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Will Power As A Finite Resource

Will power is often cited as the heavy hitting requirement for success in getting healthier – resisting that Oreo cookie, rejecting the snooze button to make your morning workout, and having the motivation to eat right, exercise, avoid temptation, take any medicine or supplements you require, and reach your goals. We always think of will power as this infinite resource that is either “have” or “have not”. Either you have a lot of will power and are fit, others don’t have any and thus are overweight, unhealthy, etc. I have not thought this was a correct assumption for a while, but something I’ve recently read reminds me it’s a good time to spread the message.

Today I began reading Switch: How To Change Things When Change Is Tough by Dan and Chip Heath. I’m only a few chapters in, but this gist is that change is difficult because we have two brains: the emotional brain and the rational brain. The emotional brain wants ice cream, beer, sleep, and Netflix binges while the rational mind wants to have a six pack and low cholesterol. Unfortunately, like Rich Froning at the CrossFit Games, the emotional mind almost always wins. The book discusses the keys to making changes even when they’re hard. It looks like

In addition to this dynamic, one concept that really stuck out for me was this:

What looks like laziness might be exhaustion

There have been a few studies where participants are asked to resist something tempting (like chocolate chip cookies), and then later to complete a difficult task. The example in Switch discusses asking some students to taste chocolate chip cookies and avoid eating radishes (so hard, I know), and some to taste radishes and not eat any of the aromatic chocolate chip cookies beside them. Later, both groups were asked to complete an impossible cognitive test. Those who did not have to resist cookies persevered for 19 minutes before giving up. Those how had to expend will power avoiding cookies lasted only eight.

What this tells us is that will power is an exhaustible resource. It is something you can run out of, just like gas in your car. This is the epitome of the problem with yo-yo diets – if the lifestyle change is unsustainable, you will run out of willpower and go back to old habits.

In order to make lasting changes, the key is to change your environment to make the behavior changes easier, and to create sustainable changes so that your emotional brain and rational brain are both on board. Prepare meals that are healthy AND taste good (credit fauntroy). Find social activities that are also active – tennis with your friends is probably more exciting and rewarding (in the short term) than running by yourself. In short, find the healthy behaviors that you find rewarding in the short term, so that you can continue them long enough to realize the longer term rewards.

Photo c/o Tiz



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