The Willpower Gap

Have you heard the term “willpower gap” before? You may not, but I am sure you have experienced it. 

Willpower gap, a term coined by Susan Pierce Thompson, refers to the fact that your ability to stick to your plans diminishes over the course of the day, due to the many decisions we have to take and the resulting decision fatigue (more about that here). What that means is that it becomes harder as the day progresses to make the “right” decisions, in other words, to choose the healthier or more beneficial option is often the less attractive choice or the one that requires more work.

Let’s say you’re trying to lose a few pounds: You’ll start out your day with a super healthy breakfast, exactly what it says on the plan you’ve put yourself on, and you’re all good with your healthy, low-calorie salad for lunch too. But then the late afternoon or evening rolls around and you suddenly come up with a ton of excuses why today may not be the best day to go for a run after work or, if you force yourself to go running after all, you can easily convince yourself that you “deserve a reward” now, preferably in the form of pizza and a glass of wine or two. Sounds familiar? See, I told you that you are familiar with the willpower gap! Because this is it.

The problem with willpower is that it runs out—and pretty quickly too, somewhere around 15 minutes according to scientists. That feels about right when I think about how long I can resist a bar of chocolate that has “accidentally” made its way into my home. 

So whenever you find yourself falling back into old habits and scolding yourself that you have no self-control, running out of willpower is the issue you are dealing with. It’s normal and part of being human. But we’ve seen others see a plan through, and at times we are those people. So there must be ways to outsmart the willpower gap. And yes, there are.

What exactly can we do to make sure we stick to our plan? There are a few tips that help you not fall prey to the willpower gap. (Most of these are following the advice in Susan Pierce Thompson’s book, Bright Line Eating, but they can also be applied to many other areas of life, not only dieting.)

Plan ahead and stick to a schedule

The quality of our decisions is worst when we are tired, hungry or stressed out. Sticking with the food example, that’s when we go buy unhealthy groceries or eat a bag of Cheetos. If you decide what to eat a day ahead of time—and write it down and have ingredients ready—it is much easier to follow through. Also, doing the same thing at the same time helps. In the case of food, that would mean sticking to (relatively) strict meal times, but of course, it also works for exercise (or other healthy choices): I have my yoga classes on weekly repeat in my calendar app, which makes it much more likely that I actually go. 

Avoid temptations instead of trying to resist them

If you want to preserve your willpower, it is much more effective to avoid certain temptations than to try to resist them. Were you ever a smoker? I was, and quitting became much, much easier when I decided to have tea instead of coffee for a while and not set foot in a bar. Not socializing is not a long-term strategy I would recommend, but in the beginning, it is extremely helpful to make sure you don’t light up. Same for diets—and don’t let anybody tell you that you’re weird or anti-social if you meet people after dinner when you’ve eaten at home for a while. Later, bringing a dish you can eat to share to a get-together may be enough of a precaution.

Set SMART goals 

We tend to not achieve our goals when we 1) set goals we don’t really want to achieve, or 2) are not clear enough in what we want to achieve and how. Personally, I am more interested in processes than goals, but if I set goals I try to stick to the SMART formula and make them specific, measurable, action-oriented, realistic, and timed. Sticking with losing weight, this could be “I will lose ten pounds in the next six weeks by …” (fill with whatever you are planning to do to make it action-oriented). I’ll go into more details about this goal-setting process in a separate blog post.

Sleep enough and reduce stress

If you have a baby, you’re probably eye-rolling at this suggestion. But young, old or sick family members who need food or assistance at night are the only good reason not to get sufficient sleep most of the time—everything else is a matter of priorities. If you think you’re fine with little sleep and a stressful life, you may want to think again. Plenty of studies show that these factors negatively affect your willpower and drain you of valuable mental and emotional resources. Also, give up the multi-tasking! You may think it works, but the science is clear: it doesn’t.

Practice gratitude

I said it before and I’ll say it again, gratitude is one of the best things you can do for yourself. Not only does it help with your wellbeing and makes it easier for you to stick to your plan; it also shifts your focus from what you feel as a deficit in your life (“I can’t be happy without chocolate!”) to all the good things you have. That goes a long way to curb cravings. You can write down what you’re grateful for in a little notebook or an app (in which case you can also add photos) or you can say them out loud. I always find that very effective. You may even want to make it a routine with other members of your household, for instance at the dinner table or before bedtime.

If you want some support in your journey to set and stick with your goals and make efficient changes, let’s talk! You can send me a message or schedule a free 30-minute consult through my website to let me know what exactly you’re struggling with and we can explore how I could help you succeed.

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