Something which will likely surprise no one is my proclamation that I really love the things that I love. I’m a Mile Deep person; once I get into something I often border on what some might consider obsessive. Clearly, I am a barre addict and intently interested in all things nutrition. I’ll always love fashion and never get sick of reading. And I’ll also probably never stop being completely enraptured by psychology especially as it relates to habits, mental strength, mindset, and willpower. Learning more about the way that we think and act and why we do what we do is absolutely fascinating to me. Things that seem so obvious after the fact largely go undetected and it’s often surprising how our subtle unconscious biases influence us and our life’s trajectory. Things are complicated and what we may consider to be general knowledge or indisputable fact is often wrong or so tightly interwoven with a myriad of other factors that its essentially rendered senseless. As someone who loves all things healthy habits related, I am particularly interested in the things which do or do not make a difference in terms of our ability to exercise self-control, discipline, and willpower.
Willpower, defined by a leading researcher on the topic, Dr. Kelly McGonigal, is “the ability to control one’s attention, emotions and desires which influences physical health, financial security, relationships and personal success.” It’s what we rely on when we resolve to resist or stop doing something, when we try to start doing the things we say we will do, and when we demonstrate the ability to remember our highest priority or what we really want in the long run despite instant gratification or short term pleasure. As McGonigal argues, “people who have better control over their attention, emotions, and actions are better off almost anyway you look at it. They are happier and healthier. Their relationships are more satisfying and last longer. They make more money and go further in their careers. They are better able to manage stress, deal with conflict and overcome adversity. They even live longer. When pitted against other virtues, willpower comes out on top. Self-control is a better predictor of academic intelligence (take that SATs), a stronger determinant of effective leadership than charisma, and more important for martial bliss than empathy (yes, the secret to lasting marriage may be learning how to keep your mouth shut). If we want to improve our lives, willpower is not a bad place to start.”
Unfortunately, according to the American Psychological Association, the majority of people consider a lack of willpower as the primary reason they struggle to reach their goals. As I shared recently, we can quite literally be driven by our impulses rather than conscious decisions physiologically and often that leads to frustration, disappointment or guilt as we fall prey to the temptation of the sweet treats we’re trying to avoid, skipping the workout, or losing our temper. Fortunately, however, willpower is something which research shows that we can measurably increase (although perhaps not in all the ways that we might guess). And McGonigal argues that the best way to improve our self-control is to pay attention. Although many people fear even considering their willpower failures, increasing our self-knowledge and understanding of how and why we lose control is the single most reliable way of circumventing such an instance. She says that we should clearly articulate a particular willpower challenge – something “I won’t do,” “I will do,” or “I want,” and then try to identify various points throughout the day where we had the opportunity to make decisions which either supported or undermined our goals. When we “keep track of [our] choices [we can] reduce the number of decisions [we] make while distracted – a guaranteed way to boost willpower.” Dr. McGonigal’s thesis is that willpower can be increased through “training the mind to recognize when you’re making a choice rather than running on autopilot… noticing how you give yourself permission to procrastinate, or how you use good behavior to justify self-indulgence. It’s realizing that the promise of a reward doesn’t always deliver… it’s seeing what in your world – from sales gimmicks to social proof – is shaping your behavior. It’s staying put and sensing a craving when you’d rather distract yourself or give in. It’s remembering what you really want, and knowing what really makes you feel better. Self-awareness is the one ‘self’ you can always count onto help you do what is difficult and what matters most.”
It’s interesting food for thought. And probably especially helpful when we are initially trying to make a change or starting/stopping something new. In becoming conscious and taking responsibility for the multitude of small choices we are constantly making, we can better make the right ones. And as those right choices continue to accumulate, we can build habits over time, making them more instinctual and automatic and thereby avoiding decision fatigue and reliance upon sheer determination. According to McGonigal, willpower is like a muscle which can be strengthened over time and with exercise, plus I would argue from many of my own experiences, over time what started out as a “willpower challenge” for me has become my new normal and transitioned into a sustainable habit which requires very little thought or effort to stay consistent to my long term goals. That is the power of habit – for better or worse! And I would also argue that it makes a tremendous difference if you can find ways of making those right choices enjoyable or pleasurable. It’s a lot easier to stick with a workout routine if you find one that you love and it’s much more sustainable when you nourish your body with food that’s healthy and delicious! And it doesn’t hurt if it’s also pretty easy to make – like this Whole30 “Mac and Cheese” Casserole which is cleaned up comfort food at it’s finest!
- Raw Cashews 1 cup (112 g)
- Water .5 cup (120 ml)
- Juice from 1 Lemon
- Nutritional Yeast .5 cup (20 g)
- Sea Salt 1 TSP
- Black Pepper 1 TSP
- Garlic Powder 1 TSP
- Medium Cauliflower Head, chopped into ½" florets/pieces 2 each
- Ghee or Clarified Butter 2 TBSP
- Cooked Chicken, diced or shredded 2 cup (250 g)
- Sundried Tomatoes, chopped 3 TBSP
- Baby Spinach 2 cup (60 g)
- Almond Flour 3 TBSP
- Dried Parsley 1 TBSP
- Start by soaking the cashews in a small bowl with just enough water to cover for at least 4 hours or up to overnight.
- Preheat the oven to 350 F/180 C and line a baking sheet with foil. Toss the cauliflower in the melted ghee/clarified butter and then roast in the oven for about 25-30 minutes or until golden.
- Meanwhile, drain and rinse the cashews. Add them to a blender or food processor with fresh water, lemon juice, nutritional yeast, salt, pepper, and garlic powder. Blend until smooth and creamy.
- Add the "cheese" sauce to a large bowl along with the chicken, sundried tomatoes, spinach and cauliflower (once cooked). Toss everything well to combine and then place in an oven safe baking dish.
- In a small bowl mix the almond flour and parsley with about 1-2 TBSP of water to create "breadcrumbs." Sprinkle this over the top of the cauliflower mixture and then cook in the oven for an additional 10 minutes.
- Season with salt and pepper to taste and enjoy!
Nice blog post about willpower. I like how you highlighted that it starts with us paying attention when we make choices rather than being on autopilot!
I think it helps a lot! There are so many times I don’t even realize I am actually making a choice.