Ep 61: How to Use Your Willpower More Wisely

I feel like January goes so slowly and February just flies by. I’m excited about today’s topic, which I’ve been mulling over in my own head for a while. What I want to talk about today is willpower and where I think willpower has a place in your life.

Review - Be happy!!! From MelissaHoen - Loved this podcast. Can’t wait to hear more. I have struggled with the diet mentality for so long!! I truly believe that we weren’t put on this earth to be constantly unhappy with our weight and appearance - we were sent here to be HAPPY. I am so excited to learn more about your approach to nutrition!

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I’ve mentioned before this misunderstanding that the practice of healing your relationship with food, or becoming an intuitive eater, means throwing all regard for health and feeling good out the window. Some people misunderstand it to be “eating whatever you want, whenever you want.” In many ways it is that, but it’s not flippant or chaotic or irresponsible. Eating whatever you want, whenever you want it, is a process of understanding how to listen to what your body is communicating to you and then to respect that through the choices you make. It’s not just constant donuts and cookies all day every day.

But one thing I was asked a few months ago was - “What about willpower? Where does willpower come into play in our relationship with food without using restriction?”

I gave this person an answer in the moment, but the question has stuck with me, and that’s what I want to chat about with you today.

First of all, I want to say that I think willpower has a place in a healthy, well-adjusted person’s way of living. We use willpower both to resist urges and to take action, and I want to talk about both sides of the willpower coin.

First, the most common way of looking at willpower - using it to resist urges. If we get urges to do something inappropriate or that crosses boundaries, like hitting someone or yelling at a stranger when we don’t like the way they are treating us, those situations call for some willpower to resist the urge to act inappropriately.

You may have heard the idea that willpower is a finite resource. In my research for this episode, I came across some fascinating articles that dispel this idea.

This Myth About Willpower is Holding Back Your Productivity -

Research by Michael Inzlicht

But typically when we think or talk about willpower, it’s in the context of resistance or restriction. I have to resist doing something I want to do. And increasingly in our health- and weight- obsessed culture, discussions about willpower turn to our ability to use willpower to resist eating something we “shouldn’t” eat. Even those articles I read on willpower used the examples of wanting to lose weight and using willpower to resist eating ice cream. It’s so pervasive, it’s almost comic. I know that trying to teach the concepts of intuitive eating - which do NOT require food restriction - is swimming upstream in today’s world, without a doubt. But I will press on. :) And I hope something I say today will change the way you think about willpower, however foreign it might at first sound.

This type of willpower - the restrictive kind - is not where we should be focusing our energy when it comes to food, health, or our bodies. We don’t need more willpower to make more nourishing food choices. What we need is goals that are aligned with what we really want for ourselves.

Nir Eyal, in his article “The Way You Think About Willpower is Hurting You,” says, “Most studies to date have looked at willpower as a force that helps people do things they don’t want to do, or that helps them resist temptations they’d rather give in to. But if we adjust the perspective and treat willpower as an emotion, it could instead be seen as providing insights about what we should and shouldn’t be spending our time on...Fundamentally, we give up on tasks that don’t engage us...We can power through unenjoyable tasks for a while, but we’ll never be our best if we ignore what our feelings are telling us. By listening to our lack of willpower as we would an emotion—as a helpful decision-making assistant working in concert with our logical capabilities—we can find new paths that may not require us to do things we fundamentally don’t want to do. Just as we should seek joy indirectly by engaging in enjoyable pursuits, we can receive the benefits of willpower indirectly, by removing the need to expend it in the first place.”

And that brings me to the second piece of willpower - the control exerted to take action - to do something. This is the kind I don’t think we talk about enough. You know I don’t believe in food restriction, and I don’t think willpower has a place in the way we relate to food. I don’t think we need more willpower to resist eating a bowl of ice cream, because I think eating a bowl of ice cream is a really great thing to do.

The area I think maybe we could use that willpower that we’re all so eager to exert with food is the area of taking action to implement things that make us feel good. I’m not talking about forcing yourself to eat your vegetables, either - you can eat what you choose to eat and I’m not here to boss you around or guilt you into any food groups.

I think what could serve us is using our willpower to practice daily self-care. That’s an area most of us are lacking in, and we could all use a healthy daily dose of more time spent intentionally caring for ourselves in whatever way we need. Again, I’m not talking about eating your vegetables or fitting in exercise, although those are great things if you want to do them. This could be in any area - physical, mental, spiritual, emotional, social - anywhere you feel like you need a little focus.

Here’s how we typically think of or use willpower, in my experience. We decide to go on a new diet (if you don’t like the word diet and you don’t think it applies to you, insert any other restrictive food practice - count macros, restrict your portion sizes, cut out sugar, eliminate food groups, detox, count points, count calories, cleanse - all of those are synonymous with dieting). We decide it’s appropriate to do a major overhaul of the way we eat. “No more of this!” we think. We clean out our fridges and pantries of “bad food”, stock up on “good food,” “set ourselves up for success” which is code for food restriction that will lead to weight loss.

We start out with excitement and motivation. We feel confident in our ability to stick with this massive overhaul, because we are, in that moment, committed to the end result we think we’ll get (which again is, 99% of the time, weight loss). We might stick with it for a day or two or even a week or two. But eventually, this dramatic flip-flop of the way we live our lives starts to feel draining, annoying, and frustrating.

We are faced with situations - over and over - where we have to remind ourselves why we are doing this in the first place (“think of how great you’ll look in your swimsuit on that cruise!) and it gets exhausting. We get tired of the constant battle with ourselves - and that’s literally what it is - and eventually, we give in. It was just too far of a departure from “normal life,” so it’s almost impossible for anyone’s brain to sustain them through to that elusive (and might I add unnecessary) goal of finally being the right amount of thin (whatever you think that is).

Most of us think that the reason we don’t stick to these drastic diets (“lifestyle changes”) is because they are ridiculous. We are pretending to be something we’re not, trying hard to care about something that is probably not something we really want to do and is not truly in line with what we value.

If food is part of the way you make memories and enjoy your social life (which for most humans, it is), and then you put yourself in a situation where you have to sit there empty-handed while everyone around you enjoys birthday cake, it feels off. It feels wrong, because it is. It’s wrong to isolate yourself from moments and memories that will connect you to other people just because you insist on restricting your calories. On the flip side of that, it feels off and wrong to restrict your carbs for days or weeks only to find yourself desperately eating an entire birthday cake in one sitting because you’ve lost the psychological battle of restriction. It IS wrong. Not eating the entire birthday cake, but entering into the battle with yourself in the first place. Denying yourself of pleasure and satisfaction from food on a daily basis - THAT is what’s wrong. Not your lack of willpower or self-control. If you think you are someone who has to say no to treats you love because once you start you can’t stop, you need to take a closer look at the way you are relating to your food AND your body. It’s not a willpower issue.

The answer to living in line with your values does not have to be all or nothing. You don’t need a cleanse or a detox or a new meal plan or a list of foods you can eat. You don’t need to eliminate sugar or gluten or dairy or anything else. (Unless, of course, you are You don’t have to eat all the treats or none of the treats. And when you are eating in a way that is in line with your values, you don’t need willpower at all to make food choices that nourish and satisfy you.

Where you might want to use some willpower is in getting yourself to take actions that will lead to you being able to make those nourishing and satisfying choices. Here are a few examples of what this might look like.

Maybe you use your willpower to get yourself to carve out 30 minutes every single weekend to jot down some ideas for meals in the upcoming week and a list of things you need from the grocery store to make that happen.

Maybe you use willpower to get yourself to go to the grocery store at all, or to open up your grocery store website to order the groceries online.

Maybe you use your willpower to make time for breakfast in the morning - to carve out time for yourself to start your day off feeling nourished and satisfied with a meal you love and that will give you energy to do what you want to do.

Maybe you use your willpower to go to bed on time because you know that getting enough sleep makes you feel more like yourself. Even if you love the TV show you’re watching, you exert your willpower to turn it off and go to bed because that is the action that is more in line with your values.

Or maybe you use your willpower to choose more positive self-talk. When you see your reflection or a picture of yourself and you start doing the shame thing and allowing negative thoughts about your body to take root, you exert your willpower to nip it in the bud. To shut off that negative loop and practice some self-compassion.

Maybe you use your willpower to speak kindly to your child, even when they are driving you up the wall, because kindness is in line with your values.

Living by our values is not always - and probably in fact is rarely - the easy choice. It’s easier to skip meal planning and just wing it and find yourself at 5pm every single night staring into the fridge and wondering why you can’t eat foods that make you feel good. It’s easier to skip breakfast and get right to work on what you need to do. It’s easier to stay up late doing watching the fun TV show. It’s easier to beat yourself up mentally - it’s the path of least resistance. It’s easier to yell when we’re angry.

But just because it’s easier doesn’t mean it’s what we really want for ourselves.

Willpower can be a powerful tool in creating the life we really want. Not in denying ourselves food to be thin or to look a certain way - that’s a waste of willpower and a waste of energy entirely.

Willpower literally means exerting the power of our will to choose the outcome we want. So what do you want? Make a list - write it down! If you’re like me, I’m assuming you want to be happy, healthy, confident, kind, well-rested, relaxed, and well cared for. You won’t get any of those things from losing weight or saying no to the ice cream or cake.

You will get those things by opting for the choice that makes you feel good. By using your limited time and energy to choose behaviors that lead to you being in alignment with what you really value.

Stop worrying about needing more willpower to say no to the cookies. Stop wasting your energy focusing on food! You don’t need to think MORE about food - you need to think less about food! Think more about what kind of life you want to create. Think more about what you need to do to fill your days with things that light you up and make you happy to be alive. Focus on how you can have the confidence and energy you want WITHOUT restricting your food.

Use your willpower to take good care of yourself. Get enough sleep. Eat enough food, and eat regularly. Speak kindly to yourself. Practice gratitude. Be kind to the people you love. Make time for things you love. Relax. Take a deep breath.

Those are actions where your willpower is well-served. Using your willpower to make those choices will be using your willpower wisely. Thanks for listening, and I’ll talk to you next week!

Stephanie Webb