Willpower is Broken: Why it Will Always Eventually Fail You

Visit any college during finals week and you’ll see a lot of students at their worst – disheveled, sleep deprived and eating the worst junk food they’ve indulged in all year. While they’re forcing themselves to study hard for long hours every single day and using a lot of willpower, students who are normally rested, healthy eaters will indulge in all sorts of sugar and fat, stay up late, skip exercise and generally turn into impulsive, in-the-moment versions of their healthier selves.

Did you know people on diets commit adultery much more often than those who aren’t dieting? This isn’t because they’re more amorous or have shadier morals. It’s because willpower is actually a limited resource, like water in a reservoir. Being on a diet heavily depletes willpower. Making yourself study hard day in and day out depletes willpower, too. And when your willpower reservoir gets depleted, the rest of your behavior shifts towards impulsive, craving, “right now” desires and your long term plans are put on the shelf for another day.

Willpower has a very misleading reputation. Most people believe that if you just use your willpower, you can make yourself do whatever you decide to do.. and if you don’t pull it off, it’s only because you didn’t try hard enough. Most people believe this so strongly that they try to “make themselves” do really tough things, like change their entire diet (a complex and intensive undertaking!), by relying solely on willpower. But willpower simply doesn’t work that way. Thinking about willpower like that will ensure that you stumble again and again and trick you into thinking that it’s your own fault, because you just needed “more willpower”. That’s not true either.

Willpower evolved to override your impulses, which drive much of your automatic behavior. Your impulses are designed to tell you what the ‘right’ thing to do is in the moment, based on your immediate needs and desires. Your impulses mostly care about seeking pleasure, avoiding pain and conserving energy.

Willpower is a tool that your prefrontal cortex (the front of your brain, behind your forehead) can use to override your impulsive behavior when it doesn’t match your long term goals. It’s the part of your brain that helps you decide whether to do something based on its immediate effects (“I want that ice cream now!”) or its long term effects (“It’s better for my health if I don’t eat so much sugar”).

But the way willpower works is tricky. You can’t just decide to turn it on and keep it on all the time – it doesn’t respond to conscious commands, only to committed long term goals. Willpower also gets tired the more you use it, and then it doesn’t work as well. If you push it too hard, it will fail completely. And worst of all, willpower simply won’t turn on when you’re stressed or anxious, really tired, when your blood sugar gets low or when you’re distracted. Those are times when your brain is programmed to save long term goals for later and focus on immediate desires. If you’re trying hard to stick to a diet, you’re frequently having to override your impulses and use willpower to make yourself take the harder path (like saying ‘No’ to cheesecake when it’s offered to you). But there are a lot of critical moments when your willpower is completely turned off!

It’s easy to see how so many dieting failures and relapses are not because you weren’t trying, they’re because you were relying on willpower when it was turned off or overused and depleted already. Willpower will always eventually fail you. But you can learn the tricks of using willpower to your advantage, know when it’s turned on or off and be careful not to max it out.

Willpower doesn’t work when you’re stressed, anxious, scared or angry. Stress that turns the fight or flight system on also turns willpower OFF. You can help turn your willpower back on by slowing your breathing down. This turns on your relaxation response and clears away fight or flight hormones. To boost your willpower, start by taking 3 long, deep breaths, go outside for a few minutes or do something that calms you.

Willpower doesn’t work when you’re really tired. If you’re sleep deprived or find yourself in the kitchen in the evenings when you’re tired, your food choices are not likely to be particularly good. You might decide to finish off that entire package of mac and cheese, when your willpower would save you if only it were daytime, when you’re feeling more rested. Try getting more regular sleep as a way to boost your willpower. It has the added bonus of reducing your carb cravings and your appetite.

Willpower doesn’t work when you have low blood sugar. When your blood sugar starts to get low, your body starts conserving energy. Your prefrontal cortex is one of the first things to get cut off — and it’s goodbye, willpower. Eating a little bit of protein every few hours is one way to help stabilize blood sugar and keep your willpower working for you. And here’s one more reason to never miss a meal – it turns off your willpower!

Willpower doesn’t work when you’re distracted. When you’re watching TV, driving, talking on the phone or multitasking, don’t expect your willpower to make the best choices for you. When you’re mindfully paying attention to your food, your prefrontal cortex notices that the bag of chips you want to open doesn’t fit with your long term plan and raises a flag to get your willpower to kick in. If you’re not paying attention, that flag never gets raised. You will almost always overeat when you eat in front of the TV. You can help yourself avoid temptation and limit how much you eat while distracted by portioning out what and how much you plan to eat and putting the rest away before your TV show starts.

Choose your willpower battles. Use your willpower in the grocery store to stop yourself from buying food you don’t want in your house, where you’ll almost certainly eat it sooner or later. Go to the grocery store rested and relaxed, well fed and energetic. Arrange your food choices in advance when you know your willpower will be low – like making sure you have healthy snacks on hand for when your blood sugar dips. And most importantly, let your willpower rest sometimes – rest is the magic that restores your willpower reservoir and fills it back up to help you reach your highest goals.

Parents: Top 5 Eating Habits to Teach Your Kids

With the simple act of repeating your actions over and over with your family, you’re instilling deep and lasting habits into your children. The family routine you create, how and when you sit down to meals, what kinds of snacks and treats you offer, the atmosphere around cooking and eating and many more aspects of your family life all contribute to habits that will become your children’s default behavior for years to come.

You’re teaching them what kind of relationship to have with food. That will be the relationship that sustains them in good times, determines what they’ll do when they have other things on their mind and dictates what they fall back on in times of stress. These eating habits will be repeated hundreds of thousands of times in their lifetime – all on autopilot – and can add up over years to huge numbers of extra calories and many extra pounds.

Having coached hundreds of adults trying valiantly to change their bad eating habits later in life and having done extensive research on eating behaviors, I can tell you what plagues people long after their childhood is over – and what created those issues in the first place. Plan the healthy eating habits you hope to instill in your children now and make sure your actions are supporting the habits you’re trying to create. Using these 5 keystone habits with your kids will help them develop a resilient, balanced mentality around eating and a healthy relationship with food.

You don’t have to implement these habits perfectly every single time. Go for ‘most of the time’ and check yourself by noticing if you do it enough that they come to expect and rely on it. If your kids know you’re going to take away their devices when it’s time to eat because that’s the way meals are in your home, then they’re getting it. If they remind each other (or you if you forget), then they’re getting it. If they’re getting it, then it’s ok to have a special night when you all watch a movie over dinner together or some other bending of the rules.

1. Don’t force kids to clear their plate

Let them decide when they’re done eating. In my two decades of working with morbidly obese patients struggling to lose weight, I’ve seen many of them compelled to ‘clear their plate’ or unable to leave food they weren’t hungry for and didn’t need because they couldn’t bear to ‘waste food’. The guilt and pressure their parents associated with leaving food uneaten left a deep imprint that pushed them towards overeating and lasted for decades. Many parents in the last few generations taught their children not to waste food because ‘children in Africa were starving’. They unwittingly taught their kids a scarcity mentality around the availability of food. They taught them to feel a sense of guilt if they didn’t eat everything that was offered to them. They instilled a sense of angst around finishing meals and pressure to eat beyond when they felt full or wanted to stop. This creates a double bind that’s very difficult to get out of: regardless of which eating choice you make, you feel bad. This emotional double bind results in an eating habit that has lasting repercussions and can be really difficult to eradicate.

Instead, teach an abundance mentality around food. Teach your children that they can stop when they feel full and save the rest for later. Teach them that you have enough food to share. Give food to food banks, drop meals off for new mothers or sick neighbors and invite people to dinner to share in the food you have.

2. Grow vegetables with your kids

Then prepare and eat them together. If you want kale to be your child’s favorite food, then help them plant kale in a small garden. Give them the job of watering it, picking it when it’s ripe, and chopping it up. Eat it for lunch together. Kids love to be involved and love to eat what they’ve grown and it will quickly become a lasting favorite. Research actually shows that when kids grow kale in a garden, it becomes their favorite food! Years later, they might reminisce about the sweet taste of the tomatoes they grew with you and notice that they still love caprese salad, still make their own tomato sauce fresh and they may even feel inspired to get out the tomato cages and plant some tomato starts with their little ones.

Peas and tomatoes are great vegetables to plant with children because they’re super easy to grow in just about any climate and kids can eat them right off the vine. Tomatoes are particularly easy to grow in a planter box if you don’t have a patch of earth and can also be grown indoors if you don’t have any space outside. The taste of veggies right off the vine is incomparable to any other way and it will spoil you for the imported, shelf-ripened store-bought versions. Vegetables from your own garden might even become your favorite food.

3. Show kids how to eat without distractions

Don’t eat in the car or in front of the TV. Research on eating habits is really clear that distracted eating results in overeating and weight gain. It results in eating without conscious decision making about what or how much to eat. It disconnects you from your gut in a way that causes confused, irrational and mindless eating, in which your head is not listening to what your body is saying because it’s not paying attention to your body and can’t hear it anymore. When your mind is listening to your gut, they communicate and work together to get, cook and eat what you truly need, what nourishes you, what makes you feel stronger and healthier. You’re physiologically programmed to do this. This ‘gut sense’ is also called mindful eating. And it’s naturally developed when you’re young by paying attention to your food and your senses while you eat, not by eating while distracted.

4. Teach kids not to eat with their emotions

You teach your teenager not to drive when they’re angry to avoid accidents, right? Show your kids how to soothe their stress and emotional turmoil without resorting to food. Parents often want to stop the crying or cheer a child up as quickly as possible and take them to get ice cream or give them some other sugary treat. But this turns sweet treats into their go-to method for feeling better – it literally defines how they ‘treat themselves’ to something special in the future. As they grow into adults in an anxious and driven world, they’re going to need much better techniques for soothing themselves than that and you can set them on the right path now.

Emotional eating is a deeply rooted eating habit that plagues most obese people and is arguably the biggest cause of weight gain and inability to lose weight. It stems from using eating as your go-to way to soothe yourself when you’re upset, which is not only not very effective but also has many damaging health consequences. Teach children how to manage their big emotions in healthy, sustainable ways – without food. Hold them while they cry, give them undivided attention and love, reward them with special experiences, extra decision making power or time with friends. Do them a life-long favor by avoiding putting a dessert in front of them to make them feel better.

5. Make food a time of social connection

For thousands of years, we’ve ‘broken bread’ together as a way of connecting with each other – to welcome visiting strangers, to strengthen bonds within the tribe. When families eat together, they share things with each other that otherwise might go unnoticed. If you’re wondering how your teen is doing, eat dinner with them more often – eventually it will come out over conversation and good listening on your part.

Even though we see each other every day, we all have busy schedules and can so easily short-change our deeper communication, where we commiserate over problems together and share in each other’s successes. We can miss important undercurrents or shifts in mood that indicate something’s happened that might be best talked about. Over food, conversation deepens and relationships get stronger. Teach children the habit of eating together in a warm, inviting way and give them the gift of a deeply ingrained habit that will strengthen their relationships and serve them throughout their lives.