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Willpower; Will It Work?

When you decide you’re going to lose those extra pounds, you’re buzzing with enthusiasm and determination. You have a salad, say no to that chocolate muffin, fueled by your newfound willpower. But as time goes on, your determination wanes and junk food somehow finds its way back onto your plate. And there you are; back where you started. Many people feel disappointed with themselves for falling off the wagon. But are they just lacking discipline? Do they just need to “toughen up” to reach their goals?

If you’ve ever been disappointed with yourself, take heart. The fact is, willpower is simply a weak ally in the war against temptation. It’s not you that lacks staying power, it’s willpower itself. But there are things you can do to stay on track when motivation wanes.

What is willpower?
Willpower is defined as “energetic determination.” It’s a state of mind born of a desire to improve or change something we do, and that can be a good thing. But it’s all too easy to treat willpower like a magic spell – just believe that your state of mind is enough to make you change behaviors or resist temptation and “poof!” all desire to eat that bag of Fritos disappears. (We wish!)

Willpower is a diminishing resource
But it doesn’t work that way. Studies testing the durability and dependability of willpower to change behaviors, to avoid temptations, or to tackle major projects have shown that willpower is a diminishing resource. Researchers at Case Western Reserve University concluded that you cannot employ willpower for too long or for too many tasks, because it does not remain constant. In fact, it weakens with use. They showed that the strength of willpower diminishes in direct proportion to how much it is used and that the more an individual relies on willpower, the less available it becomes. Given these findings, it is easy to see why the ability to consistently say ‘no’ is so short-lived.

Oh, sweet (gooey, chocolatey) memories
Willpower also fails because it can’t match up to the power of human memory. Like the memory of biting into one of mom’s chocolate-chip cookies.

When you see or smell one of your favorite foods, you are besieged with stimuli that stir up your senses and your emotions, taking you back in time to when you last sunk your teeth into that gooey chocolate-chip cookie. (And didn’t it taste goooood?)

When faced with the food you are so ardently trying to deny yourself, it’s very hard to resist the temptation to indulge, because memory overwhelms you. Willpower has some serious forces to battle with and if you rely on it for too long, it will weaken and eventually fail.

So… now what?
If you can’t rely on willpower, what can you rely on to resist temptation? The answer is so evident, that you’ll slap your forehead for not thinking of it! Here it is… drum-roll please… Limit what you allow to bombard your senses. Keep the tempting food out of your way, and you won’t have to use up your willpower resisting it. “Out of sight, out of mind” is the golden rule for avoiding diet disaster foods. It means that if it’s not in plain sight, if you can’t see it or smell it, it won’t bombard your senses and entice you into eating. Of course, you can’t avoid every encounter with tempting foods, there will always be parties and trips to the mall, but you can control what is in your house, which is statistically the most likely environment for calorie-control slip-ups.

Our advice to you is to remove all “temptation” foods from the house right away. Give that food to the neighbors, throw it in the trash, anything you can to get rid of it.

Foods to keep out of sight and out of mind include:

  • Any food that you know you can’t limit to one serving.
  • Foods that are primarily refined carbohydrates and sugar.
  • Foods that you use to manage stress or uncomfortable emotions.

If you are reluctant to get rid of certain foods because you may inconvenience the family, remember that unhealthy food is unhealthy for everybody. If you really believe that you are depriving other people in your house of cookies, candy, or junk food, they can always eat them away from the home.

If you are out and about and come face-to-face with an “out of sight, out of mind” food, then you may need to draw on some willpower to say “no”. However, remember that saying “no” is just a good habit. And the more it becomes a habit, the less you need to rely on willpower.

Ref: Peter Doskoch, Angela Priris, ‘Willpower: Why it wanes’, Psychology Today, March/April 1997

Written by Wendy Post, Anna Delany and Pat Fiducia.