Stop Using Willpower

Stop Using Willpower

My clients know this is a drum I will never stop beating…

Willpower is not going to help you lose weight.

Many people think of willpower as a character trait – that some people have invincible strength of will that can overcome any temptation.

But the reality is that people who seem to have uncommonly strong willpower actually exercise self-control less often than people who seem to frequently cave.

The secret isn’t strength of will – it’s how we use systems to interact with the inevitable challenges of daily life.

The good news is that you do not need to have an easy, stress-free life to implement systems. In fact, we wouldn’t need systems if we weren’t busy!

You can work with what you have, and transform it. By applying specific strategies that will target the parts of your lifestyle that most need systematizing, you can free up precious mental energy to not only live a healthier lifestyle, but life a fuller life, focusing on the things that matter most to you.

In the process, you will take things like exercise, weight loss, and healthy cooking off the to-do list and out of the domain of willpower, and bury them instead into the “invisible architecture of daily life” (Gretchen Rubin).

In today’s post, I’m going to focus on:

  • Meal Prep
  • Exercising at the same time every day
  • Sleeping better
  • Strengthening social support for healthy habits

In what is practically free association writing, here are ideas for making these healthy habits easier, more realistic, and more repeatable. These are not rules – just tools for you to consider for your own life. Think of each little soundbite as a checklist – mentally check off the ones that you feel would make a big difference for you right away, and try them out this week.

The goal is no more willpower needed. Or, in reality, just a little bit, and only when it really matters.

Strategy #1: Make meal prep fit your life, and make it as easy as possible.

Some kind of meal prep is incredibly important, because it removes several food decisions per day and also makes sure that you are adequately nourished – this strengthens your willpower for when it really needs to do the heavy lifting.

  • Make double batches when you cook (especially with foods like soups and meat/vegetables), and freeze the other half. Some weeks, all you will have to do is thaw a meal and your lunches for the whole week are automatically ready.
  • Don’t “meal prep” the meals that are easy to throw together – especially breakfast. If you’re happy to run out the door with a piece of fruit and a bag of trail mix, do that.
  • Go grocery shopping the same day every week.
  • Put your grocery shopping on a repeated subscription so that the same foods are delivered every week on the same day.
  • Buy plenty of health conscious snacks and “convenience foods” that are ready to eat – fruit, canned tuna, cheese sticks, individually-portioned trail mix, etc. This will fill in the gaps when you are between meals.
  • Buy enough containers for meal prep, and my additional tip is to make sure they all match, so that storage is easy (people really underestimate the importance of this one!!!).
  • Consider shopping and meal prepping not on weekends – maybe on a Thursday night. This frees up the weekend (and provides healthy meals over the weekend). Counterintuitively, this is less stressful for many people.
  • Don’t get addicted to variety – be comfortable making the same things over and over. These “old faithfuls” will make meal prep easier because you know how to make them quickly.
  • Buy pre-chopped vegetables.
  • Forget recipes and just use my mix-and-match grain bowl recipes for easy lunches and dinners.

Remember that the goal of meal prep is to feed you healthy food, while reducing time/stress devoted to cooking. If you are cooking all the time and stressed out, you’re not doing it right. Zoom out, simplify, and try again.

Always go with easy.

Strategy #2: Exercise at the same time every day.

  • Exercise in the morning if it is at all possible, even if you’re not a morning person. Mornings are less competitive time slots – you’re unlikely to be called into a work meeting at 6 AM. This requires less willpower.
  • If you absolutely cannot exercise in the mornings, create a smooth, frictionless experience for afternoon or evening exercise. Exercise before you sit down to relax, for example. Exercise on your way home from work or immediately upon your arrival home.
  • Keep exercise clothes clean and available. This may mean buying duplicates of clothes so that you always have something clean.
  • Decide what you’re doing for exercise the day before, being as specific as possible. This will eliminate decision-making as you’re getting the workout started.
  • Pair an enjoyable activity with exercise so that you look forward to it as “me time” – listen to or watch something funny or interesting.
  • When you’re first getting used to an exercise routine, put it in your calendar to support the habit.
  • Have a default exercise that you do if you don’t have something specific in mind – like a walk, run, or bike ride.

The goal is that, sooner rather than later, exercise becomes a strong daily habit that fades into the background, allowing you to focus mental energy on other areas.

Strategy #3: Create strong sleep cues.

Sleep is incredibly important for strengthening self-control (i.e., “good” decision-making skills), but ironically, people struggle with willpower when it comes to sleep itself. If you find yourself going to bed way too late and struggling to get up in the morning (or just not sleeping enough in general), keep in mind that even small deficits in sleep have a big impact on cognitive functioning. These tips and tricks will help immensely.

  • Create a 30 to 60-minute ritual before bed that sends you straight into sleep.
  • Don’t put pressure on yourself that the routine has to be something Insta-worthy or that Ariana Huffington would feature in a book.
  • Sleep cues can include a specific TV show, reading a book in bed, having a specific snack, or other activities that signify the end of the day.
  • Don’t allow your “runway” to include personal devices like a laptop, phone, or iPad (unless the computer is far enough away from you that you can’t play on it).
  • Do eat a snack before bed – it’s easier to go to sleep when you are neither starving nor stuffed.
  • If you struggle with good sleep, reduce or eliminate alcohol.
  • Once you actually get into bed, no more tech.
  • Create a very dark, cold sleep environment.
  • Use white noise.
  • Set an alarm for the same time every morning.

Give sleep habits time to set in – it won’t happen in just a week or two. Stay consistent, even on weekends.

Strategy #4: Create support.

Don’t underestimate the power of social support.

  • Identify the people in your life who will be most crucial to your success (or failure), and have honest conversations with these people to get them onboard.
  • If your partner is not supportive (directly or indirectly) of your healthy habits, set smart boundaries to help ameliorate the possible challenges.
  • Enlist the help of people outside your primary relationships to support you.
  • Group ideas for social support include a running/walking group, a weight loss support group, a yoga class with consistent membership, or a recovery group.
  • One-on-one ideas for social support include using a friend as an accountability buddy, or getting professional help with goal-setting and accountability from a therapist, personal trainer, or dietitian.
  • Other ideas for professional support include reducing your workload: help with housework, cooking, or childcare.

Which ideas spoke to you the most? Which specific strategies will you start trying right away?