Have you ever said or done any of the items listed below?

“I wish I had your willpower not to eat the cupcakes in the break room!”

Held your tongue instead of saying what was really on your mind

Selected a healthy entree instead pizza at dinner

Gone back to the office to finish your work project instead of going out with friends

If so, then you’ve used your willpower before. Chances are, you are now realizing how often you actually use your willpower (and even in non cupcake-related events!). While it’s easy to blame a lack of willpower for poor decisions, it’s important to point out that you have more control over this resource than you might know. In today’s blog, I’ll outline what willpower is, go over the good news and bad news related to willpower, and finally, give you some clear strategies for how to leverage this dodgy power in your favor.

First, what is willpower?

Willpower is defined as: The ability to resist short-term temptations in order to reach a long-term goal.

Let’s break it down into the good news and the bad news. I like to start with the bad news to know what I’m up against, and then finish with the good news to end on an optimistic note.

Bad News:

-Willpower is a limited resource. We only have a finite amount of it and we can use it up before the day is over. This might explain why it can be more challenging to make the healthier decision at dinner than it is at breakfast.

-Willpower is used frequently. Any time you decide to forego immediate pleasure/gratification in order to do what’s in your best interest long-term, you’re using up your precious willpower.

-Using your willpower is both mentally and physically taxing. Relying on willpower alone for decision-making can really wipe you out!

Good News:

-Willpower can be trained like a muscle. For example, if you want to tackle the issue of cupcakes at work in the break room, try to stick to that one behavior as your goal for the week or month. All you have to do is say no to the cupcake. This eliminates the potentially exhausting decision-making process completely, and it will get easier and easier over time to automatically reply “no, thank you” when asked if you want a cupcake. If you can stick it out for the first few challenging days, it will get easier.

-Willpower is easier to leverage when you are motivated intrinsically (or internally). If you decide to resist temptation because you are worried about what someone else will think, it is far more taxing than if it’s something that you truly want for yourself. Evaluate your goals to decide if they are in line with your values, wants, and needs. If they are based on someone else’s desires, you may be setting yourself up for failure.

-Planning ahead and avoiding temptation can help you save willpower for unexpected circumstances. If you know that the cupcakes are in the break room, you can make a plan to avoid the break room altogether so that you never have to make the decision of whether or not to indulge in the sugary treat. Plus, the more you plan for the expected willpower sapping events, the more willpower you’ll have stored up for when you really need it most.

-Maintaining good nutrition so that your body is fueled and your blood glucose (blood sugar) levels are healthy will help you optimize the use of willpower. Ever wonder why it’s a bad idea to go grocery-shopping hungry? Not only does everything sound appealing to a rumbling stomach, but low blood sugar levels may also restrict the proper use of your willpower stores to resist temptation.

It’s your turn: Apply what you’ve learned!

Here are some action steps to help you leverage your willpower and avoid collapsing under the pressure.

  1. Assess your goals to ensure that they are what you truly want- not what someone else wants for you (for example: “My doctor thinks I need to exercise more to lower my blood pressure”. Does that matter to you? If you had lower blood pressure, it would undoubtedly reduce your risk of chronic health conditions, but what ways could lowering your blood pressure improve your life today? What other benefits might you get from exercise? More energy? Extra time with your bff who loves going out for walks? This line of questioning is one way to dig deeper to find internal motivation for a goal. The key is to determine why it matters to you.)
  2. Choose one behavior and train your willpower. Whether it’s practicing restraint while dining with friends or making healthy choices at the grocery store, pick just one behavior to work on and practice, practice, practice! It gets easier the more you do it.
  3. Make a plan. It always comes down to making a plan, doesn’t it? The plan you’ll want to make will involve either avoiding tempting situations altogether, or having a plan for how to stay on track before you ever encounter this situation. I like to have my health coaching clients come up with an “if/then” plan for this very reason. Here’s an example “if/then” plan: “If the entrée that I want to order comes with fried food, then I will substitute a salad or steamed vegetables instead”. This way you’ve made your decision ahead of time and you don’t have to try to battle your waning willpower as the French fries stare you down.

Give these tips a try and let us know how it goes!


Resource (This web page has all of the info on willpower you could ever wish to know!):

  1. American Psychological Association, 2018. “What you need to know about willpower”. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/willpower.aspx