Bridging the gap between who we are and who we want to be is often exhausting. To become fitter, we need to keep from blowing off the gym. And to do that, we need willpower.
Children who have the self-control to resist a marshmallow now in order to receive two later generally have better SAT scores and a lower adult body mass index. But as adults, why is it often so difficult to hold out for the grown-up equivalent of the double marshmallow?
The answer could lie with our misconceptions about willpower. We tend to think of it as good old-fashioned resolve, unlimited and with each act of self-discipline separate from every other. But if you've ever felt like you've "drained" your willpower, you may be right. According to some psychologists, using willpower is actually akin to using a muscle — doing 20 push-ups means we have less juice left for those subsequent chest presses.
"The basic idea is that if you resist a really delicious piece of chocolate cake at a party, and then right after that you drive home and your roommate left his socks on the floor, you're more likely to snap and yell at your roommate than you would have been if that cake had never been offered to you," said Jessica Alquist, assistant professor of psychology at Texas Tech University, whose research interests include self-control and health.
Fortunately, there are a few tricks that can help you better dole out your supply of willpower. Some studies suggest that willpower runs on glucose, the energy we get from food. This is well understood by anyone who has entered the grocery store hungry and exited with a basket full of Häagen-Dazs, Doritos and shame.
"To resist food, you need willpower, which depends on glucose. To sustain those, you need to eat," said Roy Baumeister, professor of psychology at Florida State University and co-author of "Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength."
Aim to keep your willpower steadfast by eating well regularly. One of the telltale ways to feel glucose depletion is through heightened emotional sensitivity — known colloquially as "hanger" (hunger plus anger) — so when you're snapping at your spouse for buying the wrong flavor toothpaste, it may be time for a snack.
Keep in mind that self-control is on duty more often than we realize and that many of the tasks that zap willpower fly under the radar. Researchers estimate that the average adult spends about three hours every day resisting desires and half an hour giving in to ones previously resisted. Choosing lunch, making business decisions, moderating emotions and staying on task — all tax willpower, so try to make important decisions when you're fresh. Just picking up lunch on your way to work, rather than once your willpower is exhausted in the afternoon, can lead to healthier choices.
"One of the best ways to manage that self-control resource is to set yourself up so that you don't have to use it," Alquist said. Research suggests that those who have good self-control actually aren't great at resisting desires. Instead, they use their willpower for "playing offense," according to Baumeister, setting up their lives to encourage good behavior (like making sure they have a gym buddy) and avoid potential land mines (like staying away from the doughnut shop).
Turning those good behaviors into habits is even better. Habits leave willpower intact by putting desirable behaviors on autopilot. Plus, when our willpower is kaput, we are more likely to fall back on habits, healthy or otherwise.
You can also strengthen willpower through practice by defying natural responses in little ways (such as brushing teeth with your non-dominant hand). "Exerting self-control on a regular basis appears to build up a person's capacity to call on more of this character trait in a pinch," Baumeister wrote in April's Scientific American.
Another body of research finds that willpower really can be a matter of mind over matter: When people believe willpower is a limited resource, it becomes easy to give in to temptation. Conversely, when you think willpower is limitless, it's easier to stick to your guns. So when willpower wavers, you can coax it out of hiding by reminding yourself it's a vast reservoir.