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What You May Not Know About Willpower

You’ve probably got a sister-in-law or boss or friend who somehow manages to order a salad every single time you go out to eat.

Every single time.

You have no idea how they do it, but you have gotten down on yourself for preferring the cheeseburger on more than one occasion. You think, “if only I had his/her willpower, then I could make healthier food choices.”

Well, guess what? Willpower, at least when it comes to food choices, has nothing to do with it.

According to research by Dr. Traci Mann, who runs the Health and Eating Laboratory at the University of Minnesota, there is hardly anyone who has the ability to resist tempting foods, especially when they’re routinely available (which they always are!!!).

The thing about being on a healthy diet, in which foods like cheeseburgers or cheese Danish are not allowed, is that you don’t just have to pass them up once to be successful—you have to pass them up over and over and over again.

Think about it: If you’re in a meeting at work and someone has brought in a box of pastries, you have to resist them when you first see them, resist them when you look up at the notes on the whiteboard, resist them when you look up to speak to a colleague, and continue resisting them throughout the meeting, however long it may be.

Not so with something like exercise. If you gather up your willpower to get out and go for a jog, well, you just had to gather that willpower once, exercise, and bam, you’re done, you did it. Food is a different story, especially since you’re often resisting the exact same donut for an hour or two at a time, and if you give in just once, the calories are consumed and you’re full of guilt.

It’s not that willpower is no good for anything, it certainly is helpful when it comes to completing work and getting good grades, and a variety of other things, but it just turns out it’s far less useful when it comes to eating.

Here’s something you may not have known about willpower: It runs out. We only have so much of it. Studies have shown that when participants had to use their willpower doing one difficult thing (like resisting temping freshly baked chocolate chip cookies), they gave up much more quickly on a tedious task later. Something else that depletes your willpower? Making choices, which is something you do all day long. That means that by the end of the day, you don’t have much to spare, which makes healthy choices harder to make.

One thing that will help in the willpower war is to stop distracting yourself. We’re constantly multitasking, whether we’re at work or at home, and it impacts our self-control (willpower), especially if you’re on a diet. For whatever reason, studies have shown that when dieters are distracted, they eat 40% more than dieters who weren’t distracted. (Interestingly, non-dieters actually ate 30% less when distracted, which is yet another great reason to let go of diets for good.)

The takeaway for you is that you can let go of the idea that somehow you’re lacking in the willpower department and that you should have more of it, and that both dieting and using up lots of willpower during the day make it even harder to stick with attempts to be healthy. Do your best to be present when you eat, and automate food and other choices as often as possible to avoid depleting this precious, limited resource.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.