in touch. This time, their brain activity was measured. This exercise showed that those who originally had the willpower to put off eating the single marshmallow in order to gobble down two had a better functioning prefrontal cortex (brain region used in decision making). The kids-turned-adults who couldn’t resist that morsel of sugar had a more active ventral striatum (brain region used to process desires & rewards).
So maybe it’s more of a “you got it or you don’t” thing?!
SO. MANY. THEORIES.
SO. MUCH. SCIENCE.
Wow. So what do we do now?
Of course, in all this confusing reading on willpower, I did come across a #hottip or two. Oddly enough, this is where I actually started to see some alignment and gain clarity for y’all, despite the conflicting studies. While most of the science-backed guidance is given under the guise of “strengthening self-control,” the strategies given actually help you rely on self-control less.
So with all of that being said, here’s where I humbly suggest you go from here.
- Forget about willpower. Stop blaming yourself for not having it. Stop wasting your time wishing you had more. Stop chalking up others’ healthy choices to their superior willpower.
- Instead, focus on creating habits and routines that become a seamless part of your life instead of relying on decision making and self-control.
- That means settling on behaviors and activities that you actually enjoy, and creating an environment that is conducive to actually doing them.
(By the way, this is the work we do in the Nutritional Freedom: Foundations program.)
So maybe we did get a little 3-step process after all?! For more on that part, I highly recommend you check out last week’s blog post on the ONE thing you need LESS of in order to create MORE consistency in your health. And when you’re ready to take it to the next level and create a PLAN, download my Weekly Wellness Planner Template!
Until next time, y’all.