In the Trauma ICU, 3 PM was the time that all hell broke loose.
Every. Single. Day.
No, the patients didn’t start crashing, and there was not a rush of new patients. In fact, on the outside, the trauma unit seemed completely calm. But inside my head, it was a whirlwind of chaos.
3 PM was when my willpower would give out and I wanted needed chocolate STAT!
Each morning I would wake up bright and early, and eat my pre-portioned breakfast before heading to the hospital. Despite the amount of work I had do to, I would find myself watching the clock, longing for my pre-determined snack time.
The snack came and went all too fast, and was never satisfying. Lunch was very much the same.
A few hours after lunch, the stress of the work day, plus my attempts at eating “perfectly” would send the walls crashing down on me, making me feel like the only escape was deep into a double scoop of burnt almond fudge from the hospital ice cream shop (yes, there actually is such a thing).
Sometimes I “caved,” other times, I would decide to “be good” and buy a bag of mixed nuts instead. Inevitably I would eat half the bag, about 1200 calories worth, in one sitting.
This crazy pattern led me to the conclusion that what I needed was more willpower. But more willpower never came, and in truth, it wasn’t what I actually needed.
It wasn’t until I stopped relying on willpower that I was able to make changes that lasted all day, not just until 3 pm.
If you’re struggling to stay consistent, more willpower isn’t the answer
If you are trying to lose weight, get fit, and improve your health, then you have probably wished from time to time for more willpower. But more willpower is actually NOT the answer. In fact, the people who are most consistent in their actions and the best results in their fitness and weight loss do not rely on willpower to stay consistent.
When it comes to making life long changes in health, fitness, weight loss, or nutrition, willpower is incredibly unreliable. Research shows that we can actually use up our willpower, and by relying on it too often, we set ourselves up for failure once it runs out. This is why it’s so much harder to stick with your goals the later the day gets.
Here’s the important thing to remember: willpower is a limited resource. Know this will help you reserve it for when you need it the most.
So if using willpower to guide your choices on a daily basis isn’t the answer, then what is?
Build a foundation of strong habits
Habits are the automatic actions that take place in our daily lives. If you want to do something consistently, you can either muscle through with willpower every day (and hope you don’t burn out,) or you can form a new habit so it comes automatically and effortlessly. Which one sounds more likely to succeed in the long term?
To create new habits, you have to take actions that are outside your comfort zone, but not too overwhelming, and incorporate them consistently. As you consciously add these actions to your daily life, they will become a part of your routine, and something that comes automatically.
The habits you create are the foundation to long-term success. By building habits, you free up brain space that would otherwise be used to keep you “on track,” and you don’t risk having willpower burnout.
Create an environment that supports your success:
The second level of long-term success is creating an environment that supports your success. Beyond our daily habits, our actions and choices are very dependent on the easiest option available. If the easiest option when you are hungry at home or work is a candy bar, it will take more willpower to find and prepare veggies and fruit over the candy bar. But if there are fruits, veggies, and proteins close at hand and easy to say “yes” to, then they will become the more likely choice, without requiring more willpower.
Same thing goes when it comes to exercise and activity. If you have to drive 45 minutes to get to your gym, chances are you’re going to find a way to avoid it, or use up a lot of your will power getting there. But if you only have to travel a few minutes, and you keep a pair of gym clothes in your car, or laid out by your bed in the morning, then it becomes an easier decision to say “yes” to exercising.
The idea here is to create an environment that makes the choices you want to say “yes” to the easiest and most convenient option.
Use willpower only occasionally
The final level, willpower, is just the tip of the iceberg. With strong habits and a supportive environment in place, the number of willpower challenges you encounter decrease drastically. This makes it even easier save up your limited willpower resources for when absolutely necessary.