The Care and Feeding of Willpower: Part I

The Care and Feeding of Willpower: Part I

The Care and Feeding of Willpower: Part I

Protecting Our Most Important Mental Resource

Week 3 in the “Making the Changes That Matter” project continues the January theme of keeping things simple. Week 1’s strategy was to avoid (and decrease your dependence on) hyperpalatable foods, and Week 2’s strategy was to reduce cravings and improve satisfaction by increasing your intake of protein and fiber.

This week, we’re going to talk about willpower. 

I find it remarkable that when I work with clients, no one thinks that they have naturally strong willpower. No one. Not a single person.

Typically, my clients come to me after they have gotten locked in a vicious cycle of weight gain, calorie restriction, weight loss, out-of-control cravings, circling back around to weight gain again.

These new clients are often frustrated and “done” with diets, which is natural and understandable (as dieting is miserable). But what makes me sad is that these women often attribute the failure to themselves, not to the diet.

What a tragedy.

Going With the Flow

A key shift in thinking is to re-frame healthful strategies as aikido.

In the Japanese martial art of aikido, you don’t block or resist your opponent – you move with the momentum of your attacker and redirect the flow of movement naturally. You move with the energy, not against it.

With this in mind, we can transform the way that we think about diets and make weight loss and healthy eating joyful, easy, and almost effortless.

Let’s revisit Week 1 for just a moment. We are wired biologically to avoid starvation and maintain an optimal reproductive weight. This means that we are hyper-attuned to rich foods, which should be relatively scarce in the natural world, and – similarly – we are under-attuned to less-rich foods. We crave and love pizza, pasta, burgers, pretzels, chips, and chocolate, but most of us don’t fantasize about raw broccoli and celery.

Even more important to note, we are wired for overeating, because opportunities to gorge on rich foods did not often present themselves for most of human history. Our diets prior to the last century were characterized by long, unbroken stretches of monotonous seasonal foods punctuated by opportunities to binge and feast.

In the last 50 years or so, all of this has changed. Our environments have changed substantially, and food scarcity is likely not a problem for you, if you are reading this post.

However, even though our world has changed, our wiring hasn’t. Our natural way of operating has not “caught up” with the over-abundance of food choices.

We live in a 21st-century caloric paradise with an ancient brain wired for starvation avoidance. 

In other words, when you have difficulty sticking to a diet, you’re not broken, weak, or somehow different from other people – you’re simply human, acting naturally, as your biology intended.

When you feel bemused that you accept the second slice of cake at your son’s birthday party that you don’t really want – you’re simply a cavewoman who has stumbled on a beehive full of honey, and some small but powerful part of your brain is not sure where your next meal is coming from.

The first step to taking care of your willpower and using it as an effective tool is to understand your natural wiring and to be compassionate to yourself. 

You are not weak. You are not broken. You are not different.

You are simply human.

The flip side of this is equally important: you will have the most solid, long-term weight loss results if your strategies are constructed to flow with your natural wiring and how your willpower actually works, not how you want it to work.

Remember: aikido. 

Full Willpower vs. Emptied Willpower

We often experience failure when we rely on willpower, because we mis-conceive of willpower as a muscle that can be strengthened, instead of as a cup that gets depleted.

When we use the “muscle” model of willpower, we see ourselves as weak.

When we use the “cup” model of willpower, we can see ourselves as stewards of a finite amount of energy, motivation, and higher-level thinking. 

If you realize now that you’ve always envisioned willpower as a muscle, let’s reframe it immediately. When you re-imagine willpower as a cup, it can change your whole perspective on yourself and your mental strength.

We make the best choices when our willpower is fresh – when the “cup” is full. For example, schedule permitting, it is typically easier for people to exercise in the morning than at night. The decision is simply easier in the early hours of the day, when willpower is brimming full.

However, willpower gets depleted a little every time we have to make a decision.

Many of my clients, for example, make great food decisions all day, but their choices begin to devolve into junky eating in the late afternoon and evening. You can almost visualize the cup being dripped out as the day goes on.

In other words, we make the poorest choices when our willpower is exhausted – when we are tired or have said “no” to things all day long. 

In a theme that we will return to over and over, we want to conserve and protect willpower by presenting ourselves with fewer choices and better options, all day long, in order to keep the “cup” full for the evening.

This week, in Part I of this post, we’re going to focus on preparation as a key strategy for protecting your willpower.

Proactivity vs. Reactivity

To protect your willpower and conserve its stores throughout the day for when you need it most (the evening after a long and frustrating day at work, for example), it’s essential that you become proactive instead of reactive.

Using proactive strategies means that you prepare, plan, think ahead, and arm yourself for future situations.

Being reactive is not a strategy at all – it’s simply bumping through your day and making your best possible decision in each moment. However, now that you know that willpower is a cup instead of a muscle, you can see how being reactive and unprepared does not set you up for success, even if you have relatively smart eating skills, good intentions, and “like healthy food.”

In keeping with the January theme of keeping things simple, this week is going to focus on making life easier by flowing with your natural wiring.

When life is easier, your willpower is happier and stronger.

In Part I of this topic, we will cover two key strategies for protecting your willpower each day:

Pre-Prepping and Packing Food

Remember, willpower is happiest when it is not frequently used. We love making easy choices (or, really, no choices at all). To preserve your willpower and flow with your natural energy, focus on using big bursts of self-discipline a few times a week so that you don’t have to tax your willpower each day. This makes daily decision-making effortless and intuitive.

For example, here are the three actions that – when done on a weekly basis – prevent the daily depletion of willpower:

  • Weekly menu planning
    • Take 10-20 minutes per week to plan your meals for the following week. This is easily done on Thursday or Friday. Make it a routine that you do on the same day each week, and stick with it.
    • Do the math on how many meals you need, and how much food you need to buy to accommodate the appropriate number of meals for you (and your family, if applicable). For just my husband and myself, we make 18+ meals per week, which allows for a few meals out, as well.
    • This protects willpower because, if you’ll recall, the very act of making decisions taxes our willpower. By confining most of our decision-making to 10-20 minutes per week, we free up several “what to eat” decisions each day. This translates into easier, better decision-making all day long.
  • Weekly grocery shopping trip
    • Take an hour once per week to go to the grocery store (or order online) and enact your meal plan. Try to do it on the same day each week, and stick with it.
    • Don’t limit yourself to lunch and dinner – also think about breakfast, snacks, and nighttime snacking. Putting the best possible choices into your house (and into your life) will automatically improve and reduce your decision-making on a daily basis.
    • This protects willpower because eating healthy food you have is easier than seeking unhealthy food you don’t have. In this case, you’re moving with your natural wiring by doing what is easy.
  • Weekly meal prep
    • Take 2-3 hours once per week to cook your meals for the week. I would like to point out that this does take practice – you will gradually learn which meals are the easiest to prepare quickly, and which meals are not worth the time (or should be saved for special occasions).
    • Be sure to package all of your meals in individual portion-sized containers.
    • Be realistic about how you eat, as well as about the time you have to cook. Don’t be overly ambitious, and make meals as easy as possible.
    • This protects willpower because cooking is difficult and time-consuming on a weeknight when you have to make every meal from scratch. It requires a great deal of creativity, effort, and clean-up. Remember, doing what is easy helps to preserve willpower, and it only takes a few minutes to heat up a pre-portioned meal.

In practical terms, here’s what it looks like in my own life:

My husband and I have a rotating roster of meals that we like to cook on a regular basis. If we eat at a restaurant and particularly like a meal, I make a note of it and look up a similar recipe to try. We pick three meals each week and make six of each. On Thursday night, we go grocery shopping. On Friday afternoon, I cook, or we cook together. By Friday evening, there are 18+ meals prepared and packaged for the following week. On Thursday night the following week, it starts all over again.

Is it work – even hard work – for a few hours?

Yes. But does it save a tremendous amount of energy, decision-making, and bad food choices all week long? Absolutely.

Extra effort once a week saves wasted effort all week.

In the process, you flow with your own momentum and avoid over-taxing your willpower on a daily basis.

Avoiding Hunger

Not letting yourself get too hungry, under any circumstances, is an ironclad path to success, because when we are hungry, our cravings explode.

There are two strategies that you can use:

Eat sufficiently large meals. 

Making sure that your meals are large enough to satisfy you will help to curb cravings in the hours following the meal.

When people – especially women – make a massive effort to “eat clean,” they often cut down their caloric intake to a level that is not sustainable.

Don’t obsess over the calorie count of each individual meal – a 400-calorie protein smoothie for breakfast that keeps you full until lunch is infinitely better than a 200-calorie “light” egg sandwich that results in a 300-calorie vending machine breakdown at 9 AM.

This is why dieting can lead to such a mentally and physically unhealthy binge-restrict cycle. Going with the flow of your body’s energy dictates that you eat enough to feel satisfied for hours. Going against the flow of your body’s natural energy means that you deprive it of the fuel that it needs to function well.

Remember, we want to flow with our bodies’ needs, not against them.

Pack snacks and intend to snack. 

Another way to prevent yourself from getting too hungry is to pack a snack that meets your healthy eating goals, and plan to eat it at a certain time.

For example, with most professional schedules, eating every four hours would place your breakfast at 8 AM, your lunch at 12 PM, and a ghost meal at 4 PM prior to dinner. The problem is that many people do not plan to eat at 4 PM, so the resulting snack (or dinner/nighttime eating) is more reactive than it is proactive.

It’s the extra-large and extra-decadent Starbucks coffee creation, or the bagel tray that’s left out in the office lounge.

But if you bring one RX bar to work with you, and you plan to eat it at 4 PM… problem solved.

It is natural to be hungry in the afternoon. When we prepare and plan a snack ahead of time, we are flowing with our body’s natural rhythms, rather than fighting them.

Week 3 Strategy Summary

To simplify it, Week 3 is all about planning ahead and preventing hunger, in order to re-direct our natural momentum and physical rhythms into a positive direction.

Even if you don’t have the lifestyle to do the full meal prep approach that I use, you can certainly get food in your house and pack snacks that fit your health goals.

And remember, if you want to participate in the weekly strategies as a “lab participant” (for free!), e-mail me immediately to let me know you’re participating, follow the strategy of the week to the best of your ability, keep a daily journal, and answer the reflection questions via e-mail in the Monday blog post (below). That’s it!

Follow-Up Questions from Last Week

If you’ve already been participating, answer these three questions about last week via e-mail, and feel free to be as brief or wordy as feels appropriate to you:

  • Have you noticed a difference by shifting your focus from exclusive eating to inclusive eating?
  • What did you notice about eating more protein and fiber? What small strategies made it easier to get the “right” amount of protein and fiber for your body and schedule?
  • What did you notice about your thinking when you made an effort to feel fuller by eating more protein and fiber? How were your cravings? What did your journals focus on in terms of your inner world?

If you choose to participate, I so appreciate it!

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Rachel Trotta
Personal Trainer, Fitness Nutritionist
I am a Certified Personal Trainer and Fitness Nutritionist, living in Bay Head, NJ, with coaching clients all over the world. As an expert in human behavior, habit change, and long-term weight loss success, my mission is to make healthy living simple, accessible, and meaningful for the average person. In addition to my blog (subscribe to get it delivered directly to your inbox!), I have written for MindBodyGreen, Tiny Buddha, Work Awesome, and more.

When I'm not coaching clients, I am enjoying life at the beach with my husband, Michael.

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