8 Ways to Stronger Willpower
Elizabeth Ward, MS, RD
January is the time of year when many people focus on self-improvement and set lofty goals to make their lives better. If your new year’s resolutions to eat better and exercise more aren’t going as planned, you may need to give yourself a break.
You only have so much willpower, which can be thought of as the inner strength to make difficult choices. Doing what you don’t want to do saps limited energy reserves, and your resolve to make beneficial choices can crumble when challenged by stress, fatigue, and temptation. The good news is that willpower can become stronger the more you “use” it. Here’s how to stay on track and feel better about the choices you make.
Plan to succeed.
We make hundreds of food decisions every day, including the way we take our coffee in the morning, the type of bread we have for sandwiches, and what, and how much, we eat for late night snacks. Each time you make a healthy choice, like picking fruit instead of candy, or bringing your sneakers to work for a mid-day walk, it's easier to make the next one. Plan nutritious meals and snacks and schedule regular exercise to make these activities habitual and not something you need to think about too much and possibly reject.
Excessive hunger weakens willpower.
When you’re ravenous, it’s harder for your brain to keep healthy choices in the forefront because of its strong urge to satisfy your hunger. Resist temptation by eating balanced meals with enough calories for gradual weight loss (if that’s your goal) and taking healthy snacks with you when shopping or doing errands.
Support your brain.
Decision-making and impulse control happen between your ears, so it’s important to support your brain when trying to change for the better. A wide array of nutrients help support brain health, including the antioxidants vitamins C and E, which help protect brain cells. Iron facilitates communication between brain cells and vitamin B12 which is key to proper neurological functioning. A daily multivitamin makes sense for filling in small nutrient gaps that could make a difference.. For example, experts recommend synthetic vitamin B12 in fortified foods and dietary supplements for people over the age of 50 because it’s better absorbed by the body than the vitamin B12 that occurs naturally in foods. People who avoid all animal products may lack adequate vitamin B12, too.
Your brain is hard-wired for pleasure. It would rather you do something that feels good or is rewarding, like diving into a pint of premium ice cream instead of munching on carrot sticks, and curling up on the couch instead of working out. Dietary deprivation often backfires, so don’t cut out all of your favorite foods. Every day, include a small portion of a food you truly love and take the time to appreciate it. When it comes to physical activity, pick one or two that make the most sense, such as walking and yoga, and forgo intense activities, like running, if you don’t enjoy them.
Sleep on it.
Bolster your inner strength by getting the shut-eye you need. Aim for eight hours of sleep every night. Try to go to bed at the same time and wake up at the same time every day. Take a 20-minute power nap when you’re feeling tired.
Physically active adults have a lower risk of age-related declines thinking, learning, and judgment skills1. Physical activity may also improve sleep quality, shoring up your willpower and concentration. Most healthy people should get a minimum of 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity activity, such as brisk walking.
Alcohol impairs judgment and saps willpower. When you’re out to dinner, start with a non-alcoholic beverage, such as diet soda or flavored soda water, to quench your thirst and curb alcohol intake. Wait until the food arrives to order wine, beer or a cocktail and limit yourself to one drink.
Write down your goals.
People who put their goals on paper are significantly more likely to achieve them than are those who just think about what needs to get done. You’ll feel good when you accomplish each goal, and your success will help boost your resolve to do more.
1 U. S. Department of Health and Human Services. 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. http://www.health.gov/PAGuidelines