Hundreds of people come to my office each month desiring to lose weight. Among the challenges they experience is the complaint that they lack willpower and/or self-discipline. Many people feel they cannot lose weight because they don’t have the self-control to do so. However you define it, willpower, self-discipline, or self-control, is an elusive and mysterious thing. Scientists have been trying to find out what willpower & self-discipline is and how to improve it since the early 1960’s. “If only I had more self-control,” people lament, “I could . . . lose weight, exercise regularly, eat right, avoid drugs and alcohol, save for retirement, enjoy more bacon, stop procrastinating, . . . . or even achieve the noble peace prize.” A 2011 American Psychological Association study reveals that almost 30% of those interviewed felt that their lack of willpower was the greatest barrier to making a change in any of these areas.
Excellence Comes From Habit
Excellence is not an act . . . it is a habit of repetitive action. To understand willpower & self-discipline, you have to understand habit. Habits emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort or conserve energy. Left to it’s own devises, your sub-conscious brain will attempt to take any routine and turn it into a habit. Our brains do this to conserve mental effort and energy. This allows us to stop thinking about basic behaviors like walking and eating, so that we can devote mental fuel to doing important things like making spears, finding bacon, creating irrigation systems, building airplanes and, for some, designing video games.
The brain creates time saving patterns in it’s thought processes in a similar way to what happens when a few drops of water are dropped on the top of a mound of dirt. As each drop hits the top of the mound, the water runs down the side where it finds the least resistance. Each drop of water erodes a little channel down the side of the mound of dirt. The more water drops you release, the deeper the channel is carved in the little hill, and after a while all the water runs down the same path over and over. To get the water to run down the path, the water has to drop on to the top of the path. This starting point for thought is actually a “cue” or a “trigger.” Once the water, or in our example the thought, hits the trigger point, it always follows the same path. Always.
Habits are Repetitive Thought Channels
It takes great effort to turn the water out of the path. This can be likened to our habits. Habits are neural impulse channels in our brain that follow a path leading to the same outcome every time without much effort. All that is necessary is to trigger the neural impulse. The neural impulse follows the channel in the brain effortlessly causing a mental or physical routine to occur leading to a end point or reward. Some researchers call this a “habit loop.” Trigger-Routine-Reward.
What is Willpower?
So what is willpower & self-discipline? It is the ability to resist the unproductive patterns of though and redirect the neural impulse that was triggered down the channel. Redirecting this habit takes a great deal of mental energy. The first studies on willpower like Walter Mischel’s famous study of Four Year Olds & Marshmallows gave the impression that willpower was a learned skill.
Henry P Liddon said, “What we do upon some great occasion will probably depend on what we already are; and what we are will be the result of previous years of self-discipline.” This means that willpower or self-control can be learned or improved. The more you repeat a task, the easier and less effort it takes to complete it. Thus, excellence isn’t an act . . . it is a habit of repetitive action.
But, this doesn’t explain why one day you eat healthy, and the next day, when you are tired, you raid the freezer and down the entire quart of ice cream. You may find that you exercise one day without any problem, but the following day you can’t seem to get yourself off the couch. If exerting willpower to exercise were a skill, it wouldn’t be so difficult to do it everyday, once the skill is learned. The problem with the self-discipline theory is that you don’t forget a skill overnight.
Willpower is Like a Muscle
More recently, Mark Muraven found that willpower is actually more like a muscle. He wondered, as we did above, that if willpower was a skill, then why doesn’t it remain constant from day to day?
Muraven decided to conduct an experiment by placing a bowl of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies next to a bowl of radishes. The room containing the bowls was a closet with a two-way mirror, a table, a wooden chair, a bell and a toaster oven. Sixty-seven undergraduate students at Case Western were recruited and told to skip a meal. One by one, the students filed in and sat in front of the two bowls. They were told by a researcher that the experiment was about taste perception, which was untrue. The experiment was to force half the students to exert their willpower & self-discipline.
Half of the students were instructed to eat the cookies and ignore the radishes. The other half were instructed to eat the radishes, but ignore the cookies. Muraven’s theory was that it was difficult, requiring mental energy and willpower, to ignore the cookies. Ignoring radishes takes absolutely no energy when there is a full bowl of warm cookies overflowing with chocolate chips.
“Remember,” the researcher instructed, “you can only eat the food that has been assigned to you.” Then the researcher left the room.
After five minutes, the cookie eaters were in heaven and the radish eaters were experiencing mental agony.
Researchers stated that one of the radish eaters went so far as to pick up a cookie, smell it longingly, and put it back in the bowl. Another grabbed a few cookies, wolfed them down, and licked the chocolate off of his fingers. Muraven estimated that after five minutes, the radish eaters willpower would have been fully taxed by eating a bitter vegetable and ignoring treats, where the cookie eaters hardly used any of their self-discipline.
The research then entered the room and asked them to “wait 15 minute for the sensory memory of the food that was eaten to fade.” To pass the time they were each asked to complete a puzzle that looked fairly simple. They were to trace a geometric shape without lifting the pencil from the page or going over the same line twice. If you want to quit, the researcher left a bell to ring. The researcher then implied the puzzle wouldn’t take long. In truth, the puzzle was impossible to solve.
The puzzle was the most important part of the experiment. It took enormous willpower to keep working the puzzle. Particularly after each attempt failed.
What they found from behind the two-way mirror was that the cookie eaters with their reserve of will power and self-discipline worked the puzzle even after hitting road block after road block for over 30 minutes.
The radish eaters, with their already depleted willpower, muttered, showed immediate signs of frustration, and complained loudly to themselves. A few of them even closed their eyes and put their heads on the desk. One even snapped at the researcher when she walked back into the room. On average the radish eaters lasted only eight minutes. When asked how they felt, one complained that he was sick of such a dumb experiment.
Chocolate Chip Cookie Fatigue
By forcing the use of willpower & self-discipline to ignore cookies, it placed the radish eaters into a state of willingness to quit much faster. More than 200 studies like this have been completed since this test was done. All of them found the same conclusion – willpower is like a muscle. It’s not just a skill. Willpower fatigues.
This may explain why people, who succumb to extramarital affairs, are usually likely to start them late at night, after a long day of work. It explains why good physicians make dumb mistakes after a long, very complicated task that requires intense focus. It also points to reasons why people are more likely to lose control over their drinking or cheat on their ketogenic diet.
I meet and work with people every day who feel they have no willpower. In actuality, will power and self-control are learned behaviors that develop over time, but are greatly effected by fatigue. Anyone can have willpower, you just have to understand how willpower can be strengthened and what makes it weak.
Willpower is More Important than IQ
A 2005 study showed that willpower & self-discipline was more important than IQ in academic successes. This study also found that increased self-discipline lead to less binge eating, higher self-esteem, higher grade point averages, better relationship skills and less alcoholism. Fascinating isn’t it!?
Willpower strengthens with use, but has a daily “shelf-life.” It is always greater or stronger in the first part of the day. Willpower declines over the course of the day as you fatigue.
How Do You Improved the Self-Discipline Muscle?
First, you must establish and write down a reason or motivation for change. In addition, that change must fulfill a clear goal. Just wanting to lose weight isn’t good enough. You have to be motivated because of a consequence that arises from the obesity or overweight. Just “losing weight” isn’t a clear goal. You must set a (1) specific weight reduction goal. It has to be clearly written down with your (2) motivational reason. “I will lose (1) 30 pounds to prevent (2) diabetes,” is a great written goal. Willpower or self-control cannot begin to form until these two steps occur. Writing the goal with these two specifics and re-reading the goal regularly is the essence of multiple drops of water running down the hill forming the channel. This also creates a trigger by setting specifics about the goal.
Second, you must begin to monitor your behavior toward that goal. When it comes to weight loss, I ask all of my patient’s to keep a diet journal. In your journal, write down every thing you eat and drink. This evening, write down your plan for tomorrow’s meals, then the next evening, you account to yourself for your success or failure by journaling on that same page what you actually ate and drank. Tomorrow evening, compare what you did, as you plan for tomorrow and journal why you were successful or why you were not successful. It’s that last part that is so powerful, a short 3-5 minutes of self-introspection. Self-introspection is the key to behavioral change. It is the key that allows a person to see their habits, and then make very small changes that break bad habits, solidify good habits and strengthen willpower. This time of self-introspection is re-enforcing the desired channel of flow.
Third, willpower is developed and strengthened over time. It is developed by being accountable to ones-self on very little things every single day. But it MUST be written down. If I planned to eat bacon and eggs for breakfast and I didn’t, why? When I look at my day, I may realize that I went to bed too late to get up early and cook bacon and eggs. So, instead, I ate a yogurt that was in the fridge. I am accountable to myself. If I plan to eat bacon and eggs tomorrow, I must either go to bed earlier, prepare them the night before, or throw out the yogurt . . . so not to be a temptation again. Planning re-enforces the triggers, and takes away the mental energy required to have self-discipline when you lack sleep, are feeling stress from waking up late, or running out of bacon in the fridge. it also provides more willpower to be available for other decisions later in the day. Pre-planning by writing down tomorrows tasks provides you strength for future willpower and eliminates fatigue when needing to make a large or small change tomorrow.
Over time, this self-introspection becomes easier and easier, to the point that you do it sub-consciously. It is this sub-conscious self-introspection and change will be seen by others as self-control or willpower. Just like exercising or strengthening a muscle, recording short goals and and accounting for them makes your self-discipline stronger. The self-discipline muscle becomes more powerful. In time, you’ll be able to make a split second decisions about a piece of cake. Strong willpower will be perceived by those around you. You’ll recognize that it’s just flexing your well rested self-discipline muscle.
Fourth, plan or attack the hardest decisions of your day, those things that require the greatest energy, in the morning when your fresh. This allows you to have the strength to maintain willpower. In the evening, when your willpower muscle is the weakest, have rescue foods available so you’re less likely to cheat. Pre-cooked bacon, pork rinds, guacamole, macadamia nuts (the highest in fat), rolled meats and hard cheeses are in my fridge and pantry for this reason. This is where fat bombs in the fridge at the end of a long day allow you to snack when you’re hungry at the time willpower is weakest.
A great way to pre-plan is to go to the KetoKart and order your pre-packaged 1, 3, or 6 month program that will provide you with the supplements necessary to stabilize insulin and ketones on a daily basis. This is one decision you don’t have to try to make ahead of time.
So, my question for you is which KetoKart package did you choose and . . . where’s your diet journal?
(Stay tuned for the second part of this series: Fixing the Habit Loop Cycle.)