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.

About the author 

*Kendra Markle*

Kendra’s mission is to bring radically helpful behavior change techniques out of the lab and into the hands of people who need them. She’s coached hundreds of people through building new eating habits to reverse chronic disease and transform their health over two decades, through her work as a researcher at the Stanford Prevention Research Center and designing lifestyle medicine programs used by major healthcare providers for their patients. She loves capturing the moment with her camera and cuddling babies and dogs.

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