This past three-day weekend, I got zero work done. I’m sure I’m not alone in this no-productivity boat when I say this, but the temptation to relax and just have some fun was too great. I had unread e-mails sitting in my inbox, projects that were being neglected, papers unwritten, and phone calls unreturned - but I just couldn’t bring myself to care. Bahh, I’ll do it all on Tuesday, I told myself. And before I could dwell on my decision for too long and let the guilt sink in, I scuttled off to social event after social event, double-fisting beers and chowing down on burnt Bratwursts. Oh yeah, and last night? I had animal crackers for dinner. With a side of half of a chocolate bar.
Some of you fitness zealots may be sitting there at your computers with your mouths agape, sheer horror written all over your faces. I might as well have committed murder what with all my blasphemous behavior, no? How irresponsible of me to allow myself to be lazy, imbibe liberally, and consume a meal with no protein. (What about all my gainz, you guyz?!) Yes, I can understand the sentiment; I would have thought the same thing just a few years ago. The control freak in me would have never allowed myself to indulge in any sort of capacity.
You’ll understand why I very intentionally let this happen shortly.
Here we are, back on the topic of willpower. Let me walk you through some of the phenomena that went on inside my head and body as I enjoyed my Memorial Day weekend.
As anyone would expect, on a national holiday, people like to break out their grills, play drinking games, and munch on chips. There was a potluck that I attended on Sunday to which people brought sinful desserts such as Oreo brownies and puppy chow as well as savory finger foods like bacon-wrapped almond-stuffed dates (that would be me, thank you!). The food was absolutely delicious and I wasn’t going to say no to any of it.
The World of Craving
The world of Craving (capital C there, folks) is a tricky one. You’re nonchalantly walking down the street when you stroll past a cupcake vendor, and before you realize what you’re doing, you’ve stopped in your tracks and you’re eyeing the red velvet cupcake begging to be devoured. Last-chance syndrome: when you try to eat anything and everything you want because you promise yourself that you’ll start your diet tomorrow. Should you give in? It’ll taste so good if you pop it in your mouth. But it will last all of 15 seconds before that feeling of pleasure is replaced by guilt for hours afterward. You can feel a battle in your body when you’re facing a real challenge. This battle is between your impulsive self - I want it now! - and your rational, prefrontal cortex-dominated self.
At the sight of tempting food, the brain releases a neurotransmitter called dopamine that controls your attention, motivation, and action. It pushes you to engage in reward-seeking behavior. If your favorite cheesecake is sold at a restaurant 45 minutes away, a high level of dopamine is what drives you to make the trek all the way out there at midnight. It takes having willpower to remind yourself what it is that you really want in the long term for yourself. Unlike, say, being chased down the street by a rabid dog, the threat here is not external but rather internal. You need to protect yourself from... yourself.
Contrary to popular belief, self control is a matter of not just psychology but also physiology. You can train your willpower muscle, and that’s exactly what we’ll start doing, beginning now.
Pause and Plan
The pause and plan response is just that - you stop what you’re doing, stop yourself from performing impulsive actions that you’ll later regret, and think about what your next step will be. When you do this, your body redirects energy to the brain in order to help the prefrontal cortex do its job. Instead of increasing your heart rate, you want to slow it down by inhaling deeply. You want to relax your body, relieve any muscle tension, and grant yourself freedom from your own impulses.
Your heart rate fluctuates slightly up and down all throughout the day, even as you’re sitting at your computer reading these words. This is completely normal and healthy. When you’re feeling stressed, your heart rate will increase while variability decreases. Conversely, when you’re calming yourself down, the opposite happens as you establish control and focus. Those with greater heart rate variability are better at delaying gratification, avoiding temptations, ignoring distractions - in other words, they’re better at doing the harder thing.
Any kind of physical or psychological stress - even sitting in a smoke-filled room - can negatively affect your heart rate variability. This variability is also positively correlated with your capacity for self control when it really counts.
What To Do
There are a number of inexpensive and time-efficient things you can do to train your willpower muscle. Most of you are likely already engaging in one or more of these behaviors - good for you!
- Slow your breathing. Not 24/7, but even just a few minutes of day of focused, slowed breathing can do wonders to emerge victorious in the world of Cravings. Decrease the rate to 4 to 6 breaths per minute, or 10 to 15 seconds per breath. I’ve found that it’s much easier to exhale slower than you inhale. Anytime you feel stressed or anxious, pause and take just 3 minutes to isolate yourself and slow your breathing.
- Exercise. This one should be a no-brainer. It’s the closest thing to a wonder drug out there, really. Whether this means lifting heavy things, going out for a jog, or taking an aerobics class, any kind will do. What’s important is that you find something that you enjoy and will stick with. Just think about it: have you ever felt worse - psychologically, emotionally, etc. - at the end of a workout? (If the answer is yes, then you’re doing something wrong.)
- Get in touch with Mother Nature. I’ve always loved living in the suburbs more than in the city in large part because there’s simply more greenery around. Take a few 10-minute breaks throughout the work day to get outside and go for a quick walk. If you’re still in school, try walking to class. Read outside. Take a nap under a tree.
- Get adequate sleep. Sorry, but 5 hours isn’t enough to get by. Sleep deprivation impairs the body and brain’s ability to effectively utilize glucose, the main form of energy. Its effects are equivalent to being mildly intoxicated (this means do not drive while you’re dead tired). When you’re short on sleep, you’re not only more likely to be cranky, irritable, and short-tempered, but you give into temptations and cravings so much more readily. Don’t let this be you. (Is sleeping your willpower challenge? Aha - even more reason to conquer that bad habit!)
- Lastly, instead of thinking of your challenge as an I will, view it as an I won’t. It’s not that you will workout six days a week, but rather that you won’t neglect your health. It’s not that you will go to bed earlier; you won’t keep your laptop on past midnight. There is power in saying no.
I’d like to caution you all not to become control freaks. [Tweet "Willpower is good, yes, but there comes a point when too much is too much."] Perfect dietary adherence for 3 months straight may seem like a good idea in theory, but will likely backfire after you’ve deprived yourself for so long. If you’ve spent 20 minutes on the stationary bike, 100 minutes is not better. Holding yourself to such stringent standards will likely be too much of a burden on yourself.
Do not try to be perfect. The pressure and the stress will be unbearable. Just as you’ve likely been advised not to get involved in every single argument out there, there are some challenges that are better left unmet. Leave some wiggle room for relaxation; it will pay off in the long run. If this means indulging in some of your favorite foods from time to time, then schedule it in. Give yourself a day or two - or three - off from the gym. Indulge your obsession for trash TV on occasion.
Okay, so you’ve tried to be good, but you’ve mucked up. Do not label yourself as lazy, irresponsible, weak, or unmotivated. It’s not that you just suck; you’re simply in the wrong state of mind and body. Fortunately, as we’ve covered today, it’s entirely possible to get back in control of your decisions and behaviors.
Does it make more sense now why I gave myself the entire long weekend off? Freeing myself of responsibility for a short period of time allowed to hit the ground running once I came back. Note that I did not binge in any point in time. Rather, I gave myself permission to eat a hamburger here, a handful of puppy chow there. It really didn’t take much to leave me satisfied.
I’m now raring to go for another couple of weeks of eating mostly natural, wholesome foods. I’m now feeling more relaxed than I’ve ever been before and my motivation is through the roof. And if you ask me, my willpower muscle is pretty darn strong right now.