Skip to main content

Many believe that changing a habit is synonymous with willpower.

Whether we want to start a new exercise regime, cut down on coffee or embark fully on our plant-based journey, we believe that willpower holds the key to our success-or failure.

On the one hand, we believe that if we can just summon up enough of the ‘magic’ willpower ingredient, we can do anything we want.

On the other, we get discouraged because willpower conjures up images of Herculean effort, dogged determination and excruciating sacrifice. And we wonder if we’re really up to the task.

Today, I’d like to talk a little more about the psychological (and physiological) nature of willpower and a few simple things you can do to help yours along.

Is There a Willpower Paradox?

It is important to revisit some of the ‘standard’ wisdom about willpower.

One of the most common pieces of advice given to people who are trying to change a habit is that they have to go in 150% –with complete, steadfast commitment.

In other words, willpower is an ‘All or Nothing’ proposition.  

But according to psychologist Dr. Douglas Lisle, nothing could be further from the truth.

In fact, there is a huge willpower irony related to ‘self-talk’; those who claim from the rooftops “I Will Change X!” and jump full force into a lifestyle change often end up failing while those who go in softly saying “I will give it a try” tend to succeed.

While this might initially seem counter-intuitive, in fact it makes sense. When we relentlessly push ourselves towards a goal, even the slightest stumble discourages and we give up. However, if we keep an open mind about what we ‘may or may not’ accomplish, even the smallest successes can be celebrated as wins.

An ‘all or nothing’ mentality is simply less flexible, leaving no leeway for setbacks that can occur with any habit change. However, a more exploratory, inquisitive ‘let’s see how it goes’ mindset strengthens resolve and builds confidence as each small goal is met.

Should You Tell Everyone About Your Goals?

In keeping with this idea, it might not be best to tell everyone what you’re trying to accomplish from the outset.

The traditional school of thought argues that you should tell as many people as possible about your goal. The thinking is that by doing so, you will increase your chances of success because you will feel accountable. But unfortunately, the problem is what happens if you experience a few bumps on the road? The shame you feel might prevent you from ever trying again.

In the spirit of ‘let’s see how it goes’, sometimes it’s best to keep your goals to yourself. You can reveal your ‘secret’ once you know you are well along your success path.

How Your Willpower Can Be Depleted

Another interesting finding about willpower is that it is not an infinite resource. According to the idea of ‘ego depletion’, willpower draws upon a limited number of mental resources that can be depleted. When those resources are low, willpower is impaired and you enter into a state of ego depletion.

Interestingly, the concept of ego depletion is particularly pertinent when it comes to the notion of dieting. In fact, the act of dieting itself is a form of resource expenditure and chronic dieters enter into a vicious circle; they spend lots of energy trying to limit their food intake, thus depleting their willpower resources which makes it impossible to resist the temptation they are trying to overcome in the first place.

You can of course battle against ego depletion by shoring up your mental resources. A 2007 study revealed that a positive mood can lessen ego depletion. Simple activities like watching comedy videos appear to help people recover from ego depletion faster and improve their self-control.

Amping up the Power in Willpower

Simply put, there is a reason for the ‘power’ in willpower; self-control requires energy. Willpower is not a constant fixed quantity but will fluctuate depending on your brain ‘fatigue’ levels. Here are a few key ways to shore up that energy to give your self-control levels a boost:

  • Keep blood glucose balanced: Studies show that it becomes harder and harder to exercise self-control when glucose is low. To keep willpower strong (and your glucose levels steady), frequently eat something healthful (e.g. a piece of fruit).
  • Drink Water: Drinking water can also help decrease fatigue levels. Remember, symptoms of thirst are similar to hunger sensations. Before eating, have a glass of water, wait a few minutes, and then decide if you still need a snack.
  • Reduce mental stress: Mental stress (specifically too much decision making) can deplete glucose levels and fatigue the brain. When this happen, you experience ‘decision fatigue’ and become more impulsive. Decreasing the number of choices we face can preserve energy stores and keep our willpower up.

In closing, here are five practical ways to increase your willpower every day.

  1. Keep things tidy and de-clutter your environment. A clean home, office or desk creates less mental stress and makes it easier to make smart choices.
  2. Eliminate tempting foods. Store only ‘good’ food choices in your home. Having tempting foods around forces you to decide about what is good for you to eat when you are stressed or tired.
  3. Eat something healthful first. Choose a snack or meal with substance, like a banana or oatmeal, when you feel that you are about to give in to junk food cravings.
  4. Exercise ten minutes a day. Just a few minutes of exercise is enough to keep your mood up and help you sleep better.
  5. Get quality sleep. Most people need seven to eight hours every night to replenish their physical and mental energy. Do your best to not let anything disturb your sleep – you need those deep sleep phases to set you up for the next day.

As you can see, getting a grip on willpower really doesn’t have to be an act of super-human strength. With a simple understanding of how willpower really works coupled with a few easy changes, you really can put the power back in your willpower.

Rosane Oliveira, DVM, PhD

President & CEO, Plant-Based Life Foundation | Dr. Rosane Oliveira combines a lifelong passion for nutrition with 25 years of genetics research to create programs that help people develop healthy habits on their journey towards a more plant-based lifestyle. She is a Visiting Clinical Professor in Public Health Sciences and was the founding director of the first Integrative Medicine program at the UC Davis School of Medicine. She completed her postgraduate studies in Brazil and did her postdoctoral training in immunogenetics and functional genomics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.