Willpower, Temptation and Your Wellness Goals

By August 30, 2016 January 28th, 2020 No Comments

For many people, setting and achieving personal wellness goals can be a real struggle—particularly when it comes to diet, exercise and sleep. Changing longstanding lifestyle behaviors isn’t easy, but there are a few things you can do to improve your chances of building new, healthier habits.

Start with the basics.

  • Focus on one goal at a time rather than several.
  • Make sure your goal is important enough to you that you will be motivated to work at it.
  • Keep your goal specific and manageable.
  • Share your goal with a buddy.
  • Make a habit of success, not excuses and apologies.
  • Recognize when you’ve accomplished something worthwhile.

Recognize temptation when you see it. Then go the other way and don’t look back.

Recent research suggests that willpower may actually be a finite resource and that different people have different amounts at their disposal. Even more interestingly, the amount of self-discipline available to confront any particular situation seems to decrease with each new challenge until an individual’s “stock” of willpower is replenished. This means that one of the most important strategies for reaching your goals may be to proactively avoid situations that might reduce your stock of willpower and threaten your success.

According to researchers at Florida State University, individuals who exhibit good self-control often make decisions that are designed to help them avoid temptation or distraction in the first place. This is very different from overcoming them. They’re basically doing what they can to stay out trouble in the first place.

Acknowledge the WIFM factor.

A recent piece in the New York Times suggests that our ability to develop new habits that “stick” may ultimately hinge on the power of self-interest. An individual is far more likely to change behavior if he or she really wants to. Simply put, it’s about motivation. More specifically, it’s about how someone answers three questions (either consciously or subconsciously) when faced with temptation:

  1. How big is the reward (benefit) I’m expecting?
  2. How long will I have to wait to get the reward (benefit)?
  3. How certain am I about the answers to questions #1 and #2?

We call this a “What’s In It For Me?” or “WIFM” calculation. When the expected reward or benefit is large, near-term and certain, most people are fairly motivated. However, if there’s a lot of uncertainty around the size or timing of the expected reward, then most individuals are less willing to give up on immediate gratification.

Make your own goal part of a larger group effort and make a commitment.

Making your goal public isn’t about inviting peer pressure. Most people are naturally excited about the idea of being involved in something larger than themselves. This is the power behind some corporate and community wellness initiatives. The group itself can lend additional motivation or willpower when one of its members is struggling.

What about a more formal commitment? Would you “sign on the dotted line” and agree to be more physically active? Literally sign a contract?  For some, this type of commitment makes a difference. This is exactly what a group of Finish office workers did during a recent experiment reported in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports and Exercise. 24 subjects in their 30s all set very achievable goals to decrease periods of inactivity, both on the job and at home with their families. These goals were included in a written contract with the research team that each study participant signed. This intervention group received counseling about the health hazards associated with too much sitting, and their activity levels were measured using electronic monitors and daily diaries. Their levels of physical activity were then compared to pre-contract baselines and to those of a 24-person control group that was measured and monitored but had not received counseling and had not signed on the dotted line.

The result? Researchers found that—over the short-term—people who had received counseling and signed a contract DECREASED THEIR INACTIVE TIME by about 33 minutes per day and INCREASED LIGHT MUSCLE ACTIVITY by about 21 minutes per day. While the long-term effects of this type of “personal contract” are uncertain, even small improvements like these could add up!

Don’t give up!

Fortunately, it turns out that self-discipline is like a mental muscle—while it does require energy to use it, it actually gets stronger with repeated use. There are actually several specific things you can do to strengthen your self-control and get better at resisting temptations (if you can’t avoid them in the first place).

Laughter, powerful personal memories and positive thoughts seem to boost willpower. So does recognizing when you are getting caught up in the moment and are being distracted from your longer-term goals. Successfully controlling yourself in a series of smaller situations also seems to prepare you for larger ones later on.

Interestingly, there’s also a nutritional angle to all of this. It appears that exercising self-control requires glucose. Experiments have demonstrated that blood glucose levels actually drop when we’re asked to exert willpower. As those levels drop, so too does our ability to resist temptation.  And restoring glucose levels seems to replenish self-control.

As chiropractic physicians, we take a holistic view of wellness. We know based on research and clinical experience that healthy lifestyle habits can help prevent a wide range of chronic medical problems. Just call or visit our office today to learn more!