When attempting to make New Year’s Resolutions, or just adopt a new healthy habit, people naturally assume that they will need to use their “willpower.” The worry they have is…do they have enough?
There is an unspoken assumption that some problems require “X” amount of willpower to master, and if we don’t quite have “X” amount, then we may be doomed to fail. For decades, therapists and counselors have accepted this tacit assumption – that a person’s “willpower” is essentially a fixed quantity within us that varies from person to person. Some people seem to have great ability to withstand temptations, where others seem to struggle much more.
However, in the past decade, a series of investigations into willpower uncovered an astonishing fact: Willpower is not a fixed quantity within individuals. A person’s willpower varies enormously from hour to hour, depending upon the degree of immediately recent mental stress. Specifically, mental stress (decision making) causes a decision-area of the brain to become far more active than normal, and to burn more glucose. As this happens, this area of the brain becomes glucose- depleted, and thus fatigued. At that point, the individual is experiencing “decision fatigue” and is becoming increasingly impulsive. Willpower is fading, as the “power” in willpower is actually brain glucose. Studies led by social psychologist Roy Baumeister and his colleagues have left no doubt about it – when your mind is working extra hard for even ten minutes, you are becoming mentally fatigued and your willpower gets shaky.
So what can we do about this? There are four simple, effective fundamental strategies for supporting your willpower. They are 1) cleaning your room, 2) eating something healthy first, 3) daily exercise, and 4) getting to bed on time. These sound ridiculously low-tech and unimaginative. However, each is fitting a piece of the willpower puzzle together. Keeping a tidy home environment means that your mind has less worries about what you “should” be doing, than if you keep looking at a stack of messy papers on tables and desks. A tidy environment will deplete your willpower less than a messy one, and thus help you with other goals requiring your limited willpower, such as healthy eating and living choices. When feeling a bit stressed and even a little mentally fatigued, we often desire to eat something a bit junky. At that moment your mind and body naturally crave sugar to replace the missing glucose. Instead of eating something sugary, eat something healthy first. Foods with some substance – such as complex carbohydrates (like a banana or some oatmeal or a bean burrito) will support your brain glucose much more effectively. These foods are more slowly digested than junk food, cause a gentle but steady blood glucose rise, and support your brain for a long steady ride. Next, some modest daily exercise routine will also support your willpower. This routine can often be very simple, like taking 10 minutes a day in your own place, dancing to some favorite music. There is no need to go to the gym and make a big production out of this. I simply jump rope for about ten minutes and get a great workout. Keep it simple if you need to, if working out isn’t your thing. A modest program is a key component of willpower support. It is not yet known why exercise has been shown to successfully support willpower, but it could be that exercise helps the body more effectively release glucose from storage on demand, and thus helps you be more resilient when under stress. So get moving, but it’s fine if you keep it simple.
Finally, shut off the electronic toys and get to sleep! It has recently been shown why sleep is so important: Is during sleep that the brain does it’s housekeeping, literally cleaning itself up. When short of sleep, our minds are literally working against yesterday’s mental debris, and we deprive our minds of their full power, and that includes our willpower.
Healthy food, exercise, sleep, and an orderly environment may not sound fancy, but they are the fundamentals of supporting your mind. Treat your mind well, and it will stick by you and help you when you need it most. And that is how you can begin an exciting new path toward becoming healthier, happier, and having the life you deserve.
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