Have you ever noticed by the end of the day you lack willpower? Perhaps it’s your body that suffers the most from this lack. Think about the way many of us live. For example, after work you are tired and perhaps stressed, so on the way home you decide to grab a pizza or some other fast food instead of cooking dinner. You get home, manage to get into your comfy clothes, wolf down the greasy meal, and then collapse on the couch. I’m sure most of us have experienced this once or twice in our life! I did this a lot when I worked as an engineer. At the end of the day, we have no willpower left to drive us to make healthy decisions. Why is that?
Willpower is like a rechargeable battery that drains very quickly. Until 1998, willpower was just an idea, but now it is known to be a real “thing”. It is operated by the anterior cingulate cortex in your brain. Willpower gets depleted by:
- Anything we do that requires us to make decisions;
- Monitoring and regulating our emotions;
- Making sure we perform well on tasks; and
- Resisting temptations.
Have you ever thought about how many decisions/choices you make in a day?! With a rapidly draining battery at the helm, no wonder we get into trouble! Start with first thing in the morning. The alarm sounds. Should I hit snooze or get up? If I hit snooze I might be late…hmmm I could just buy a coffee on my way to work. But shouldn’t I eat something? What should I eat? What would be quickest? I’ll grab a granola bar and make coffee. Okay, I’ll hit snooze one more time. My willpower is depleted before I even get out of bed! How healthy do you think breakfast ends up being?!
People who are really tuned into themselves and are authentic may not experience as much depletion due to emotional regulation. Most people hold back or practice some degree of self-control when it comes to expressing certain emotions, especially in the workplace. The battery is being drained again!
Perfectionists, people-pleasers, and those who fear failure are putting a big drain on the battery as well. Think about how much thought and self-control goes into making things perfect when perfect is unachievable in the first place! No wonder we get stressed!
How many times do you get tempted in a day? All forms of media are tempting us with multitudes of desirables throughout the day given smartphones, computers, TV, billboards, radio, golden arches, etc. On average, we resist temptations 4 hours per day! When tired and heading home drained of willpower, we are bombarded with fast food neon signs galore. We are setup to fail when it comes to healthy choices in this scenario.
The good news is, we can recharge the willpower battery fairly quickly, and there are ways to avoid being faced with so many decisions.
First, let’s backup a moment. The first step is realizing when your willpower is low and the depletion is causing you problems. A personal example – I’m trying to make a decision about something in my life and the choice is unclear. I love to analyze, so my inner analyzer is off to the races. I just so happen to be at home when this happens, so as I’m over-analyzing and starting to get stressed about making the right choice, I find myself at the snack cupboard. Thankfully there’s some chips left! I grab the bag and start in. I don’t even bother sitting down. I stand there, bag in hand, consuming one chip after another without pause running through my analysis.
Until the recent past, I didn’t consciously notice what I was doing until the bag was gone or I had a stomach ache. Once I became aware of this pattern, I started to pay more attention when I headed to the snack cupboard. Using mindfulness techniques of observation without judgement (or nearly no judgement!), I started watching myself from an interested observer perspective. Am I actually hungry? Typically not. And then I watched as I rather quickly ate chip after chip after chip. “Look at her go!”, I thought to myself. Once done I concluded with, “Wow, that was neurotic behavior” (yes that is judgement), and “Oh yeah, now I feel like crap!”
I am learning strategies to help me reduce my dependency on willpower in many areas of my life. Through a series of blog posts, I’ll discuss the strategies and how they are working for me. I hope to get input from you as well.
What do you notice when your willpower is depleted? Can you join me in the neurotic club? I would love to hear your stories. It doesn’t have to be food-related. Food and eating just happen to be where I notice my willpower depletion the most.
Next time, I’ll talk about how we recharge the willpower battery, but not until I hear some of your stories!