How to Strengthen Your Willpower Muscles
I have worked for and with physical therapists for over a decade now. If anyone knows how to be a good patient, it should be me.
That’s what I thought to myself as I went down the steps to my PT’s office. She had given me a set of exercises to do every morning to help with my hamstring pain and get me running again.
I thought to myself, “I want to run. I want to have done all my exercises, but I hardly did ANY! They’re not that hard. I wish I wasn’t so weak.” These thoughts swirled in my head as I entered the reception area and checked in.
“How has this week been Heather?”
I was too ashamed to admit that I had hardly done any of the exercises. “It’s been pretty good,” was all I could come back with. To my relief, she didn’t dig deeper.
I heaved a sigh as I followed her back to the treatment room. Here she was, brilliant and invested in my success, and there I was, sitting on my bum drinking coffee every morning NOT doing exercises.
Around the same time that I was seeing this PT, I started reading obsessively about habits. I had worked in mental health and knew we were good at getting people to WANT to change, but we had a ways to go in helping them accomplish that change. The latest research has been artfully distilled into a handful of wonderful books that tell us more about what we can do after we decide we want to make a change.
“Oh, duh,” I thought to myself. “This is me, right now! I want to do all of my exercises but I’m just not doing them. Maybe the answer is in one of these books.” (My favorites are listed at the end.)
Exploring willpower: How I decide to eat a cookie
There is a great deal of information around habit development and change, but there were a couple of concepts that really hit home for me.
The first is a discussion about our brains.
We think that everything happens in our conscious mind, our prefrontal cortex. This is just not true. Our decision making and habits are on autopilot much of the time and are actually guided by an older structure of the brain called the amygdala. Some people refer to the amygdala as our prehistoric lizard brain as its primary function is to keep us alive, eating and procreating. Our prefrontal cortex developed later and helps us move beyond surviving to thriving. It plans for the future and makes choices that will benefit us in the long run.
Here’s how I picture the two parts of my brain interacting.
Lizard Brain: Let’s eat that cookie now. It’s free and filled with sugary energy.
Prefrontal Cortex: We actually have a few extra pounds on us right now and in no way do we want to deal with the disappointment and guilt that comes with eating that cookie.
Lizard Brain: I’m just going to scream until you eat the freaking cookie. EAT THAT COOKIE, EAT THAT COOKIE, EAT…
And thus the cookie is eaten. Guilty feelings ensue and the lizard brain starts talking about how a second cookie will distract us and make us feel better at least for a little while. Oh, what a familiar downward spiral.
The lizard brain doesn’t always win though. Sometimes I make the right choices. What’s the difference?
The lizard brain is very energy efficient. The prefrontal cortex is an energy guzzler. Think Prius vs 18-wheeler. Which one wins depends on how much gas you have in the tank.
When you are high in energy, your prefrontal cortex is in charge and you live a life of intention.
In this state, you make decisions and stick to them. You can be proactive. When energy is low, more and more is kicked to the lizard brain. You become reactive. This is how we end up with our feet on the coffee table, a bag of fast food in our laps while we binge watch Netflix instead of doing our PT exercises.
It fell into place for me.
It wasn’t that I was a weak person who didn’t have the strength of character to meet her commitments. It was that I was so bad at managing my energy and stress that I never had enough gas in the tank to make good decisions.
I was all lizard all the time.
Habit change is about energy management, not strength of character
Then, how do we keep our energy up? This brings us to the second concept that I pulled from my reading.
Here things will start to sound familiar. Get enough sleep, exercise, eat a healthy diet full of vegetables and keep your stress level low to moderate. We can add in positive relationships, enjoyable activities and rest/recovery time.
Just looking at that list can make you tired!
The good news is that one snowballs into the next. The more sleep you have, the more energy you have to take a walk or make a better food choice. Once you do those things, you have more energy to put down the remote and make a date with a friend or play with your dog.
The secret is to pick one and start small.
The key for me was my stress level at work. That was not a short-term issue to resolve but I started putting things in place to lessen my overburdened workload. Then I made a plan for what to do in the short term.
I decided to try and amp up the other areas. First, I called for reinforcements. I got a friend to be my energy and motivation source once a week at the gym. I filled the house with healthy food and made my partner store his chips in his car (no joke!). I acknowledged when I was having a rough week and scheduled in extra “me time” for the weekend.
Now you’re thinking, this is where I tell you that I started a new habit of doing exercises in my living room every morning.
I never did.
Here’s what I DID do. I looked for changes that took less energy. I started walking hills in the morning to strengthen my glutes. Once I had the walk in place, I used an app on my phone to do a seven minute strength training workout on it. I could do seven minutes and I could mix up the exercises, which I preferred.
At this point, I didn’t even have to try. I just found myself going to yoga again.
Impressed with my changes (or tired of my nagging?), I got my partner to go to the gym with me twice a week to do at least 20 minutes of strength training.
I added these things one at a time multiple weeks apart. At first, I failed more than I succeeded. What was different this time was a move from, “You’re weak and you just can’t do this!” to “Okay, this isn’t working, what else can I try?” I chose self-compassion and problem-solving. I’m not saying there we no cookie-filled shame spirals, but there were fewer.
My physical therapist’s home program was the fastest way to build strength. The problem was that it wasn’t something I was ever going to do. If I had told her this, we would have come to my ultimate solution much faster and I would have recovered much faster.
Failure to accomplish a goal does not mean you are a failure. It’s simply data to inform your next experiment.
Keep trying until you find what works. Most healthcare providers will be eager for this conversation and to support you along the way until you’re back on top again.
More than anything, be kind to yourself.
The moment you start to feel shame creep in, relabel it as your mind and your body asking you for kindness.
It’s a request for a break from the stress that’s keeping you from living that life of intention you are so capable of achieving.