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The Willpower Trap

If you have ever dipped your toe into health or fitness communities, you have probably seen motivational images with text like “Pain is weakness leaving the body” superimposed on an image of a sweaty bodybuilder. The conversations surrounding these sorts of images talk about “the grind” or “gutting it out.” Talking about health this way is a common pitfall. Many people assume that with the right affirmation or the right inspirational moment they can unlock some deep hidden reserve of willpower, allowing them to achieve all of their health goals through grit alone.

The reality that we’ve seen in the field, however, is that willpower is a finite resource, and for most people, it will eventually yield to the automatic behaviors we have built up over years of choices.

A few new studies delved into the role of willpower in our health, and what they found echoes the observations we’ve made with clients. Researchers presented subjects with two choices, healthy and unhealthy, on a computer screen, and then they observed how they moved toward one or the other via a mouse cursor.

What they found was that willpower came into play immediately, from the very first decision. As they added external pressures and temptations, the willpower battle became more intense.

This is important because if you frame health as a battle or fight the way many voices in the industry like to do, you reach an inevitable conclusion: No one can fight forever. Relying solely on willpower is simply not sustainable, and when your willpower gives out, the fall can feel dishearteningly hard. After all, you just gave it your best, and now you feel like you failed.

The Habits of Health approach intentionally avoids taxing your willpower. Yes, you do have to make daily choices about your health, but with the right tools and support systems at your disposal those choices should feel much less like epic battles with your inner desires. Here are some of the approaches we take:

  • Meal replacements. Changing your eating habits can be a challenge, and that challenge is even greater if you have to do all of the shopping and meal preparation yourself. Meal replacements simplify the journey by putting everything you need right in front of you in a ready-to-eat form. With this tool, the initial choice to eat healthy comes with much less work, so it’s easier to get started.
  • Micro Habits of Health. This is a newer concept in the Habits of Health evolution, but the idea is simple: Break down a Habit of Health into a form that is so small that failing is almost impossible. Going to the gym 5 days a week for a grueling workout is willpower-intensive, but doing one push-up a day is not. You can break any Habit of Heath down into Micro Habits of Health with this approach, making gradual change more accessible.
  • Health coaches. Willpower is typically a solitary idea, you versus yourself and the world. When you make choices alone, you can quickly grow tired of the “fight,” but if you have someone guiding you and holding you accountable, the way you think about your choices starts to shift. Mountains of research has shown that behavioral support is the key to lasting change, and a big part of that success is how much of an impact a positive influence can have on our thinking.
  • Mindfulness. The Habits of Health system recognizes that you cannot change everything about your health overnight, so a big part of making gradual but sustainable change is becoming more observant about how we make choices and what triggers set off our Habits of Disease. If you recognize, for example, that a television in your bedroom is wreaking havoc on your sleep, you can choose to remove the television from the room once rather than having to wage a nightly war with the temptation of late-night TV.

All of these tools are available to you today. You can start to move away from feats of willpower and adopt an approach that actually works.

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