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Strengthening Our Willpower Muscles

December 17, 2019

By Jocelyn Weiss, Education and Training Coordinator, Duke Integrative Medicine

When we fail to reach our goals, a lack of willpower often takes the blame. There are many definitions of willpower. At its simplest, willpower involves the ability to put off what we want at the moment for the sake of what we want in the future. In recent years, however, psychologists and researchers have doubted the role of willpower (or self-control) as a means to achieve our goals.

If we think of willpower less as inhibiting impulses or resisting temptation, but rather making mindful choices at the moment, we can use it to our advantage. Not only that, but we can strengthen it. Willpower is not a predetermined, static characteristic. We can strengthen our willpower to make desired habit changes and increase our chances of success in reaching our goals.

Five strategies to help boost your willpower:

Strategies to help boost your willpower

We can strengthen our willpower to make desired habit changes and increase our chances of success in reaching our goals.

Practice Mindfulness

A consistent daily mindfulness practice helps to strengthen our mindfulness muscles in a similar way to that of exercising our bodies. Research shows that just 10 minutes a day can make a difference. Strategy: Dedicate time and space for daily practice.

Learn More About Upcoming Courses at Duke IM 

Determine Your Why

In Friedrich Nietzche’s words, “He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How.” When thinking about the changes we want to make, it is important to frame them in the vision we have of our health and well-being, what we value, and how these allow us to show up as our best selves in the world. Strategy: In moments where you are challenged by behaviors that do not support you (like eating the second cookie or not going to the gym), take a moment to be mindful and remind yourself of your Why.

Set Your Environment Up for Success

Set you environment up to avoid continuous exposure to temptation.

Regardless of how strong our willpower muscles become, it can help to set our environments up to avoid continuous exposure to temptation. In other words, bring the leftover holiday baked goods to the work break table and move the cut vegetables to the front of the refrigerator. Strategy: Set your home and work environments to support the behavior changes your desire.

Create Routines

Developing routines helps to put habits on autopilot and remove the role of decision-making. With less need to make decisions, comes less pressure on willpower. In other words, plan to go to the gym the same days of the week, the same times of the day. Create a routine of meal planning each week so that you don’t have to make daily decisions about meals or choose unhealthy options on the run. Strategy: Think about ways that you can create routines for your desired habit changes.

Sleep Well

Not only is sleep important for our overall health, but it helps us to make better decisions. Research shows that brain activity in the prefrontal cortex – the region responsible for decision-making and orchestrating thoughts and actions in relation to internal goals – is decreased with sleep deprivation. In addition, when we are sleep deprived our energy levels drop and we seek ways to bring them up (often involving sweets, starchy foods, and caffeine). Strategy: Set yourself up to get the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep per night.

Would you like to learn more about how to strengthen your mindfulness and apply it to your everyday eating patterns? Check out our Changing from Within course currently enrolling!

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