Willpower Wonders III: Flex That Muscle

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Willpower Wonders III: Flex That Muscle

August 23, 2012

There’s something I’ve struggled with over the past two months out here in the Boston area, and I’m only just now beginning to figure out an effective solution. Here’s the thing: I work at work, then I come home and I try to work. So I work before I work, but then my later work doesn’t really happen. What I ended up doing recently is moving my later work to my before work so that work actually gets done, and then I can go into work and work all day and be fine.

Are you following me? No? Okay, let me try again.

My full-time internship as a strength coach at Cressey Performance sucks the energy out of me. Depending on whether or not I’m training myself that day, I’m constantly on my feet on the training room floor between 7 to 9 hours a day. Add to that the mental exhaustion of making an effort to be friendly to everyone while simultaneously keeping an eye on all the clients that come through to make sure they’re not butchering their form – and I’m pooped. Most nights, I’ve come home and all I’ve want to do is hide in my room for the rest of the evening. As a natural introvert, being constantly surrounded by people all day as part of my job is really a challenge, and it takes a serious toll on me. But I have to keep in mind that I’m not only a strength coach – I’ve also got my Sohee Fit responsibilities. That includes writing, answering emails, taking care of online clients, and staying on top of social media (my Twitter handle is strong). Every night that I’ve pushed back an article deadline for myself, however, I’ve been racked with guilt. I’ve felt that I haven’t been living up to my expectations and that I’ve simply been lazy. I’ve that I’ve been losing steam in the motivation department and my want has been slowly fading away.

Here’s what I’ve been doing wrong: I’ve been using up all my willpower as a coach that my stores have been depleted by the time I’ve come home every night.

How I’ve been feeling every night – when I’m supposed to be working.

Willpower levels have been shown to peak first thing in the morning and steadily wane throughout the day. What’s more, it appears that every act of self-control draws from the same reserve. So if you have to sit through two hours of traffic in the morning without losing your cool and then tolerate incessant nagging from your co-worker in the neighboring cubicle, both of those acts will chip away at your total control tank. What does this mean? It means that, in a twisted way, utilizing self-control can, if not managed properly, eventually lead to loss of control.

We’re not necessarily doomed for ice cream binges and all-out tantrums, however. First, a little bit of background.

Blood sugar levels are correlated with willpower failures. While willpower cannot be quantified, a number of controlled experiments have shown that not only does the brain rely on glucose for energy (and consequently decisions requiring self-control), but even the slightest drop in available circulating glucose will cause the brain to hoard the sugar it does have and cut out anything it deems superfluous. And according to the brain, self-control is the first to go.

This is deemed the energy budget model and makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. Before all of this existed – technology, a surplus of food, desk jobs – a drop in blood sugar levels had more significance. It didn’t mean that it was time to reach for another brownie, but rather a sign that food was actually not available. Food supplies were unpredictable way back when, so it makes sense that your brain would have wanted to warn you of limited sources. To have a brain that could bias you toward immediate gratification and impulses meant that you were more likely to survive (think about it – jumping at the first hint of sustenance, or slowly amble over to stare down at the remains of animal bones already scraped clean?).

Hold your horses there. I’m not giving you an excuse to chomp down on that danish. Put it down. (Seriously, put it down.) While it’s true that a drop in blood sugar is bad news bears as far as willpower is considered, the amount of sugar that the brain actually needs to function optimally clocks in at less than half a Tic Tac per minute. A little disheartening, wouldn’t you say? If you inhale that chocolate chip cookie, you’ll experience a sugar crash shortly afterward. Sky high blood sugar, low energy. The moral of the story? Stick to foods that will give you lasting energy. You know what it is.

I challenge you to work your self-control muscle – and not just your gluteus maximus with them hip thrusts – by trying out the following task: control one small thing that you typically don’t control. The important part here is that it’s small; nothing that’s daunting and will make you feel overwhelmed. Clean two dishes before you shuffle off to work in the mornings. Pack all your meals the night before. Use your non-dominant hand for daily activities. Hang up your jacket instead of throwing it on the floor when you get home in the evenings. [Tweet “Committing to small yet consistent acts of self-control can increase overall willpower”] Mini doses rather than a huge spike followed by a crash and burn, in other words. Baby steps, my friend.

The mere fact that you are forcing yourself to notice what you are about to do and opting for the more difficult thing is critical here. The brain pauses before acting, and the more you practice this, the more likely it is that that behavior will soon become ingrained as a habit. The beauty lies in the apparent trivial nature of each act. They may be small, but over time they can add up and create something great.

The thought that self-control has a limit may be more of a reflection of people’s beliefs about willpower rather than their true physical and mental boundaries. If you think in your head that steering clear of junk food and instead filling your body with natural, wholesome foods is going to much easier to do three months from now as long as you stay consistent, you’re far less likely to throw in the towel in your quest to get healthy. If you imagine a day in the future when you will look forward to training and not be intimidated by the gym, you have a better chance of showing up everyday. These thoughts will make you tougher and give you the motivation to tough it out through the temporary misery. This idea is just speculation at this point but is an intriguing theory that is currently being further investigated. Never underestimate the power of the mind.

Back to my issue with trying to do work in the evenings. As I type this, it is 9:06a.m. on a Thursday morning. I’ve been up since 7a.m. working like a madman, and I feel great. I’m not cranky when I reply to e-mails and I actually feel excited to write this piece. This is a far cry from my evening woes. Add to that the fact that I know that I will have less to do by the time I come back from Cressey Performance tonight – I’m as happy as a pig rolling in turd.

If you can’t muster up the energy to do what’s important to you when you try to do it, schedule it for when you are feeling your best. This may mean getting to bed earlier so you have time in the mornings to devote to your up-and-coming business, and it may mean getting in your training earlier in the day so you’re not dragging through it (or worse, skipping out on it altogether). Whatever it is you have to do, don’t just make it a priority in your head; take action and give it a VIP spot in your daily schedule.

We walk a fine tightrope. We must constantly straddle the line between using too much willpower versus letting it deteriorate on its own accord out of neglect. So again, small, consistent challenges testing your self-control to strengthen the willpower muscle, and scheduling important duties for when you’re most likely to get it done. I promise doing just these two things will go a long way to make you more productive, happier, and more fulfilled.

7 Comments
  1. Ash 7 years ago

    Great article Sohee! And well done for making the change of approach work. Like you, I’m trying to balance two work responsibilities. Unlike you, I’m not doing so well so far!

    • Sohee Lee 7 years ago

      Ash, it will take practice and if you keep at it, you’ll find what works best for you. I’m totally not a night person anymore. Ha!

  2. Nea 7 years ago

    Love this! I also do my “online work” in the morning, so I can focus on my fulltime job for the rest of the day.

  3. Lorrie 6 years ago

    Your potsing really straightened me out. Thanks!

  4. Whitney 6 years ago

    Sohee,
    Thank you for this piece. I loved it. I read it as I sit surrounded by two half-unpacked suitcases, having pressed the snooze button a solid four times, and a solid run waiting for me to get out the door. I have noticed over the past month, with an added workload and then a cross country move to start a new job, my willpower to do some simple things (let alone train and count my macros) falling by the wayside…I didn’t realize the affect it had until I started reading and took a look about my own room! Thanks for the eye-opener–and swift kick 😉

    Looking forward to that run…just maybe putting away at least ONE suitcase. Baby steps.

    • Sohee 6 years ago

      Oh yeah, it can quickly get overwhelming, and before you realize it, you’re about to have a panic attack and you can’t remember the last time you felt relaxed.

      Thanks for posting, Whitney 🙂

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