Willpower: a Fickle Friend

Don't rely on willpower alone!



Willpower is an expendable resource.


It is a fickle friend that is totally there for you sometimes, and completely throws you under the bus at others.

It’s like a muscle that gets fatigued and then needs a 3-day break. (and a massage)

Using willpower is actually a way of bullying – because it basically gives yourself the message that “you don’t deserve this treat.” “You must deny yourself or else you won’t be thin and if you’re not thin you won’t be loved and accepted.”  There is this grand (and false) notion that If you have discipline and willpower you are good and noble and strong and if not, well, you’re just a failure.

This sets up a huge polarity for many of us where we are either in restricting or binging mode with no middle ground and no fulcrum to keep us aloft.  This thus sets off the vicious cycle of chronic dieting or what I like to call – Dejavu dieting.

{Download my checklist on what back-up resources to use when willpower throws you under the bus! }Will power

Instead of this charged and grandiose term and technique of willpower, I work with people to be curious about their their urges and learn about them.  I ask clients to dig deeper into why that food is calling to them at this time.  When willpower fails (as it often will) I ask them to examine it kindly and objectively versus attacking themselves and staying frustrated and on defense which keeps us in a stress response.

Stress response = increased stress chemistry which signals the brain to increase fat storage, decrease muscle mass, lower thyroid functioning and generally signals the brain to protect us as all costs.

Saying “no, no, no” will work for a finite period time until it doesn’t and then you’re stuck with no back up plan and lots of regret.

Instead, I work both on clients on getting into a relaxation response. I have them assume that they can say “yes” to anything they want under the caveat as they own the decision!  Instead of eating standing up furtively, and chowing down said trigger food fast and furiously I teach them how to sit down,  eat it slowly and mindfully which often prevents a binge on that food or at the very least reduces the severity of that eating episode.  When you can say “yes” to anything, willpower isn’t necessary because nothing is off-limits. It’s a means to start trusting yourself to know when to eat and when to stop.  When you place restrictions on foods and label them as good or bad and moralize food or yourself based on decisions around food, that food becomes extremely powerful.  Letting go of that allows YOU to be empowered to make the decisions that are best for you and your body depending on the situation.

I also work with people on logging their food and staying empirical so that clients can make informed food choices rather than making them solely on their feelings.  Example:  Ever find yourself saying “I blew it today when I had that donut so I might as well just get pizza tonight and skip my workout too”  or “I promised myself I wouldn’t eat any bread and I ate bread so forget this, I knew I couldn’t do it”  When you log your food and use data to inform your decisions, you realize that no matter what you are feeling, it doesn’t change the behaviors you need to do to be healthy.  And one can also realize that 1 donut or piece of bread, does not necessarily equate to a lost day or even an overeating day.  It simply has a calorie consequence for which you are budgeting and can then make changes for the rest of that day to account for it.

Finally, I work with people on building in systems and routines for planning around their hunger – i.e. grab and go foods in the car, making sure they are full before heading to the grocery store. etc.  When you pre-plan and honor and listen to your body’s internal cues, will power will also play less of a role.

What systems, routines, strategies and how-to’s do you rely on instead of will-power to keep healthy behaviors in place?  I’d love to hear below!


Download a printable (and hangable on the fridge) checklist of resources other than will power that you can use to keep your short and long term health goals and behaviors in place.

Will power