Self-Control: Why a lack of it isn’t your fault, plus a couple ways to strengthen it
If you prefer to listen to this, here’s the podcast version of this blog.
Hi friends, as we move through the end of the year, it can feel a bit overwhelming to say the least. Factors like the winter season, family, food and finances can bring our emotional stew to a high boil —so it can be challenging to stay balanced and calm. When it comes to a holiday brand of emotional overload, anxiety, depression and other dormant vices can rear their ugly heads— so now’s the time to take measured steps in favor of proper chemical balance. If you find you have a lack of willpower to do what you know is best for you when it matters the most (now, or in life in general), this is written for you. I will go into the reasons why as well as a few tools to help you make progress in the right direction. It’s divided into three parts:
- The science behind willpower and where it comes from.
- General causes behind low-willpower.
- Tools to improve your willpower and create change, today.
Part 1: What is willpower?
Willpower is a particular kind of energy to exert control. It’s a finite reservoir —so as you’re using it throughout the day, you eventually tap out your supply. And unfortunately you can’t tell when your willpower is depleted, but it’s worn down throughout the day. So universally, people will have the most self-control in the morning.
People with low-willpower can suffer a whole lot of not-so-fun results. It compromises your ability to follow rules, reduces your emotional control, increases aggression, anxiety. It affects how well you do at school, the amount of traffic accidents you have, how popular you are and how successful you are. However, it doesn’t have a connection to successful dieting. The energy for willpower is linked to your body’s natural energy supply: you need fuel in order to use it. That’s why dieting is a catch-22. You need energy to have willpower. (Not to mention: The more you diet, the more your body learns to resist dieting. I digress. . .) So if you suffer most from a lack of willpower when it comes to food, fill yourself up with healthy food like greens so your body has fuel to supply you with willpower. Most importantly —no matter what you’re striving to overcome using willpower, use your reservoir of strength to tackle one thing at a time.
When you split your energy to two different habit changes, you are likely to fail because you are dividing the reservoir in half and therefore it runs out before you can accomplish either item. For example, dieters are less able to quit smoking. Choose the easiest thing on your list and tackle that first. Once you’ve done it, move on to the next.
Because you’re dealing with a finite increment of energy per day, it can be a major factor if you have unseen issues that are draining your supply. For example, if you are dealing with managing a lot of old emotional pain —let’s say you experienced a trauma long ago and never sought help for it— there’s a good chance you’re going to have a hard time saving more money because your self-control supply is being used to keep your feelings down. That’s a TON of energy you’re spending —no wonder everything else gets hard. Picture yourself swatting away flies all day long. At the end of the day you’re going to be pretty exhausted, so much so you might swat slower or even just give up altogether.
Additionally, when your self-control energy is depleted, you become more aggressive. Think of the tolerance of a child. It’s all tied to energy and stamina —eventually, we all break down—hence the road rage you encounter when you head home at night on the freeway.
It’s not your fault if you suffer from low-willpower. It’s actually pretty logical and a universal experience. A lot of us just have a lot more factors stacked against our being successful in making change. You might be suffering a couple major unknown causes and not even know it! Wouldn’t that be nice to finally understand? Which brings me to. . .
Part 2: General Causes of Low-Willpower
Things that decrease your ability to have self-control that milk the reservoir while you just go about your seemingly normal day.
1. A stressful environment.
Whether it’s a stressful household, neighborhood, work place, relationship: this tolerating and managing of stress and emotions taps your energy reservoir.
2. Un-dealt with issues.
Trauma, anxiety, depression, an eating disorder, PTSD, a big secret —basically, a pain inside that you are dealing with all the time and struggling to keep from your present mind. All of these things take an extreme amount of energy to manage. It’s amazing to know how truly strong you are once the issues are untangled— your problems in life become uber simple once these issues are off the table. If you’re managing a ton of stuff like this while managing to function and appear “normal” —you’re likely a highly capable person.
3. A day filled with tedium.
We all have to do tedious things once in a while, but this one more pertains to lengthy tedium that demands your attention and participation, with little reprieve. So if you are forced to patiently endure unpleasant and/or uninteresting tasks —maybe meetings, speeches, tests or tasks that demand your attention but bore you, you are depleting your self-control reservoir.
4. Too many decisions.
Even though it doesn’t seem like it would tax you in the same way, having too many choices or too many decisions to make exerts that same self-control energy. So if you’re being asked to choose the correct answer on a test or even a low-price brand of toilet paper from an aisle full of them —you’re tapping your self-control reservoir. As a rule, keep it simple on decisions that don’t really matter—just go for what’s in front of you.
5. Faking it.
By this I mean, forcing yourself to enact emotions and feelings that are different than how you truly feel. For example, if you’re forced to act like you are enjoying yourself when you are not or perform as though you like something when you hate it, you’re taxing the self-control energy supply. It literally depletes your stamina as the day goes on.
6. Being faced with temptations.
According to doctors, as humans we have desires about half the time we’re awake. It’s not bad to want things, it’s just a part of being human. However, because it takes a lot of energy to resist those desires, and it gets harder as your day goes on if you are surrounded with your particular brand of temptations, you are likely going to have a harder time resisting them. The tough part is, thanks to smartphones, many of us have all our temptations at our fingertips. The more temptations you keep around you, the harder they will be to resist. So get rid of the crappy food in your house! Whatever your vices, keep them away from your eyeballs.
7. Bad PMS.
Who knew?! But ladies, if you are PMS-ing, your self-control is likely impaired because your body is using glucose (the energy used for willpower) for “reproductive activities.” Basically, if you get cravings while you’re PMS-ing it’s because your body is trying to replace the energy being lost, so if you don’t eat enough to do so, you are likely suffering a reduced amount of willpower. Statistically women are more likely to abuse substances, relapse, etc. during this window of time. This doesn’t mean that you’re just going to take up a new drug habit, it just means, you will be more likely to succumb to existing vices. So if you have bad PMS, plan ahead for it now and remember to eat enough healthy food to replace as much of your lost glucose as possible.
8. The Warrior Gene.
This is crazy but if you have a particular kind of gene stemming from hunter-gatherer days, you will have a much lower threshold for self-control, particularly when it comes to temper. The “Warrior Gene” reduces function in the MAOA gene. That means having this gene will affect your feelings, mood, and behavior because it changes how happiness and brain-soothing chemicals like serotonin are processed. The most common outcome of the gene is an inclination toward aggression, though it will affect your ability to deal with all sorts of regular life issues. To be tested, here’s a link.
Even if you have a genetic disposition, you absolutely can “grow” your self-control. Here are a few tools to help you make change in the face of any of the above factors you might be suffering from.
Part 3: Tools for Strengthening
Regardless of the factors you might be affected by, start by just acknowledging them as the causes of your low self-control. Know that low-willpower is not related to your ability or strength as a person —it’s conditional, and can be improved with awareness and a few strength-building exercises. These factors do not dictate your capacity for self-control: they do not define you or how successful or talented you are. If you have been living with one of these factors for a long time, it’s likely a sign that you are very strong. So if you suffer with the belief that you have low-willpower, start by forgiving yourself for it. Know that it’s the universal result of someone dealing with your particular set of challenges.
A lot of what will help you be successful in executing self-control is awareness of what’s going on inside your body, energy-wise. Because you cannot tell when your reservoir has been drained, learning which factors are tapping it can give you the information you need to set up a more supportive environment for yourself (much like a friend would). Your goal is to stack the odds in your favor in the times you are going to need it, instead of being blindsided by an empty reservoir. Universally, know that you have a lot more willpower in the morning than you will at the end of the day. To start, that’s a window of time you should plan to give yourself the utmost support.
Past that, here are a few additional tools to enhance your awareness, strengthen your willpower muscle, and empower you in moments your willpower is lowest.
1 • Future You Calls the Shots
This one helps me a lot when I think “I don’t have a good reason not to—“ Like if you’re getting a bit tipsy on a weeknight and thinking, why not go bigger? Well, why not consult the future-you? Literally picture yourself tomorrow and ask you to make the call. It gets a whole lot clearer what you really want.
2 • Demolish the Stage
Picture your lack of self-control as a play that happens within the same stage, night after night. You get into the same structure / situation and that’s when you are “done for” —like you can almost know you’re going to lose your willpower. In the face of a looped performance, I suggest creating a major life structure change. In essence, you will have to disable yourself from your “lack of willpower window.” For example, try changing your work out to the end of the day. If you have trouble overeating while watching TV, change where you sit when you eat dinner. Literally move the table out of your living room. Cancel your cable and throw away the remote. If you are having trouble maintaining an exercise regime, force yourself to be accountable by inviting friends to meet you at an exercise class. Be severe about changing the construct of your weakness-window and create rules that prevent you from falling victim to the same time and place of your vices.
It will be uncomfortable at first because what happens when our willpower is exhausted, we want soothe / emotionally escape. When you don’t give it to yourself, you’re going to have to grow out of the habit for a bit —it helps to have a replacement ready. Something like exercise, meditation, sunshine, being in nature, aka soothing practices that you do consistently for at least the first month. Once the new replacement practice starts to work, you will become addicted to the feeling it gives you. It’s like better medicine.
3 • Broccoli Test
This is a tool for anyone who suffers from low-willpower related to food or snacking. If you find you have trouble with over-eating, this tool is great for separating whether or not it’s Emotional Hunger or Physical Hunger.
If you have a craving for a particular kind of food, you’re likely experiencing Emotional Hunger. Meaning (something in you wants to avoid negative feelings by getting a chemical release induced by food). Like drugs, food releases soothing chemicals. Not so great if you’re physically full.
To define for yourself if you’re truly Physically Hungry, give it the Broccoli Test. If you wouldn’t eat a piece of broccoli, you’re not truly hungry. It’s a good divining rod for when you can’t see the truth in your own cravings.
4 • Read the Verdict in the Morning
When you are trying to make a large and life-changing decision or you have to do something important that requires your concentration, choose the time well. Make all difficult decisions when you have the most will-power energy —which is first-thing in the morning. If you’ve been worn down by the day, you’re likely going to give up easily and choose whatever is fastest.
5 • Straighten Your Willpower
This one is a tool to build up the size of your self-control reservoir. Over the next two months, whenever you think of it, stand up straight or sit up straight. Make a conscious effort to improve your posture at all times. It’s about watching yourself and exercising self-control to make that change, despite that posture is likely totally unrelated to your vices.
The point is, if you’re slouching, break the habit over and over again by sitting or standing up straight. Overriding your trained in habit is what is useful in building up your willpower capacity. If posture isn’t your thing, pick something else —anything that you want to make better in your life, for example, biting your nails. Just remember: keep it simple. Trying to work on several bad habits at once divides your willpower. Choose the easiest one first. That will improve your overall willpower. Then move on from there.
6 • Ambidextrous Willpower Work-Out
You can improve your willpower by doing anything that flexes your control muscles. This is another tool to improve your reservoir size. Train yourself to use your non-dominant hand for 2 months: stirring your coffee, opening the door, brushing your teeth. It’s depleting to willpower in the short term but after doing this for two months, you increase your overall willpower capacity.
There are over a dozen different studies done that show these small exercises increase your capacity for self-control. So if these ones sound annoying to you, try just overriding your habitual response in a totally different way —just keep it small. What matters is you act opposite to a trained-in habit for at least two months and become conscious about it when you do so.
I like to override the bad habits I want to override anyway. For example, I want to stop having pointless fights that mean nothing and waste time. I do so by overriding my gut reaction to rebut, and instead, decide to move on with my life. I also take note that I am doing so in favor of my reservoir size. Double win!Want to make up your own? All you have to do is monitor your behavior and override a habitual response.
Most importantly, don’t beat yourself up about it because that’s just inhibiting your ability to use your energy for willpower. Start by changing your habitual responses in small ways as often as possible. Move onto trying to make some lifestyle changes in favor of reducing the amount of stress you have to endure. If you’re managing a lot of emotional pain and past issues, get help for it! See a therapist or read a book on the topic. You don’t have to carry that with you all over the place for the rest of your life. Put it down —that crap is heavy.
Don’t overthink it. Change is simple and it comes about when you decide to make something a lifestyle. It’s not about today or tomorrow, it’s about setting up a construct for everyday from this point forward. Make a decision about your life. Know that you mean it. Start taking steps and trust that change is going to come about —and whether or not it happens tomorrow or in years from now, it will be well worth it. You are worth it. Once you decide it, that goal is as good as achieved.
I hope that this helped you —sending you my love and vibes of positivity— and don’t forget to smile y’all. xox Sarah-May B.
Featured image via The Simpsons