The Limits of Willpower and Why You Shouldn’t Depend on it


Willpower is often cited as the defining factor of success. When it comes to weight management, most people seem to think that as long as you have enough willpower, you can avoid “falling off the wagon” and lose weight if you want it badly enough.

This is simply not the case. Here’s what the science says about the willpower theory and why you shouldn’t depend on it to reach your goals.

Types of Willpower

Let’s start with the different categories of willpower to see how complex it can be.

  • Controlling Your Impulses – Ex: Buying popcorn at the movies because the smell of salt and butter is everywhere.
  • Delaying Gratification – Ex: Foregoing the popcorn in the present moment so you can get closer to your long-term goal of weight-loss.
  • Controlling Emotions – Trying to Change Your Mood.
  • Controlling Performance – Managing how you do something, such as changing your speed or accuracy to complete a task more efficiently.

Limitations and Competing Factors

Despite our faith in willpower, research shows that it functions just like a regular muscle. It can get tired, but it can also be strengthened and trained. This idea comes from a variety of studies that measure “ego depletion,” which is essentially your own personal bank account of willpower. Once it’s used up, it has to be replenished.

Many different factors can affect ego depletion:

  • Stress and burnout
  • Lack of sleep
  • Hunger
  • Illness or injury
  • Complex decision-making
  • Low self-esteem and confidence
  • Family and work obligations

Once you factor in all of these competing influences on willpower, it isn’t hard to understand why long-term, successful weight-loss can be so challenging. But it gets even more complex than that. Willpower is a psychological contributor to a person’s weight. There are other contributors too, such as genetics, biology and physiology, and one’s environment.

Using Willpower as a Tool

When your willpower is depleted, it doesn’t mean you’re failing or that there is something wrong with you. Depletion is something that happens naturally with the ebbs and flows of life. Instead, try reframing your mind to think of willpower as a tool to help you reach your health goals. If weight-loss is one of them, here are some ways you can increase the willpower factor and resist ego depletion:

  • Try doing things differently. Learn something new or form a new (positive) habit.
  • Exercise regularly to feel good.
  • Minimize stress with meditation techniques and proper planning.
  • Make decisions when you are fresh and alert, not hungry or tired.
  • Set achievable short-term goals in addition to long-term ones.
  • Plan ahead to make healthy, confident decisions when tempted or distracted.

For more information on this topic, click here for a digital article from the Obesity Action Coalition (OAC), Producer of the Your Weight Matters Campaign.

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