Why Willpower Isn't Enough

No matter how good your intentions, research shows that willpower probably WON'T power you through your New Year's resolutions! Nutrition Diva shows you how to tip the odds in your favor.

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
4-minute read
Episode #266

Happy New Year!

How are those resolutions coming along? One week into January and most of us are still sticking to our healthy diet and exercise regimens. By the time March rolls around, of course, almost 80% of those well-intentioned plans will have been abandoned.

I think the problem is that we place far too much faith in our willpower -- which, as research shows, probably won't be enough to power you through the tough times.


Willpower: A Limited Resource? 

According to researchers Roy Baumeister and Kathleen Vohs, most of us have a relatively limited supply of willpower. When we call on our willpower to help us resist a temptation, we actually deplete our reserves, leaving us less able to resist the next temptation. Not only that, but the mental energy we spend exercising our willpower drains our capacity to perform other cognitive tasks!

Let's say, for example, that you show up at your weekly staff meeting to find that Linda has brought a batch of her famous homemade chocolate chip cookies. The cookies smell delicious and you know from previous experience that they taste every bit as good as they look and smell. Nonetheless, you're determined to stick to your resolution to avoid sweets. Ninety minutes later, the meeting is finally over and you've made it through without a single cookie! Good for you!

Unfortunately, the effort it took to NOT eat those cookies during the meeting made you less able to concentrate, problem-solve, and contribute at the meeting. And then, on your way out of the conference room, you walk by a bowl of chocolates that someone left on the counter. They're not even particularly good chocolates--nowhere near as tempting as Linda's cookies. But the fact that you have just spent 90 minutes resisting those cookies actually makes it more likely that you'll succumb to those cheap chocolates. 

Oh, the humanity!

Strength Training for Your Willpower

Some psychologists argue that willpower is a bit like a muscle. When it's asked to do some heavy lifting, your willpower can become fatigued, just like your bicep gets tired after too many curls,

However, just as you can gradually build up your bicep with strength training, you can also increase your willpower by exercising it. Baumeister believes that you can strengthen your willpower by consciously doing things that are contrary your usual habits -- such as brushing your teeth with the opposite hand or driving a different route to work. 

Carol Dweck, from Stanford University, on the other hand, thinks that the idea of willpower as a limited commodity becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. When subjects are primed to think of willpower as a renewable, self-replenishing resource, they seem to have more of it.

Just as you can build up your bicep with strength training, you can also increase your willpower by exercising it. 

Personally, I think that the truth lies somewhere in between. Some people seem to have greater reserves of willpower than others. This may be due to nature, nurture, or a bit of both. And I don't doubt that willpower can be enhanced with the right kind of training -- at least to a certain extent.

Nonetheless, instead of relying entirely or mostly on willpower, I think makes sense to supplement our resolve with other strategies to increase our chances of success.


About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show.