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The Truth About Willpower

  January 02, 2018
Submitted by Illinois Bariatric Center

As we ring in 2018, many people will be striving to achieve their New Year’s resolutions. Many more people will be on their way to giving up on such resolutions. Whether the vow is to lose weight, exercise, stop smoking, control spending, improve relationships, or be more organized — why do so many people fail to achieve their resolutions? There are many reasons and no simple answer, but lack of willpower is often given as the primary cause for not following through on desired changes.

Just what is willpower and why is it so difficult to maintain? According to The American Psychology Association, “willpower is the ability to resist short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals.” Many studies have suggested that willpower is a limited resource that can quickly diminish when called upon consistently throughout the day. At the same time, willpower is like a muscle that can get stronger with practice. Understanding this concept may help you to have more willpower and to persevere in the face of challenges instead of feeling like a big failure (again) and deciding that you just weren’t born with enough willpower.

Temptation surrounds us in our everyday living. While we endeavor to make whatever change we have set for ourselves, there is always the inner conflict between giving in to impulses to satisfy an immediate need versus resisting such temptation for achievement of the long-term goal. Consider the commitment to eat healthier. Most families are constantly on the go, parents struggle with not enough time to get everything done, and at the end of a long day the answer to “What’s for dinner?” is often whatever is quickest. The neon lights of a drive-thru are no match for hungry kids, haggard parents, and the prospect of a sink full of dirty dishes, despite the desire to prepare a healthier, home-cooked meal.

Research suggests that resisting many temptations or making many decisions throughout the day causes us to run out of the mental energy needed to overcome temptations, and eventually, we give in. This explains why people usually start out the day or week very successfully, but by the end of the day or week, their resolve has diminished. Everyday decisions might include what clothes to wear, what brand of products to purchase, when to do chores, pay by cash or credit card, watch TV or read a book, and the list goes on. Consider the numerous food-related urges a person might typically face every day:  donuts at the office, a salad for lunch (even though you really want a burger and fries), chips in the vending machine, your kids munching on after-school snacks. No wonder you finally bust out the ice cream!
If we think about the muscle analogy, exercise may initially cause sore muscles and fatigue, but over the long-term, regular exercise makes muscles stronger. Similarly, our willpower can become exhausted in the short-term, but by regularly practicing self-control, willpower is strengthened in the long-term. Think of it as body-building for the brain.

Learn to control your self-control
We know that maintaining any resolution (which is essentially a desire to change) is far easier said than done. Sometimes, the only way to achieve an important change is to get professional help. If you are in debt, a professional finance counselor may be the answer, if you want better relationships, perhaps a counselor is the way to go; if you need to lose a significant amount of weight, maybe surgical intervention is necessary.

Following are some strategies that support the idea that willpower can be strengthened to provide you with the staying power to achieve success in the long-term.
  • Avoid temptation. Distance yourself from places, people, and circumstances associated with the behavior you wish to change. If you are trying to eat healthier, get rid of the junk food and stock up on fresh fruit and produce. Grocery shop with a list, or assign this to another family member. If you want to cut back on social media, put your phone someplace out of reach. If you want to control spending, put credit cards in a hard-to-reach place.
  • Make an “if/then” plan. If you know that you will find yourself in a situation where you may be tempted to rock your resolution, determine ahead of time what you will do. For example, if you are going to a birthday party where you’ll be offered a piece of cake, plan to say that you’ve had an upset stomach recently, or want to save it for later, or simply practice saying “no thank you.”
  • Plan ahead and simplify. Don’t waste willpower on simple, daily decisions like what to wear, what to have for dinner, when to exercise, when to do chores, etc. Plan outfits and meals for the whole week ahead of time, schedule exercise or chores so it’s not a decision, but just part of your daily or weekly routine, get rid of “stuff” that is just taking up space, set up auto-pay for bills, opt-out of some activities that aren’t important to you.
The nature of willpower and self-control is a complex topic that certainly affects different people in different ways. Setting clear goals and implementing specific strategies can help strengthen your self-control and utilize your willpower to make positive change happen in your life.

If you are significantly overweight and diet and exercise haven’t worked, contact Dr. Sidney Rohrscheib at the Illinois Bariatric Center at 217-935-7037. Illinois Bariatric Center is one of the few practices in Central Illinois that is qualified to offer the ORBERA™ non-surgical procedure for weight loss. The practice provides a unique multidisciplinary program dedicated to the management and treatment of obesity.

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January 02, 2018

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