When your willpower breaks down, it doesnt reflect a lack of self-discipline so much as a force of nature. Especially when it comes to food, there are strong biological factors were all working against. As Joseph Shrand, M.D., an instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, explains, self-restraint is a rational desire, which means it lives in the front of the brain - the section thats most recently evolved and most vulnerable to being overruled by survival instincts.
Pleasure, on the other hand, resides in the brains most primitive portion, which has spent millions of years learning to reward us with a deeply satisfying jolt of dopamine when we give in to these kinds of urges. And while that brain circuitry evolved to encourage life-prolonging desires like eating and sex, says Dr. Shrand, we now get a rush from giving in to anything we want, whether its an illicit drug, chocolate, or buying expensive purple peep-toe bootseven when the more evolved part of our brain tells us well quickly regret it. So you can see why getting the rational side of your brain to win out takes a little work.
Here are some foolproof ways to keep yourself fighting those natural instincts in the name of willpower.
Muscle up your willpower
The interesting thing about willpower is that its transferable. If you can demonstrate determination in one area, you can often show it in another arena as well. In an experiment at the University at AlbanyState University of New York, researchers asked 122 smokers who were trying to quit to exert extra self-control for two weeks, either by avoiding sweets or by squeezing on a grip-strengthener for as long as they could twice a day. Another group either did math problems or kept a diary. In the following month, 27 percent of those who were diligent about practicing their self-control exercise successfully kicked their cigarette habit, compared with just 12 percent of volunteers whod been given a task that didnt call for self-control.
To try this at home, squeeze a grip-strengthener (available at sporting-goods stores for under $10) or a rubber ball until it becomes uncomfortable, then hold your grip as long as you can. Repeat at least twice a day and see if practicing self-control rubs off in other areas of your life, helping you to keep your hands off foods you normally cant resist.
And visualize to boost it
That primitive-cravings center in the brain is highly susceptible to visual cues, explains Tufts University psychologist Christopher Willard, Psy.D. Draw on the strength of images by putting a photo of a younger, thinner you on the fridge or mirror, or by hanging a pair of skinny jeans on the closet door to remind yourself of what youre working toward.
Give yourself a break, occasionally
As with a muscle, push too hard and youll damage your willpower. If youre very hungry, I cant imagine that any amount of willpower will keep you from eating a cupcake, says Mark Muraven, Ph.D., psychologist and author of the quit-smoking study. And even if youre not hungry, expecting too much of yourself can put you in the danger zone. Dieters who go cold turkey on everything often feel overwhelmed, and that can sabotage willpower.
Remember your accomplishments
Whenever you feel your resolve waver, think about what youve accomplished in the past. People beat themselves up about still needing to lose the baby weight or no longer going to yoga class. But they overlook the long list of things they have done that required major self-discipline, like building a nest egg or sticking with the computer training they needed in order to get a better job, says psychologist Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D. Write down 100 things youre proud of, right down to I get out of bed when I dont want to. Itll remind you how much willpower you really have.