At one time or another, most of us have said, "I wish I had more willpower!" Whether it's avoiding the donuts in that morning meeting, hitting the gym after work or getting up a few minutes earlier to whip up a healthy breakfast, many of us wish we had just a little more of that elusive "willpower" to help us reach our healthy living goals. But willpower is a misunderstood thing. It's both more and less complicated than most of us realize. And harnessing it, can be much, much easier if we go about it in the right way.
First, you have to realize that willpower isn't just about your diet and fitness goals, says Jessica Alquist, PhD candidate studying self-control at Florida State University under Roy Baumeister, author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.
"Willpower is necessary any time people engage in behaviors they don't automatically feel like doing," says Alquist. "If you don't wake up with the burning desire to eat healthy and exercise, you will need to use willpower to do those things."
This means that anytime you make yourself focus on a boring task at work, are nice to your roommate who drives you crazy, or wake up earlier than you'd like to, you're taxing your willpower. And willpower is a limited resource, so, in a way, you have to prioritize how you use it, Alquist says.
"If you need to focus your self-control on other areas of your life (if you are pushing for a promotion at work, for example), it might be best not to stress too much over diet and exercise," she says. "However, you can still structure your environment to reduce the temptation to engage in unhealthy behaviors."
In fact, research has shown that good self-control may be less about herculean efforts of willpower and more about avoiding tempting situations, Alquist says.
"Self control is not necessarily about being able to resist the most decadent snack in the universe," Alquist says. "It's about not keeping the most decadent snack in the universe in your house."
So if you can't change the fact that works stresses you out or your roommate keeps leaving her unclean dishes out, it's best to avoid tempting situations and then set small goals. Trying to change everything at once — starting a new workout program, quitting smoking, getting more sleep, and eating more vegetables — is just too much. Instead, work on changing one behavior at a time until the new behavior is easy. Then tackle your next goal, she says.
Over time, these small goals create habits, which don't require much willpower to sustain at all, thereby setting you up for success — no matter how your willpower is taxed in other areas of your life.
"Habits are your friend!" Alquist. "Once you've made a habit of something, it doesn't take as much willpower. If you are in the habit of running every morning or always getting veggies on your pizza, you will need less willpower to do those things."
Now that you know the facts about willpower, in what ways could you boost your own? What tempting situations could you avoid? What small goals could you set now that could later become habits? Tell us!
Jennipher Walters is the CEO and co-founder of the healthy living websites FitBottomedGirls.com and FitBottomedMamas.com. A certified personal trainer, lifestyle and weight management coach and group exercise instructor, she also holds an MA in health journalism and regularly writes about all things fitness and wellness for various online publications.