Willpower is a bitch – why dieting is the easiest (and hardest) thing to do in the world

April 08, 2016

Willpower is a finite resource. Most of us start each day with optimism and a full store of willpower. As we go through the day our willpower is slowly depleted. If you decide to skip the sugar in your coffee at breakfast, you will have less willpower for later. The same guy that turns down that sugary coffee in the morning finds himself eating a cookie in bed while watching some shitty TV show.

Each time we make a negative decision our willpower is also depleted. People that slip up on a diet for lunch are more likely to eat an unhealthy dinner. The problem is they view a diet as black and white. When they mess up for lunch they view it as a sunk day and are more likely to continue the slide. Some people drop healthy routines and habits because of one simple slip-up.

Here is a scenario to illustrate how not eating a damn cookie before bed can be so hard. For this example we are representing our finite willpower per day with coins.

Imagine waking up and grabbing a bag of coins off your dresser. Being that you are a generally happy person because you are relatively healthy, employed and not addicted to yam-yams your bag of coins is heavy. You start the day with 100 shiny willpower coins that you can choose to spend throughout the day. Each time you make a decision you have to spend some of your coins. The more tempting something is the more coins you must spend.

Here is how you spend your coins in our example day:

So what’s the solution?

1) Minimize your decisions.

Automate the unimportant items in your life.

  1. Stick to a routine. Automate the unimportant moments of your day. There is a reason that Obama, Jobs, Zuckerberg and Kahl wear (or wore) the same thing every day.
  2. Minimize temptation. Don’t stare all day at women on Instagram. Keep healthy food in your home not Oreos. Move closer to work so you can walk.
  3. Choose not to give your opinion. If something is unimportant say so. You don’t always have to talk. You don’t always have to choose.

2) Build habits.

Strong habits mean that you aren’t expending willpower when you make decisions. For example, I go to the gym 5-6 times a week. I have been doing this for so long now it is one of my strongest habits. I actually feel uncomfortable when I DON’T go to the gym. It’s so strong that I treat Saturday as an optional second leg day and Sunday as a non lifting day. I choose to lift on Saturday 90% of the time and on Sunday I randomly tell my wife that I feel like I should go to the gym.

The other benefit is when I go to the gym I feel better and more positive afterwards. When I get home I am less likely to “throw away” all the good calories I burned by eating unhealthy when I get home.

If your overweight coworker brings in doughnuts every morning then bring your coffee from home in a travel mug. Doughnuts are usually gone in under an hour. By avoiding the breakroom till mid morning you just saved your precious willpower.

  1. Focus on your health first. If you are unhealthy you have less willpower.
  2. Get enough sleep. Some people start the day with 100 coins. Some start with negative coins. If you stay up all night on a project for work it means you start the next day with less willpower. You are tired, cranky and more likely to slip up later in the day.
  3. Get exercise every day. Walk, lift, play tennis, or give your wife a bone ;). It’s up to you and what you choose will depend on how you want too feel and look. What has been proven time and time again is exercise is vital for your physical and mental well being.
  4. Life is not black and white. If you make a mistake move on and don’t punish yourself.
  5. Create a habit calendar. Your goal is to stay on track every day.
  6. Be vigilant when making any changes to your routine or habits. For example, if you decide to change your routine and wake up at 5:30 instead of 6:30 you need to be very cautious about incidental slip ups in other areas. If you start the day tired because of your new routine you are starting out with depleted willpower reserves. So instead of 100 coins in the above scenario, you might start out with 90 or even 80. You are much more apt to slip up in other areas when making a big change.

3) Create your own persona.

You get to choose if you are fit or fat. Strong or weak. Your wife, kids, mother, brother, or even uncle Larry have no say in the matter.

When you assume a healthy persona both you and your friends and family will see you differently very shortly. For example if you drink a mocha at Starbucks daily you will be known as the Starbucks mocha guy. If you decide to lose weight and chose to drink less calories you would likely replace your daily mocha with black coffee. When you make this relatively minor change everyone will notice and comment. Ignore them and let them know you prefer the black coffee instead. After that they will quickly adjust and then from that point on they will only notice if you drink anything but black coffee. The great thing about this is if someone is negative you can flip their insecurities and assumptions to help you keep in line. You can use their nosiness to help keep you on the straight and narrow. That way you can reserve your willpower for the more important things.

  1. Surround yourself with positive people. Negative people drain your willpower.
  2. Be positive and supportive to your family, friends and enemies. Enemies control you when they get you to react. Act mature and stay positive and they will lose interest.