Another year and another vague resolution to lose weight and eat better has exploded in a cloud of candy-heart dust and chocolate around mid-February. Faced with a million tiny temptations every day, you tried to gut it out — and you sure did, sort of. Your gut is definitely out there now, about three holes further along on your belt. Epic fail.
Now you find yourself pondering a pint of Chunky Monkey and wondering what’s wrong with you. Where is your willpower, and why does it seem to desert you when you need it most? Why do other people have more of it than you? Where does it come from, and how can you get more of it?
The answers to those questions are both physical and psychological. The bad news? As you suspected, some people are just born with more willpower than others — it’s partly a genetic quirk, the same way some people are born with more musical talent than others or more hair. The good news is, willpower can be developed, and with the right tools, you can have just as much of it as anybody else — probably even more.
Where does willpower come from? The physical answer is the frontal cortex of the brain, the area just behind your forehead. This also happens to be one of the last areas of the brain to develop and remains incomplete until a person’s mid-20s.
As with other brain functions, exercising willpower requires glucose. In a study published in the November 2007 edition of Personality and Social Psychology Review, subsequently replicated by other researchers, test subjects in a lab were asked to resist chocolate cookies placed in front of them, then attempt another task requiring willpower. The subjects were less capable of accomplishing the other tasks, showing measurable drops in glucose with each effort. But subjects who replenished their glucose with a sugary drink after resisting the cookies didn’t have the same self-control deficits when performing the other tasks.
That’s not to say someone trying to lose weight should drink a soda every time he or she turns down some verboten food; this is simply the physiology behind the common-sense advice never to go to a party or the grocery store on an empty stomach. If your body isn’t fueled properly, you’ll have a much harder time withstanding temptations.
Other studies show even people born with less willpower than others can increase their capacity for it. And willpower capacity — regardless of the area of life in which you build it — can be applied to anything you want to accomplish.
“If we practice self-control in little things, it leads to greater self-control in other areas,” Dr. Michael Kitchens, assistant professor of psychology at Pennsylvania’s Lebanon Valley College who has been researching willpower for the last five years, explains. Kitchens cites an experiment in which “people who were trying to diet would go to the grocery store and pick out their favorite ice cream, then put it back on the shelf.”
“By doing that little act, it builds up capacity,” he says. “Holding your breath takes self-control. The areas don’t have to be related.”
The Science of Success
Fact is, says Joseph Grenny, co-author of Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success (Business Plus, April 2011), “we have far less control over our behavior than we believe.”
But we do have the power to control the things that control us — things Grenny and his colleagues have spent the last five years studying and codifying into six major categories. In a nutshell, we can — and must — leapfrog the things that directly influence our behavior, manipulating them to influence us the way we want.
“Most people fail to change because they rely too much on willpower, when really it’s about one-sixth of what it takes to change,” Grenny says. “That’s the trap. Most people believe we should have absolute control over our choices, so if we fail, it’s all our fault. But people are 10 times more likely to succeed if they take control over the things that control them. It gives people an enormous amount of hope because they realize when you fail to change, it’s not you; it’s your plan. When you start pulling in all the resources that need to be working in your favor, you will succeed.”
Those resources include the following:
• Personal motivation. If you don’t find diet and exercise motivating in themselves, you have to tie them to something you find important — whether that’s being able to keep up with your kids or lowering your medical bills.
• Personal ability. So you don’t know much about what proper diet and exercise look like? Get educated. Read this magazine or find books or videos to fill in your knowledge gaps.
• Social motivation. When it comes to your fitness goals, everyone you know is either a friend who helps you achieve them or an accomplice who prevents you from doing so. The sad part is, many accomplices look like friends — but once you identify who’s who, you can take steps to either turn accomplices into friends or distance yourself from their bad influence.
• Social ability. Get professional help when you need it. Enlisting the aid of a personal trainer or licensed nutritionist can go even further in helping change your habits than knowledge alone.
• Structural motivation. Motivate yourself to stay on track by planning rewards for reaching incremental goals. After declaring his weight-loss goals, one of Grenny’s subjects paid $260 to join an Internet community to keep him accountable — and “told his wife he was doing this because he knew she’d be ashamed of him if he threw all this money away,” Grenny says
• Structural ability. Your environment exerts enormous influence on your behavior. Change whatever you must to stay on track — whether it’s keeping your workout clothes with your briefcase to remind you to hit the gym on the way home from work or buying smaller plates to keep portions under control.
In online studies of about 1,000 people conducted last summer, Grenny found only one of every five people who didn’t use strategies from all six sources of influence lost more than 5 pounds in three months and more than half gained weight.
“Willpower comes from our belief system — whether we believe we have control over our lives and can make differences,” says Dr. Michelle Maidenberg, a psychotherapist with a private practice in New York City who teaches a graduate course in cognitive-behavioral therapy at New York University. “But you can’t wait for willpower and motivation to strike before acting. We just have to do it. We will get motivation from the endorphins and seeing changes in our body — that compels motivation. But you can’t start off with it. There is no such thing.”
In addition to working with Grenny’s six categories of behavioral influence, Maidenberg recommends identifying and dealing with self-sabotaging thoughts. “I had a client who would go to her favorite gourmet store in the city and buy a lot of her favorite food,” she says. “I asked her why she bought so much, and she said she didn’t know when she’d be able to get back there. I reminded her she only lives 20 minutes away. But that’s the irrational thought she had.
“Now when she goes into the city, she only buys one item at that store instead of 15. The store isn’t going out of business. That lets her get that irrational thinking out of her mind. What is it for you? If you can identify what that is and come up with alternative responses and rational thoughts, that will allow you to be successful.”
Another strategy for keeping portions in check was published in the December 2010 issue of Science. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University demonstrated that people who pictured themselves eating large quantities of foods they enjoyed consumed less of them when actually given the foods than subjects who didn’t use the mental exercise.
“Merely thinking of a food does increase our appetite for the food — imagining how it tastes, smells or looks,” says lead researcher Carey Morewedge, Ph.D., an assistant professor of social and decision sciences at the school. “But if we imagine consuming it — performing the mental imagery that would accompany its actual consumption — it decreases our desire for the food we imagine eating.”
Success, then, doesn’t depend on your will to power, says Grenny — it depends on your will to plan and then execute.
“Where you exercise your will is to line up things to support you,” he explains. “People tend to think creating a strategy is a sign of weakness. That’s the willpower trap. The wisest people in the world are the ones who realize we have to control the things that control our behavior. It’s still hard work.”