When you think about willpower and weight loss, does the thought of white-knuckling your way through a maze of temptations come to mind? If it does, you likely don't feel very empowered . . . in fact, you probably feel a little depressed and aggravated.
The truth is, there's more to the act of exercising willpower than being deprived, and you may be suprised to learn that willpower can even become one of your strongest allies!
The Power of Willpower
In the simplest terms, willpower is the ability to control our attention, emotions, and desires. Although, that may seem easy, most people feel in control one moment and overwhelmed the next.
The American Psychological Association lists the lack of willpower as the number one reason people say they struggle to meet their goals.
According to Kelly McGonigal, from Stanford University, there's three fundamental elements to willpower:
- "I Won't" - Saying no when we need to say no. ("I won't eat the brownie")
- "I Will" - Saying yes when we need to say yes. ("I will get up and exercise")
- "I Want" - Remembering what we really want. ("I want to wear the clothes in my closet again")
The "I Won't" and "I Will" powers are the two sides of self-control. But to be effective, we also need the "I Want" power. This is the power that helps us remember what we really want.
The "I Want" power helps keep us focused on our long-term goals, it reminds us of our motivation when we need to remember what matters most.
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The prefrontal cortex of our brain is central to our success. It controls where we focus our attention, as well as our feelings and thoughts. It drives us to do difficult tasks, and keeps us from following every impulse and craving.
And when it comes to the difficult job of keeping us on-track with our long-term goals and core values, we'd be lost without the prefrontal cortex. But at times, it can feel as though we have one brain and two minds.
One Brain: Two Minds
It's as if, our present self is driven towards the brownie, but our future self is focused on our goals. We have one mind that'll help us make decisions based on our goals, and one that's focused on our immediate desire.
The part of the brain we're currently using determines if we stay focused on our goals (our future self) or give in to our immediate desire (our present self). Which ever part of the brain is most active at the time, will ultimately make the decision.
It doesn't matter that we're the same person, we'll meet the challenge differently depending upon our energy and stress levels. In other words, whether you choose to eat the brownie will change from one day to another.
"We all have the capacity to do the harder thing. We also have the desire to do exactly the opposite." - Kelly McGonigal
However, by improving the function of the prefrontal cortex, we help regulate the systems that redirect us away from immediate gratification. In addition, when our brain is under-fueled it becomes under active and has difficulty keeping us focused on what we really want.
Since our brain responds to mental exercise we can improve our willpower with training. The brain responds to mental exercise in much the same way as our muscles respond to physical exercise.
Providing your brain with the resources it needs can also help improve it's performance. The four practices listed below will help train your willpower physiology.
Although, they may take a little willpower in the beginning, in the end, these methods will pay huge dividends in helping you tackle your willpower challenges and achieve your weight loss goals!
By getting fewer than 6-hours of sleep a night, your brain will become under fueled and less active. You'll notice you have reduced control over impulses and it'll be easier to be lead away from your goals.
The ability to remember your "I Want" is dependent on fueling your brain properly. Getting 8-hours of sleep each night can make a big difference in your overall decision making.
Studies have been conducted on individuals who meditated as few as 10-minutes a day over the duration of a couple of months. Researchers found that their prefrontal cortex actually increased in size, became denser, and better connected.
With just a few minutes of daily meditation, researchers also found that the quality of sleep people experienced also improved, which also made them better equipped to make decisions aligned with their goals.
Exercise will also yield the same results as mediation. Both are excellent methods of improving willpower. In addition, studies have shown that when individuals begin exercising, they not only find it easier to continue, but they also make better food choices!
Low-Glycemic and/or Plant-Based Diet
This type of eating helps keep your blood sugar levels consistent, thus helping you think clear and stay focused on your goals. Large swings in blood sugar levels have a negative impact on how your brain uses energy, and you're more likely to react on your impulses.
Although, not realistic for everyone, there's growing evidence that eating a vegan (plant-based) diet is the best choice for your health. However, even by simply increasing the amount of plants you eat, you can make a positive impact on the way your brain functions.