It takes willpower to say no to tempting junk food when trying to eat better. It also takes willpower to say yes to doing tasks today that you feel like putting off until tomorrow. We need our willpower to be strong and present in order to do the difficult things we need to do. Do some people just naturally have willpower while others don’t? More importantly, is there a way to increase or build willpower?
Willpower resides in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. In case you are interested, the prefrontal cortex is behind the forehead. This area of our brain controls our attention, our thoughts and how we feel. It is divided into three zones that all play varying roles in the willpower game. One area, the “I will” zone is the part that helps us stick with boring or difficult tasks. The “I won’t” zone helps us to resist impulses or cravings. These two together make up what we “do”. Finally, the “I want” zone drives motivation to do or not do a particular thing. It is what we need to step in when we require a firm “no” or “yes” response to a particular activity or situation. No thank you to the chocolate cake when your stomach says- Yes, please!
It’s logical to think that in order to have willpower all you need is better self-control. Just like willpower, self-control originates in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. Many different factors can impact this area like drinking alcohol, not getting enough sleep, distractions and anger for example. These factors will leave you less likely to be able to control your impulses. Due to the way we evolved, our basic urges and instincts still lie deep within the brain. The infamous “sweet tooth” is an example. Our propensity to love sweetness improved our ability to survive when food was scarce. But now, for the majority of us, food is abundant and we need to control this urge less we find ourselves overweight and unhealthy. We also needed to learn to live in a community with others. To have been exiled from our clan because of poor behavior would mean certain death. Therefore, we needed to develop self-control so we didn’t steal our fellow caveman’s food or resources. The combination of these deep-seated impulses and needing self-control leaves us today with internal conflict.
Have you ever felt like you hear two voices in your head? Ha-let me explain. One voice urges you to act on impulse and seek instant gratification. That person whispers-You deserve that cookie! The other voice tries to control the impulse and delay gratification by saying–Don’t eat that cookie if you want in those skinny jeans! It doesn’t matter if it is resisting the temptation of food, gambling away money or not using your gym membership. Those two “people” never agree! Now, if the prefrontal cortex is distracted by any of the factors above, our brain will do what’s easiest. It’s just our nature. Here is where you start to build willpower. Self-awareness is key to having more self-control and that leads to improved willpower.
Self-awareness means recognizing what you are doing as you are doing it and understanding why you do things. It also means being able to predict what you will most likely do. Without self-awareness, you are more likely to submit to impulsivity making self-control useless. For example, knowing that you are likely to eat the entire bag of chips if you buy it is self-awareness. Recognizing when a decision is going to require willpower will stop your brain from just doing what is easiest. One habit we have clients work on is eating mindfully. Learning how to be more aware of hunger and satiety cueing decreases overeating. If you are preoccupied while eating, impulse drives hunger and you know where you wind up-stuffed!
This week begin to work on increasing self-awareness. Each day pay attention to how many times you make a these types of decisions automatically? Did you purposefully pause while making a decision considering the consequence? Notice if you are being impulsive with food, money or lifestyle choice. Try to catch yourself in the process so you can consider the outcome of a decision. Also, are you saying or thinking anything that is allowing you to give in to? “I can have this hot fudge sundae because I ate really well today”. Does this align with your long-term goal of losing weight ? Lastly, what situations do you find make it easier to give into your impulses? Does stopping at your favorite store on the way home from a long day at work help you to spend less money if you are trying to save? I don’t think one person is born with more willpower than another. I think they have more self-awareness leading to more self-control. That’s why they have better willpower.