Willpower Meter at Zero? Here’s How to Fix It

Have you failed at losing weight before?

Have you questioned why you don’t have enough willpower to stick with your diet and exercise plan? Perhaps you've gone as far as thinking that this is a character flaw, and that you simply aren't able to harness the elusive willpower that you think everyone should be able to utilize.

The good news is that there is nothing wrong with you. You aren't missing some fundamental part of your brain that is required to be successful. Willpower is a finite resource, and thus it must be managed and conserved as one. Willpower is like your mana or stamina bar in a video game; it runs out as you use it. When your willpower is at zero, you are left to satisfy your base desires without consideration for what you want in the long term. This means that when it comes to food, you’ll likely grab the quickest, easiest, cheapest, and most convenient food option. It also means that generally that you’ll choose sitting on the couch over going to the gym.

What drains your willpower?

Decisions. Every day, we make decisions that require conscious thought, and in doing so, we experience decision fatigue. Decision fatigue is a “real psychological condition in which a person’s productivity suffers as a result of becoming mentally exhausted from making so many irrelevant decisions.” By stressing out over these little decisions, we simply become less efficient at making the right choice for the decisions that truly matter the most to us.

If we are trying to lose fat in addition to the already vast number of little choices we make each day, we are at an additional disadvantage. Studies suggest that willpower is fueled by glucose, and as we cut back on our calories, both our willpower and our glucose drop as a result.

As I mentioned, willpower is your mental mana bar. Take a moment to consider your dayas if it were a video game. We’d all like to wake up and have our willpower at 100%, but chances are you haven’t had enough restful sleep, and as a result your willpower bar starts out below 100%. Let’s take a look at a quick example scenario that may resonate with many of you.

A Common Case of Decision Fatigue

Upon waking, your willpower meter reads: 83%. Your willpower was not entirely replenished because you stayed up late watching Netflix, and then laid in bed playing Trivia Crack on your phone.

You get out of bed and you have no idea what you are going to eat. You fumble around in the kitchen looking for something and end up eating cereal. Your willpower drops 10% and is now 73%.

After eating, you shower, brush your teeth, and then go to your closet to get dressed and realize that you have no idea what you are going to wear. You pick through your closet for a few minutes, find something that is acceptable, put it on and realize that there is a stain on it. Your willpower drops 10% and is now 63%. You find something else that you know looks great on you, you put it on, and the outfit no longer fits comfortably. Maybe you shouldn't have eaten so much pizza over the weekend. Your willpower drops 20% and is now 43%.

Because you took so long getting ready, you are now almost late for work. You stress over deciding on either being late, or speeding to get there. Your willpower drops 3% and is now 40%.

You arrive at work a few minutes late. A coworker brought in donuts. You want to lose weight and know that eating them won’t help you. A willpower of 45% is required to resist the donuts. You do not have the sufficient willpower to resist. You eat two donuts. Your willpower drops 8% and is now 32%.

You don’t know what to get for lunch because you didn’t bring one. Your coworkers are going out to the Chinese buffet. You are starving since you ate mostly sugar so far today, so you go with your coworkers and gorge yourself on the buffet. Your willpower drops 12% and is now 20%.

You get back to the office and there is office birthday cake. Since you just ate a huge meal, you think you’ll pass, but at the sight and smell of cake your stomach rumbles. A willpower level of 25% is required to resist this cake. You lack sufficient willpower to resist, and have a slice. Your willpower drops 5% and is now 15%.

You realize that you don’t have any groceries for dinner, but you also didn’t prepare a list. You go grocery shopping hungry, and buy foods that aren’t going to help with your goal of losing weight. And there are Girl Scouts selling tagalongs outside. You buy them, because they are your favorite, even though you can’t just eat one. Your willpower takes a double hit of 8% and 5% respectively. Your willpower is now 2%.

You realize that you spent too much in the grocery store and are starving and don’t have the energy to cook, so you start to stress over what to do. You lose 2% willpower and your willpower is now 0%.

You see a Taco Bell drive thru, and the neon sign saying “Live Mas” is calling to you. Your willpower is fully depleted. You get the Cheesy Gordita Crunch, Cinnamon Sugar Churros, and two soft tacos, with a large Pepsi.

When you get home, you are exhausted mentally, emotionally, and physically. You put your groceries away, sit down on the couch for some more Netflix and Trivia Crack, while eating peanut butter filled pretzels. You again realize that you are up way too late and head to bed. In the morning, it is unlikely that your willpower meter will be full.

This story illustrates how decision fatigue can cumulatively eat away at your ability to make decisions that best align with your goals. In case you were wondering, the person in the above story was me, when I was over 400lbs. I was able to lose over 200lbs, because I am able to now manage my willpower.

So how do we manage willpower as a finite resource?

“Our life is frittered away by detail.…Simplify, simplify.” — Thoreau

As an aside, Thoreau is a great source of wisdom. Much of his writing can be applied to fitness and health. Check out #ThoreauBackThursdays on Facebook and Twitter.

Since there is unfortunately no willpower mana potion, no quick fix that restores your willpower levels, the solution is to reduce the decisions in your daily life that are less important than your current goals.

One way to reduce decision fatigue is by making fewer unnecessary choices. An example of this, that has gotten recent media coverage, is that many people who have made or are making important decisions, start by reducing their clothing choices. Some examples of this are people like Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, President Obama, and even Albert Einstein. Steve Jobs had a closet filled with turtlenecks, Mark Zuckerberg has grey t-shirts and hoodies, Obama only wears a blue or gray suit, and Einstein only wore gray suits. Some well known fitness coaches also do this. For example, Dick Talens and Mike Vacanti only wears v-necks. In each case, they’ve automatically removed a superfluous decision from their lives in order to free up the mental resources to focus on what matters to them.

While this may not apply to anyone that enjoys variety in what they wear, there is a more realistic solution: Pick out what you are going to wear in advance, either the night before, or plan out your clothes a week in advance. That way, you simply get up and put on what you’ve pre-selected, and you don’t need to decide in the moment. In doing so, you’ve conserved willpower without having to resort to only wearing jeans and a turtleneck.

A second way to reduce decision fatigue, and eliminate another willpower drain is by having a set plan for exercise. Many people “go to the gym,” and end up floating around with a lack of direction or goals. By having a specific workout plan, written in advance, you are able to focus on that workout plan without having to worry or decide what to do. All good workout plans also include a built in mechanism for progress as well. It is important that your workout plan directly helps you achieve your goal. If not, you are simply wasting both time, and willpower, which are two of the most precious, and limited resources that you have.

The last, and arguably the most important way to reduce decision fatigue and conserve willpower, is meal planning. Plan in advance what you are going to eat for your meals, at least breakfast and lunch, and get them ready the day before. Many people that plan their meals even spend a weekend afternoon cooking the majority of their meals for the entire week! We do this in my home. We cook big batches of foods on Sunday afternoons, and fill up our freezer. Every night before bed, as part of our bedtime ritual, we pack our breakfast and lunches, using those already cooked meals.

We try to plan our dinners for the week in advance as well, while still allowing for some flexibility. Because we eat many of the same foods, this makes creating a grocery list, and grocery shopping mostly stress free. Additionally, this allows us to save money by buying bulk food from places like Sam’s Club, Costco, or GFS Foods. As a result, I don’t have to expend willpower in the moment when deciding what to eat. I also don’t have to worry about what to buy while roaming the aisles of a grocery store. And because I always have my breakfast and lunch meals covered, with foods that don’t leave me hungry, I never go grocery shopping hungry.

“People with the best self-control aren't the ones who use it all day long. They’re people who structure their lives so they conserve it.”
- John Tierney, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.

Save your willpower for the things that matter the most to you.

What matters to you so much that it’s worthwhile trying to conserve your willpower? Drop me an email , a comment on Facebook, and let me know! For me, it’s being a positive fitness role model for my kids!

If you are looking for some help with building sustainable habits that can reduce your willpower drain, and propel your fat loss, I’d love to work with you!

The featured image, “Brain Power” is courtesy of Anthony Freda and used under a Creative Commons License.