In my last article, I went over how to strengthen your willpower. Strengthening your willpower is just part of the equation; the other part of the equation is to set up your environment so that you don’t always have to rely on willpower, and reduce the amount of times you draw from your willpower.
Let’s review what willpower is by comparing it to your muscles. If you never train your muscles, they’ll be weak. If you exhaust your muscles, such as by doing a strength workout, your muscles will be fatigued. When they rest and recover, they’ll become stronger. Willpower works in the same way. In this article, let’s say your goal is to lose weight. I’ll share six ways to reach your goal without relying on willpower alone.
1. Create habits- one or two at a time. It can take a lot of willpower the first time you try to break a habit or adopt a new habit, and each time you use willpower or practice self-control, you detract from your willpower reserve. Let’s say you want to eat healthier, and you’re trying to cut down on your intake of refined carbohydrates. The first time you decide to pass on the bread basket at your dinner out, it can take a lot of willpower. However, over time, skipping the bread will become the new status quo and making that choice becomes a habit. Habits take a lot less willpower. Most adults don’t use up a lot of their willpower deciding whether or not to brush their teeth each morning. It’s a habit.
Focus on changing one or two habits at a time. Since developing habits takes willpower, trying to change too many habits all at once can deplete your stores!
2. Make decisions ahead of time.
There’s a good reason why people who meal plan are more successful at sticking to their healthy eating plan than those who do not. When you take time to plan ahead at the start of the week, you make the decisions to eat healthy without using willpower. For example, it takes no willpower at all to decide to eat roast chicken and veggies for dinner for tomorrow night’s dinner. Let’s say you not only decided, but you made sure you have all the ingredients ready in the house, or you prep the meal or put it in the crockpot in the morning. Since you have a plan, it’s easy to go home after work, even if you’re exhausted, and put the chicken in the oven, using ingredients you have in the house. If you didn’t have a plan, you’d have to decide what to make at a time when you’re fatigued, making it more challenging to make a healthy choice.
3. Set up your environment to make it easy to make the ‘good choice’. Similar to planning ahead, set up your environment for success. For example, if you’re feeling peckish and you go to the fridge and find a container of sliced raw veggies, it’s easy to choose to eat the veggies. However, if you go to the fridge and find a leftover pizza (and maybe some veggies, but you’d still need to peel and chop them), it’s much easier to go for the pizza. If you struggle with exercise after work, you may decide to pack your workout clothes so you can go straight to the gym from work, rather than going home first. You may also arrange to meet a workout buddy or coach to have the added accountability.
Other examples of changing your environment are:
-Purging your cupboards of those snack foods you don’t actually want to eat
-Putting up inspirational messages on post-it notes to remind yourself of your habits
-Get your workout clothes ready the night before and put your alarm across the room so that you are not able to press the snooze button
-Stock your work desk with healthy snacks rather than candies and granola bars
-Go grocery shopping when you’re not hungry
4. Arm yourself with self-care. When we’re feeling rested and low stress, it’s much easier to make good decisions. That’s why willpower is strongest in the morning. When you’re exhausted, feeling overwhelmed or stressed out, it’s a heck of a lot more challenging to make a good decision. To minimize getting to this point, incorporate short bouts of self-care during the day. It could be as simple ask taking 1 minute to focus on your breath, or spending 5 minutes journaling.
Another way to minimize stress it to keep your environment as serene as possible. That could mean making sure your kitchen is clean before you go to bed so you wake up to a clean kitchen, or removing clutter from your desk at work.
5. Work with your body’s biology, not against it. When it comes to weight loss, a lot of people struggle because they are simply not meeting their body’s needs. Conventional wisdom tells us to cut calories and lower our fat intake. And while counting calories and going low fat can work for a while, and you may lose weight, the weight comes piling back on 95% of the time. Why? Because you’re hungry. Your body has many defense mechanisms in place to make sure you do not starve. Hormonal signals drive you to eat, and others downregulate your metabolism. After all, our body doesn’t know that we have food available 24 hours per day. We evolved to withstand famine and to survive.
While you may be able to fight urges to eat everything in sight for a while, even weeks or months, biology will eventually win. To work with your biology:
-Eat an appropriate balance of fats, protein and carbohydrates from whole, unprocessed foods to give you lasting energy, minimize food cravings and to boost your metabolism
-Give your body adequate rest in between workouts. “Willpower” will not be enough to get you to the gym when you’re fatigued.
-Get adequate sleep. Lack of sleep negatively affects the hormones that regulate appetite.
6. Whenever you can, create routines. Decision making of any kind will draw from willpower. If you hum and haw about what clothes to wear in the morning or which route to take on your way to work, you lessen your chance of making good decisions later on in the day. The experts call it ‘decision fatigue’. Routines minimize decision making so that you can save your willpower for when you really need it. Some examples include:
-Eating a rotation of the same three or four breakfasts each morning,
-Rotating between a set strength workout and run program for your workout
-Creating routine around your wardrobe. Barak Obama wears either a blue or grey suit every day, saving his decisions for more important things.
Routine may seem boring, but people who are successful in making healthy eating and exercise a lifestyle, usually create routines.
If you’re trying to make healthier choices, you will need some willpower. This isn’t about being perfect; this is about getting better and making improvements for YOU. To set yourself up for success, take the two-prong approach: strengthening your willpower with practice and positive reinforcement, and minimizing the amount of times you draw from your willpower!