Why Can’t I Save Money, Lose Weight, Get to the Gym More Often?
Let’s start with a simple question. Have you ever set yourself a goal like the examples below?
- I’m going to lose 5lb this month
- I’m going to save $100 every month
- I’m going to go to the gym 3 times a week
- I’m going to pay off my credit card this year
- I’m going to quit smoking or drinking this month
If you have ever committed yourself to anything like this, the good news is that even the act of setting a goal is considered a big positive step. Psychology researchers like Locke and Latham have shown that setting a clearly defined, difficult goal helps people to perform better.
Once you've set your goal and started working towards it, did you find…
- It was really easy?
- It was tough, but you gritted it out and got there as planned?
- It was going OK but then you slipped up so you quit?
If you are like most people, myself included, your answer was probably #3. But why are changes like this so tough for many of us?
There are many articles and posts out there about how to set the right goal, and the importance of measuring your progress and using that feedback. Today I am more interested in why we struggle to reach whatever goal we set ourselves - one big reason is our willpower.
As you probably already know, willpower is your ability to withstand temptations now, so that you can achieve a future goal. The bad news, according to researchers like Roy Baumeister, is that you only have so much willpower to use each day. And each time you use your self-control to resist temptation or try to focus, you are draining your willpower reserve. Over the course of a day, as your reserves of willpower are consumed, it gets harder and harder to say no and to stick to your goal.
To put this in context, let’s say you’re trying to lose weight. You start each day with the intention of sticking to your diet.
Maybe you’ve had a good night’s sleep and start the day with a healthy breakfast to ensure that your supply of willpower is at its maximum. Then the day begins:
- It’s raining and your commute is terrible so you’re in an awful mood by the time you get to work. However, you need to be calm and professional because you have a meeting with your boss, so your willpower gets depleted.
- Lunch rolls around and you are hungry, but you stick to your diet and choose the salad instead of that big, juicy burger you are craving. More willpower is used up.
- The big project is due tomorrow and you need to be 100% focused on it for the next few hours to get it finished in time, which means yet more willpower is needed.
- The project takes longer than you planned so you get home late to find that you have very little food in the house except for a container of ice cream. By this time your willpower is so depleted you end up eating the whole thing in one sitting and so blow your diet.
Does this sound familiar? What can we do to make sure we have enough willpower when we need it?
The good news is that there are a number of techniques that you can learn to help maintain or even increase your willpower, and they don’t involve just gritting your teeth and trying to withstand the temptation!
Technique #1 - Eating and sleeping
First of all, start your day with a full tank of willpower by getting a good night's sleep and have a healthy breakfast.
Eating nourishing meals and snacks regularly throughout the day can also keep your willpower levels from getting too low. For example, if you know that you will have a busy day or will be working late, then come prepared with healthy food to help maintain your willpower even late in the day.
Technique #2 - Plan
Thinking ahead about what food you’ll need to maintain your willpower throughout the day is not the only planning that will help you. Think about specific examples of when you may be tempted and decide how you will handle it using an “if X then Y” format – for example:
- If you are trying to save money you could say: "If I go shopping, then I will only use cash".
- If you want to reduce your alcohol consumption then you may decide: "If someone offers me a drink, then I will ask for diet coke".
- If you want to stick to your exercise plan you think that: "If all the running machines are in use, then I will use the rowing machine".
Roy Baumeister makes an important point that your plan should be a “bright line, not a fuzzy one”. For example, “I will not drink” or “I will have 1 alcoholic drink and then I will drink water” is a “bright line” because it is very clear. “I will drink in moderation” is fuzzy because it’s not clear what moderation means. Is moderation one drink or two, or maybe even more?
Another key aspect is determining when you start your goal. Try to time big life changes, such as starting a diet, when your life is calmer and you have less going on. This will be easier on your self-control.
Lastly, planning ahead or pre-committing makes it easier to do the “right” thing and stick to your plan. For example, lay out your gym clothes the night before, prepare a nutritious packed lunch ready for the morning, set up an automated deduction from your checking account to your savings account. Basically, make life as easy as possible for yourself.
Technique #3 - Avoidance
Another great planning technique is to determine ahead of time how to avoid the temptations that you find hardest to resist. It could be as simple as not buying chocolate, so you are not tempted to eat it. Or meeting friends for coffee rather than dinner. For me, I love to meet friends for breakfast so that I can indulge a little and know I can exercise and eat a little less later in the day.
Technique #4 - Distraction
Have you heard about the marshmallow study? About 40 years ago researchers gave individual preschool children a marshmallow. The researchers then left the room for a few minutes and told the child that if they hadn’t eaten the marshmallow by the time they returned, then they would get a second marshmallow. Some children ate the marshmallow while the researcher was out of the room, but others waited are were subsequently rewarded. Did some children have more willpower than others? Actually no; the “successful” children just used different ways to distract themselves so they didn’t eat it - covering it up, turning their back on it, singing or talking to themselves.
So distraction can work for you too. As they say, “out of sight is out of mind", so physically moving away from or hiding the temptation can help. Another way to distract yourself is to clearly visualize your goal and what you may lose by surrendering to temptation. Perhaps you won’t skip the gym after imagining yourself crossing the finish line of a 5K or marathon to the cheers of friends and family!
Technique #5 - Leverage procrastination
We often put off things that we should be doing until later, so why not use procrastination to help you fight off temptation? Tell yourself that you can have that cookie later and you may be able to avoid having it at all. So “a vice delayed may turn out to be a vice denied”.
Technique #6 - Train your willpower
According to research, willpower is like a muscle that can be built up with regular exercise. In several studies, researchers have found that practicing self-control in one area increases your overall willpower. So don’t despair if you feel that you currently have zero self-control, because it can be learned over time. Sticking to your savings plan can help you resist that cake!
Technique #7 - Buddy up
If you struggle to keep on track on your own, then pair up with a friend to help you. I know that arranging to meet a friend at the gym means that I will go, even if I’m not in the mood, because I don’t want to let them down. For others, the competition factor makes them try harder.
Technique #8 - Fake it ‘til you make it!
Lastly, if all else fails then just believe that you have unlimited willpower. I know this seems weird, but researchers have found that having a positive mindset about your willpower does increase it. So next time you need willpower tell yourself that resisting temptation energizes you instead of exhausting you and you just might find that it’s true!
We can all use different elements of these techniques, whatever works for you. What I want everyone to understand is that you can apply some real-world science to help you in your battles. Through a better understanding of the way our minds work (all of us!), we can trick ourselves into being better, saving money and not succumbing to temptation so easily!
Do you have any stories or techniques that you have used to combat temptation?