Willpower: Use It And/Or Lose It

willpowerDo you ever say to yourself, “I am such a loser!  Why can’t I, as the commercial says, Just Do It? If I just had more willpower, more control over myself, I could get this stupid project done!”  Or (ahemmm), “Why do I always lose my patience (euphemism) with my kids/spouse/pets right before dinner?  I seem to be in such a better mood in the morning.”  There is a word for what you are lacking at such times…well, actually there are three words but we are going to ignore two of them–self compassion– for now.

The word that I want to focus on for this post is “willpower.” My definition for willpower is essentially the ability to control yourself and carry out a goal that you have set for yourself.  It’s the ability to allow frontal cortex portion of your brain–the executive, decision making part of it–to dominate your mammalian brain, where emotions and basal urges reside. People generally believe that willpower is something you either have or don’t have, much like musical or artistic ability.  Of course, possession of willpower is lauded by society, and evidence of the lack of willpower leads to criticism and judgmental frowns of disapproval.  The ability to force oneself to study or diligently practice a sport or musical instrument leads to good grades and prowess on the field or stage.  We admire people with these skills and we give them rewards (grades, applause, etc.). But when lack of willpower leads to problems such as addiction or obesity or flunking out of school, it is not hard to locate critics.

But thinking deeper about this issue, it is rare for anyone to have self-discipline (willpower) in all aspects of life, just as it is it is pretty hard to find a person with a normal brain who shows absolutely no control whatsoever over their impulses or urges.  Willpower just doesn’t work that way.  It is easy to think of professional athletes (who are obviously capable of focused, diligent practice or else they wouldn’t be professional athletes), who show absolutely no control in their lives off the field. Similarly, I’ll bet you can think of an award winning actor or two who can’t seem to stay in a marriage!  It’s not, “you either have it or you don’t.”  Instead, willpower exists in everyone as a finite quantity…you only have so much of it.

Hmmm, Radishes vs. Chocolate Chip Cookies

But don’t take my word for it.  There are several well designed scientific studies which prove this point.  The more often quoted one involved college students (don’t they all?) divided randomly into two groups.  One group of students were told to sit in a room where they could only eat radishes when freshly baked chocolate chip cookies were right next to the bowl of radishes–pure evil on the part of the researchers.  The other group could eat all the freshly baked chocolate chip cookies their little hearts desired.  The students didn’t know this was a study of willpower. After this torture (for group one students) went on for awhile, each student was given a puzzle to do.  The catch was that the puzzle was impossible to complete.  Amazingly, the students who got to eat whatever they wanted persisted trying to complete the puzzle over twice as long as the students who ate radishes!  Why?  Because the radish eaters had exhausted their willpower resources by not eating the damn cookies.  Persistence at working a hard puzzle requires willpower, and they had none left.

This study and others like it demonstrate that willpower is a finite quantity that gets used up over the course of a day of self-control.  It comes back, don’t worry, but you need to rest after exerting a huge amount of willpower and not immediately tax it again with a task that requires large amounts of self-control.  For example, after a day of work, where you are faced with decisions, socially acceptable interactions with others, and the need to focus and produce for long periods of time, it is NOT a good idea to stop at a bar on the way home for happy hour if one of your goals is to lose weight.  That free food will be impossible to avoid.  The fact is that when you use willpower, you need to rest for awhile before you tax it again, or you are setting yourself up for failure.

Willpower Is A Muscle

Not literally.  But the analogy is perfect.  In the above scenario, your willpower “muscle” was fried from a daylong “workout” at work.  It was cooked and could barely lift its arms to comb its hair.  Why would you try to get it to work again (at that bar) without resting it first?

The interesting thing is that, like a muscle, willpower gets stronger and develops greater capacity for work when you build it up with consistent “workouts.”  When you set small goals and achieve them daily, you are building your willpower (and your confidence).  Then you gradually can set slightly harder goals and grow your willpower capacity over time.  This takes persistence, but it also takes patience.  It is important to bite off little goals at a time and be successful, taking on slightly harder challenges only when the initial small step is automatic…like brushing your teeth.

What does this have to do with living with CF?  A lot.  Daily treatment regimens take a ton of willpower to accomplish at first.  When I coach someone who barely gets in one treatment a day, and hasn’t seen her Vest since “the move” three years ago, I don’t start by asking her to Vest twice a day and use aerosols three times a day, in addition to starting a daily walking program…even if that is exactly what her CF team is telling her and she knows that is what she should be doing!  We start small…one treatment a day consistently, and maybe check in the garage for the missing Vest.  If adding a new supplement like NAC three times/day, we might start with one dose/day until that is a no-brainer, then add a second dose, etc.  Eventually, as these things become automatic, they don’t require willpower any longer.  Now they are entrenched habits, and willpower can be used on something else.

The same rules apply when it comes to fitness goals, especially when you are just starting out, or just starting back after a health setback.  Remember, it will take willpower to do all you need to do to regain your health.  You’ll need to get back on your treatment regimen, to your own method of airway clearance, to eating well and enough to recover, and to making sure to get enough sleep (especially if they sent you home with IV’s to infuse…often at night).  There may not be a ton left over for jumping right back into your 180 lb squat program.  A great, and easy, way to start back might be 20 air squats as soon as you wake up.  Easy peasy.  No weight equipment is required.  You can use if/then planning discussed in an earlier post to set up your program.  You would write down somewhere, “when I wake up, I will do 20 squats before I get my coffee.”  Before you know it, you’ll be back under a barbell and your legs will look less like toothpicks:-)

Willpower is not something you either have or don’t have.  We all have it.  We also all have the capacity to use it up, and then make less than wise choices if we don’t learn to chill a bit before we challenge it again.  Finally, we all have the power to train up our willpower just like we train our muscles.

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