We’ve all been there. We wake up in the morning with the best intention to eat healthy throughout the day. We have stocked our fridge with healthy choices, prepped our meals and packed our gym gear. However, throughout the day, our good intentions seem to fade. By evening, our ability to control our sweet tooth has completely diminished. We find ourselves gobbling down our naughty treat with the false hope that tomorrow will be a better day.
Why does this happen? Why is it so difficult for us to align our actions with our intentions? More importantly, what can we do to help increase our willpower? This article attempts to shed light on these three questions by exploring the impact that willpower has on our ability to overcome temptation.
What exactly is willpower and what causes it to fail?
Willpower is the ability to delay gratification by exerting control over our behaviour. American psychologist, Walter Mischel, developed a popular theory to help explain why some people struggle with self-control. Mischel termed the theory the ‘hot-and-cool’ system. Mischel describes the cool system as the rational, decisive and goal oriented part of us. For example, an individual who has a long term goal of losing weight utilises the ‘cool’ system every time they desire junk food, but consciously turn it down.
In comparison, the ‘hot’ system refers to our emotional and impulsive side. For instance, that same individual whose goal is to lose weight would use the ‘hot’ system when spontaneously acting upon their impulse to eat junk food. According to Mischel, willpower fails whenever the ‘hot’ system overrides the ‘cool’ system. There are a multitude of factors which may cause this to happen. These include diet, stress, fatigue, alcohol, habit, genetics, motivation and the time interval between the action and its associated reward or punishment.
What can be done to strengthen our willpower?
To help prevent the ‘hot system’ from overriding the ‘cool system’, it is important to set up your environment in a way that promotes healthy behaviours. This can be achieved by determining when your willpower is at its weakest and ensuring that you aren’t surrounded by any temptation at that time. For example, if you find that your willpower is weakest after a long day at work, you can curb late night snacking by ensuring that you clear your kitchen of unhealthy, processed foods, instead replacing them with readily made, healthy alternatives.
However, we are not always in control of our environment. How do we withstand temptation when we are out for a friend’s birthday or when our co-worker brings in baked goods? One way to prevent the ‘hot’ system from overriding our rational decision making is to increase the salience of both our long term goals and the immediate punishment associated with poor food choices. Confused? Stick with me.
When we are confronted with tempting food, we perceive the reward of consuming this food to be immediate. We imagine the delicious taste and texture of the food and the dopamine high we will gain from eating it. At the same time, we associate the punishment of not consuming the food to be immediate. For instance, we perceive ourselves as having low energy and battling cravings.
In contrast, we perceive the benefits of sticking to good food choices as distant. For instance, the prevention of lifestyle related diseases are not immediately rewarding. Likewise, the punishments associated with poor food choices, such as weight gain, are long term complications.
This phenomenon makes it difficult for us to stick to healthy eating. To help decrease this effect, two strategies can be implemented. Firstly, you could make your long term goal visible to yourself every day, such as by sticking them on your fridge. Additionally, you could create a point system whereby you accumulate points towards something you truly desire each time you make healthy food choices. Likewise, you could make the punishment of eating unhealthy foods immediate. For instance, this could be achieved by taking points away whenever you steer off track.
In addition to this, being part of a group who all have the same healthy eating intentions as you will further strengthen your willpower. Titan Fitness offer constant challenges and boot-camps which place you in an environment with like-minded people. Such programs incorporate 24/7 online support and motivational seminars to help make healthy eating easier. If you would like more information about joining one of our challenges, don’t hesitate to give us a call on 9665 4058.
By Alana Willis
Alana Willis is passionate about all things fitness, health and nutrition. Alana is a qualified Personal Trainer and is currently completing the Bachelor of Science and Master of Nutrition and Dietetics at the University of Sydney. Alana’s keen interest in health and nutrition is reflected by her writing. With her scientific background, Alana critically analyses everything she hears and reads, ensuring that her writing is current and evidence based.