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Willpower: A Powerful Force When Used Effectively

Willpower is a word of contention in the world of dieting. Many assume a dieter’s success to be solely determined by how much willpower he has and go as far as to say that a large contributor to obesity is lack of willpower.

Others believe willpower to be out of one’s control, saying that no one inherently has more or less willpower, but that success comes easier to some people who are more willing to change their habits.

Attributing failure solely based on willpower is antiquated and discredits other important factors governing weight loss such as interactions between hunger hormones, brain chemicals, genetics, and the influence of habits.

However, your mentality does affect your ability to lose weight—it directly correlates to how much you can change your eating habits. Managed correctly, willpower can set the stage for successful weight loss. The key is a shift in mindset: willpower isn’t best used to resist the daily temptation of cravings and hunger. It’s best use is as a powerful force directing improvements of our eating habits.

The Physical Basis of Willpower

A distinct mental and physical process, the physical basis of willpower gives us insight on to how to best use willpower for weight loss. Our prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain scientists accredit to helping people prioritize goals, control emotions, and temporarily override wants and needs and is believed to be responsible for self-control.

Willpower, as a function of brain activity, runs on blood glucose (carbs). Continuous acts of self-control deplete blood glucose, which is a limited energy source. When blood glucose is low, failures in self-control become more likely, rendering willpower less effective.1 Studies confirm that restoring blood glucose to adequate levels typically improves self-control.

All this presents a catch-22: drinking something like a sugary soda to re-up on your willpower seems, and is, counter productive. Not only is willpower easily depleted in restrictive dieters, but unrealistic diets that require a high degree of willpower also cause significant stress. The constant restraint imposed from resisting certain foods or a certain amount of food raises the stress hormone cortisol.2 Chronically elevated cortisol is associated with increases in appetite and weight gain.

These two factors may explain why strict dieting often proves unsuccessful. It would appear that the more you need to rely on willpower in your diet the more likely you will fail. While short term it might succeed, over time, such restraint erodes. Typically, crash dieters fall back into old habits because the measures they have chosen are not sustainable.

Willpower and Decisions

We use willpower for each and every decision we make. An over abundance of decisions through out the day leads to mental fatigue. No matter how rational or logical you are, it becomes easier to act impulsively rather than make a thoughtful choice.

Along this line, having an environment that requires you to make many decisions each time you want to eat, can also work against you because you will eventually act impulsively. If you eat out for lunch and dinner every day and don’t have your meals planned in advance, chances are you won’t make the best choices.

How to Leverage Your Willpower

Finite and exhaustible, dedicate your willpower to making a plan and building momentum with relatively simple changes. You can’t lose significant weight in a week, but you can go shopping for healthy food, cook a weeks worth of meals, and get rid of the junk food in your house in one day. Over time habits become automatic. Once they don’t require decision-making or a high degree of willpower, success will come with less effort and you will be able to take another step that requires a higher degree of willpower.

To will your plan into action, create an environment for success. Use your willpower to concentrate on changing your habits. Do you eat in front of the TV every night? Did you get rid of the junk and stock your kitchen with fruit and veggies? Are you controlling your food by cooking in advance and bringing your lunch to work? Use the following plan to start changing your habits.

Identify six action items you believe will contribute to a healthier you. After you have listed six, rank them from what would be easiest to change all the way down to hardest.

For example:

  1. Do not eat in front of the TV. (3 weeks)
  2. Cut out calorie laden drinks. Opt for water, teas, etc. (3 weeks)
  3. Eat at least 5 servings of fruits and veggies a day (3 weeks)
  4. No processed snacks (3 weeks)
  5. Limit your alcohol (3 weeks)
  6. Pre-cook a coming weeks meals (3 weeks)

The idea would be to start on action one and stick with it for three weeks devoting your willpower exclusively to that goal. As you move down the list continue your momentum and attack the next goal for three weeks slowly building until you reach the end. Keep in mind that small changes can add up to big results.

Get Started

By focusing on slowly easing into change it becomes much less stressful to adhere to. Over the course of a couple months you can add in several healthier habits.

It’s important to remember that temptation will challenge you. Sometimes your willpower may break, but it isn’t a weakness in character, it is a natural tendency to want to indulge when restrained. If you feel too restrained, chances are you might be relying to much on your willpower. Instead, take another look at your habits and make a plan for success!

Show 2 References

  1. Gailliot MT, Baumeister RF. The physiology of willpower: linking blood glucose to self-control . Pers Soc Psychol Rev. Nov;11(4):303-27. 2007.
  2. Gailliot MT, Baumeister RF, DeWall CN, Maner JK, Plant EA, Tice DM, Brewer LE, Schmeichel BJ. Self-control relies on glucose as a limited energy source: willpower is more than a metaphor . J Pers Soc Psychol. Feb;92(2):325-36. 2007.


  • Seb says:

    Good advice , tips, and ideas !!!

  • Raza says:

    This is my favorite fitness site on the web. You have a killer minimalist design, interesting topics, and consistent blog posts. Marc's post on "how to get ripped" is one of the best I've read online... ever. Plus, Marc's story (which I read on PFFirewall) is really inspiring.

    As far as willpower, in the 1960's Dr. Max Maltz wrote the grandfather of all self-help books, Psycho-Cybernetics. He was a plastic surgeon and regularly had patients who still "felt" ugly after their surgery (I think he did reconstructive surgeries for burn and accident victims, not much comsmetic stuff). He even noticed how people amputees would feel pain in their "shadow limb". This led him to believe that their self-image was responsible for how the felt about themselves.

    So he wrote an awesome book explaining how humans are like heat-seeking missiles: a missile locks on its target, and literally FAILS its way to the target. Meaning, makes constant re-calculations and recalibrations until it hits its mark. The key is to have the target and to have forward momentum.

    So he says that if humans want to change, we need to set a goal, and imagine (with passion and emotion) realizing that goal. And then of course take positive actions to reach it. He says changing your self-image is way more effective than using willpower to avoid things you don't want.

    So your points about identifying action items makes so much more sense than using willpower to fight your temptation to eat junk.

    • Russella says:

      Thanks, Raza, that was very insightful, pertinent, and absolutely true. Our bodies follow what our brains think - they have no choice. What we believe about ourselves becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, so changing our self-image to believe that we can be successful is key. Once that is accomplished, our willpower (and other things) automatically follow in a positive manner.

      There is a lot of good stuff out there about exercise psychology.

      I agree with you, too, that this website has a fantastic minimalist design, trenchant and accurate sports nutrition and exercise wisdom culled from many different reliable sources, and some of the best writers in the field (other sites run rampant with grammatical errors and sloppy journalism). I now turn to this site as a number one favorite and reference it to my friends when discussing exercise, sports, diet, and other topics.

      Thanks again, Pat Koch, for a well-timed reminder about the importance of planning for achieving success not only in weight loss and fitness, but just about everything in life.


      • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

        @Russella - Super happy to hear you find our articles and content to be reliable and helpful. It makes all the hard work that goes into creating it worth it!

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      Raza - Thanks for the kind words, Raza. Very much appreciated. Thanks for sharing those insights, I've heard A LOT about Pyscho-Cybernetics and how it's an awesome book.

    • ByteChunks says:

      Yo Raza,
      Nice add on.
      Im going to get that book.

  • Jay K says:

    Nice work, Pat. Very insightful and can be applied to all areas of life. Well done.

  • Patrick Koch says:

    Raza great insight and interesting theories. I should give that a read!

  • ByteChunks says:

    What an article!!!!!
    Ive always believed in the influence of changing habits anyway but this gives a scientific view on what i had been practicing for long without being aware of it.

    Great job!!!

  • uncadonego says:

    I really enjoyed this article Pat. My favourite line is the one you hilighted:

    The key is a shift in mindset: willpower isn’t best used to resist the daily temptation of cravings and hunger. It’s best use is as a powerful force directing improvements of our eating habits.

    I just love this site....

  • Raza says:

    Thanks for the feedback Patrick. I actually wrote a review on that book on Amazon.com after I read it a few years ago. I'm pasting it below:

    After only reading 3 chapters of this book, I already consider it to be the best self-help book I've ever read. Dr. Maltz scientifically explains how our minds are engineered for success. Just like a heat-seeking missile, our minds are wired to achieve goals that we set out i.e. more sales, better relationships, healthy lifestyle, etc.

    He discusses a case study where a group of basketball players was told to practice shooting freethrows by imagining that they are shooting the ball in their mind (without touching a basketball). After a few weeks, their freethrow shooting percentage increased 23%! This is compared to another group that was told to practice by actually shooting the ball, who increased their percentage by 24%!

    He proves that by setting goals, and rehearsing in your mind, you can do anything. This is because the sub-conscious mind doesn't know the difference between "real" experiences and "imagined" ones... once you identify a target/goal, your subconscious mind will find a way to accomplish it. He rationally proves that your mind IS that powerful.

  • Priscilla L. Martin says:

    Hello Pat. I like your article. Thank you for pointing out the probable differences in willpower and the success that can come from keeping such as a journal. Thanks for sharing the article, Marc.

  • Saul says:

    I didn't know that eating in front of the TV was bad!. Thanks :)

  • Bryce says:

    Great article. If I could also make a suggestion for a great book I read recently about habits, its called The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. It's an easy read and very interesting, using real life stories to explain how our brain creates habits by cravings, and what we can do to change bad habits to good ones.

    This book helped me tremendously in understanding how to change my habits, more specifically, changing bad eating habits into good ones. For example, I used to have cravings to relax for a few minutes and drink a beer or two on the weekend, maybe a Friday night or sunny Sunday afternoon. My brain would have the craving to relax and wind down, so I would sit in my backyard and drink the beer(s), and my craving would be satisifed. I don't want the extra calories as I'm trying to lose weight. Instictively I thought in order to quit drinking the beer, I would have to avoid the relaxation. However, instead of avoiding the relaxation, I replaced the beer with green tea (Lately, since I read all the good things about green tea, I started drinking it throughout the day). Now, my brain still has the craving for relaxation on a weekend, but instead of drinking beer I drink green tea. I have the same feelings of satisfaction after, however instead of empty calories I'm drinking something that will help me burn off fat! So in the end my brain wasn't so much craving the beer as it was craving the relaxation. Changing the habit was easier and more effective than trying to avoid it.

    This of course is just one example, I'm trying to apply these principles to changing other habits as well. Some are easy, and some are very difficult. But over time the brain can be trained to crave newer, healthier options! At least this is what I learned from this book! Hope this helps!

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      @Bryce - That sounds like a really awesome book. Very, very powerful stuff. The mind is tremendously powerful and is certainly the source of changing one's habits.