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Willpower: A Limited Resource?

November 6, 2010

When it comes to exercising more and eating healthier, “I need more willpower” is one of the most commonly uttered statements.  Several articles have highlighted studies showing willpower or self-control is a limited resource.  In other words, we only have so much willpower to draw on and it can be depleted quickly.  I am going to suggest something radical – not only do you have all the will power you need – it is a renewable resource!  The question is not “how can I get more willpower?”  The question is “how well am I supporting that vital resource?”

Let’s imagine that you are making nutritional changes to achieve a weight loss goal, and you are invited to a dinner holiday party with friends.  The goal for the evening is to eat only the foods deemed appropriate for weight loss.  Your first encounter is a table is filled with an assortment of enticing cheese and cream filled nibbles, chips and dips, and crudités.  Relying on your willpower, you pass up the cheesy, creamy delights, skip over the chips and dip, and settle for an array of tasty fresh vegetables.  After a glass of wine and mingling, the main course is laid out.  As you settle down to enjoy a beautifully prepared steak and crisp salad, you are offered a baked potato, garlic bread, and pasta salad.  Thinking about your goals, you refuse the additional food items.  However, the person offering continues to tempt you, making statements like, “oh, it’s just one potato” or “you don’t want any bread?” and “go ahead and have some pasta salad.  It’s salad after all.”  Still calling on your willpower, you politely refuse the additional food items.  As the meal continues, and the wine flows, you find yourself eyeing the bread across the table, thinking more and more about that steamy hot potato, and continually refusing a helping of pasta salad has become increasing difficult.  At last the meal has finished, and you are thinking “just in the nick of time!”  Then it happens, as you make your way out of the dinning area you run right into the dessert table.  Cookies, cakes, and holiday pies are all there looking delightful.  You take a deep breath and reach down for more willpower only to realize there isn’t any.  At this point you might be thinking, “Yelp! I need more willpower.”

Here is some food for thought: what if we changed the way we interpret willpower?  What if willpower becomes more of a resource?  And, what if that resource was supported by our thoughts and actions?  Willpower is defined as the strength of will and mind, or the determination to carry out a decision.  Willpower is also referred to as self-control.   Interestingly, the term resource can be defined as a supply or support that can be easily drawn on when needed.  Resource can also be defined as the capability to deal with adverse circumstances.  These two concepts are complimentary.  Rather than defining willpower as the unending ability to just say no, willpower becomes the determination to carry out a decision, and the ability to deal with or find solutions for over coming obstacles.

The next question is how to support or assist this resource.  Here are three tips for supporting your willpower:

1)   Develop a realistic and well-formed plan for over coming obstacles. Before developing a plan, the obstacles must be identified.  In the example above, the obstacle was food items considered off limits at a holiday party, and the plan was to avoid those foods.  First, how realistic is that plan?  To attending a holiday party and not partake in the foods you enjoy?  Rather than dabbling in deprivation, make a conscious choice to indulge some of your favorite foods, and pass on the other less exciting temptations.  Mentally and emotionally, choice is much more powerful than denial.

2)    Feed your brain. An interesting study found a relationship between blood glucose levels and self-control.  People in the study that had higher levels of glucose demonstrated greater willpower when compared to people with lower levels of glucose.  Therefore, having a snack before heading out to the party may not just keep your hunger in check, but may also support your willpower.  The study also found that restoring glucose helped replenish self-control, so when you feel your willpower reserves getting low try a piece of fruit.

3)    Laugh a lot and think positive. Not only has research has found that both laughter and positive thoughts boost self-control, but laughter has been shown to strengthen the immune system, reduce food cravings, and relieve stress.  I can think of a better way to enjoy a party, and improve health and well being, than to share laughter with friends!

Reference:

Pope-Parker, T.  How to boost your willpower.  The New York Times. http/well.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/12/06/how-to-boost-your-willpower/

Scott, E.  The stress management and health benefits of laughter: The laughing cure.  About.com:Stress Management.  http://stress.about.com/od/stresshealth/a/laughter.htm


This entry was posted in Inspiration.

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