Why our willpower fails us

We typically think of willpower as the inner strength that we use to resist temptation. We use it to choose the apple instead of the cookie. Or the salad instead of the french fries. Willpower is used as the foundation for many diet programs and without it we falter and fail.

We tell ourselves that if only we had the willpower we would be able to succeed – internally feeling a deep sense of hopelessness and lack of self worth when we don’t. Thankfully, understanding how our mind controls willpower allows us to create strategies to reach our goals.

Willpower is controlled by the region of the brain known as the anterior cingulate cortex and is used not only to resist temptation but also to perform tasks, make decisions and regulate emotions. So to rely solely on willpower to succeed at making healthy food choices is to rely on the exact same part of the brain that we use to:

  • Monitor task performance when giving presentations or operating electronics or machinery
  • Check email and make decisions about whether we will respond, save it for later or delete it
  • Deal with our children having temper tantrums or navigate the congested freeway in the morning on our way to work

Interestingly, and not that surprisingly, the anterior cingulate cortex gets “fatigued” over time. So when we regulate our emotions during our morning routine and commute to work, then perform tasks and make decisions when we get there, our willpower reserve is quickly depleted and we arrive at lunchtime with little left to choose the apple and the salad instead of the french fries and the cookie.

What’s more, the anterior cingulate cortex is exquisitely sensitive to dips in blood sugar and is not able to function well when we are hypoglycemic and hungry. This double whammy leads to poor food choices and frequently the demise of even the most well thought out diet plan.

So what do we do about this? Willpower is clearly not the best foundation but what other option is there? The key is to take the load off of willpower by planning, prepping and decreasing the number of food related decisions that we are presented with on any given day.

Studies show that we make over 100 of these food related decisions each day. Wow! That number surprised me. It’s no wonder that we are running into problems with that many food choices and the sensitive nature of the anterior cingulate cortex. The best strategy for outsmarting willpower is to do things that will decrease the number of food choices that we are presented with each day.

Here are some straightforward actions for reducing food choices:

  1. Commit to eating 3 square meals. No more, no less – including snacks. This will dramatically cut down the number of times you have to rely on willpower and increase the chances of success.  (Check out my other blog posts to learn how to keep your blood sugar balanced between meals)
  2. Before bed each night, write down what you will eat the next day. Make all your decisions the night before and all you have to do is follow your plan the next day.
  3. Prep your food. Prepare your meals before leaving the house based on the plan you wrote up the night before. This will eliminate the possibility of veering off the plan you so smartly prepared for yourself. This strategy requires having time to spare and the groceries and supplies you need to prepare a meal and transport it to work with you. Because of this it will not work for everyone. There are ways to get around this such as making extra food at dinner to pack up for lunch the next day or batch cooking on the weekends and freezing individual servings.

Whether you are able to actually bring food with you or not, simply committing to eating three square meals and writing your food plan the night before will substantially increase your ability to make healthy choices.

Creating any new habit is best accomplished by committing to doing it every day for three weeks straight. No misses and no excuses. After three weeks a new task becomes habitual and is accomplished with much more ease.

Hopefully now you understand willpower is not something you have or you don’t, it is something you manage. By outsmarting yourself with awareness, planning and a commitment to forming new habits, your goals become more reasonable and within reach.

For more information like this check out my program: Flip the Switch on Your Metabolism!