Willpower and Desire as They Relate to Fitness

Numerous times recently both on Fitocracy and in questions from readers of the blog, I have gotten questions on dieting. This is not a huge deal, and while I think it has been covered more thoroughly by more learned folk than I (see Lyle’s site, Alan Aragon’s site, and Martin’s site), I will likely end up writing a ‘Dieting 101’ post in the near future. However, one thing I’ve noticed pretty much universally in responding to these: People don’t actually want to know the truth.

Now, this isn’t really a shock to me. Humanity’s talent for self deception is unrivaled and almost limitless. But it is kind of a wakeup call to me that people would so earnestly desire something and yet deceive themselves about what it takes to get it. So, before I get into this, here’s an announcement: I’m not going to sugarcoat this because that isn’t doing you any favors. That’s right, telling you what you want to hear isn’t helping you; it’s actively hurting you.

The truth is, making any kind of a lasting change in your body is hard. And the farther you stray from where your body naturally wants to be, the harder it tends to get. Your body is fighting you, kicking and screaming to be a fat, lazy puddle of slop, and if you want it to be something else, you are going to have to decide that you are in control of your body, and are going to have to live through some level of pain.

OK, so now that I’ve set the tone, and you understand that there are going to be some hard times, let me tell you why the magic word Willpower does not (and in my opinion, should not) be the deciding factor in your fitness, even when it gets hard.

As mentioned in this post, Matt Perryman has an excellent article on the subject that provides some insight. In it, he spends a lot of time discussing the research of Roy Baumeister of FSU, but this one line sums up this insight succinctly:

“Baumeister compares willpower to a flexed muscle. You can only hold it so long before you run out of energy, and once you’ve worn it out, that muscle won’t be good for much else until it recharges.”

So willpower is a finite resource, however, as at least two studies (Baumeister 2003; Tice et al. 2007) have shown, it is one that regenerates after appropriate rest. Additionally, other studies have shown that while finite, willpower is not fixed (Baumeister et al. 2006; Muraven et al. 1999; Oaten & Cheng 2007). Willpower can be trained, learned, and improved upon – just like any other skill.

So, let’s put a little critical thought towards what these insights can tell us about dieting and exercise. First, if willpower is finite, and is spread amongst everything we do in a given day (Gailliot et al. 2007), then it behooves us to prioritize our use of it. Just like any other finite resource, you don’t want to waste it.

Second, every time you choose to use it, make sure you succeed. In other words, don’t make the decision to ‘try’ something, make the decision to do it. Like anything else, the more you succeed at a skill, the more confidence you have in it, and the more likely you are to succeed at something of similar difficulty in the future. Also, the sense of accomplishment you get from succeeding at the ‘hard thing’ you did creates a positive feedback loop which pushes you to do more ‘hard things’. Success breeds success. Combine this with the insight that willpower improves with use, and you end up with a powerful cyclical process that steadily improves your willpower.

However, so far, it probably still seems as if willpower is the major component of success here, so let me explain how you can change that. First, let me tell you about a very old study, first performed in 1972 by Walter Mischel at Stanford called “the marshmallow experiment“.

In this expiriment, small children (3-5 years old) were brought into the room and left alone with a single treat of their choice (a marshmallow, for instance). They were told that at any time, they could ring the bell and the adult would let them eat the treat. However, if they could wait for 15 minutes, they would not only get to eat the first treat, but would also be given another.

In this experiment, most children chose to wait. However, most were unable to successfully do so after choosing to. Eventually, their willpower gave out, and they ate the marshmallow. The ones that succeeded in holding out largely did so by distracting themselves (Mischel et al. 1972).

This is important, and probably tracks well with your own experiences. Ever been really hungry and then had a major event occur and had to rush off? Before you know it, you’ve forgotten all about eating. Of perhaps a better case, imagine that you are dying to have some treat that you shouldn’t have, just obsessing over it, and right before you are about to give in, someone rushes in to say the house is on fire. The idea that you would still be thinking about the treat is preposterous.

So, distraction is a tool you can use to avoid the use of willpower, but the trick is that the distraction must be engaging and consume the entirety of your attention. So sometimes, that just isn’t really going to be an option. But that’s OK, because in my opinion, an even better tool to avoid the use of willpower is a simpler one: Don’t give yourself a choice.

For example, how many times have you sat down and come up with a diet plan that you just knew would get you to your short term goal, but then when the time came to implement it, you just caved?

You know why that happened? You gave yourself a choice. Don’t do that.

Let me give you an example of how I apply this to my own dieting. Whenever I adjust my diet, I figure out what macros I need to hit, then I figure out what foods I can eat each day of the week to meet that goal. These foods are foods I like, but not necessarily foods I love. Foods I can enjoy eating, with enough variety to keep me from getting completely sick of them. Usually, I’ll come up with several meal choices for lunch each day (to keep it fresh), all with the same macros (see here for an example of my diet), and then pick one set of meals to eat that week.

I then go buy all of the food, cook it all, and place it in containers for the week. My choices for the week have just been made and set in stone. I now know what I’m going to eat all week, and I look at each meal as a separate event. When I get hungry, I look forward to the next meal. I don’t even consider snacking; that’s not what I chose to do. That’s my body trying to trick me into letting it have control, and the less often I let that happen, the better I get at telling it no.

Furthermore, I find this completely eliminates one of my major stumbling blocks, and that is choosing what I’m going to eat. You see, when I ate out for lunch, I was always presented with choice. On a daily basis, I had a choice of what food I was going to eat, at precisely the time when I should not be making a food choice. Since I was always hungry, I was emotionally involved in this choice. I love to eat, so I would get worried that if I ordered the wrong thing, I wouldn’t have enough to feel satiated, and this caused me to make some bad choices or estimate poorly.

So, by choosing what I am going to eat ahead of time, cooking it, and bringing it with me, I completely remove both the choice and emotional conection from my eating.

However, you may be thinking, “What about me? I have to buy food for everyone and there’s always stuff like ice cream and pop tarts and bacon that I have to resist.” No you don’t. You only have to use your willpower, your finite resource, if you choose to.

YOU’RE NOT THE BOSS OF ME: Free work treats, all you can eat, all day, every day…and successfully ignored for over a year.

The power here is in realizing that hunger is not hard to resist, and is nothing to be afraid of. Hunger is very, very fleeting. Hunger doesn’t really require willpower to resist. Just distract yourself for 15 minutes and it will be gone.

What’s harder, what takes willpower, is resisting the urge to obsess over the ‘bad thing’ that you can’t have. So cut it off at the pass: don’t do it. Instead, obsess over where you want to be. Yes, daydream. Without sounding too much like a new-age self-help book peddler, you really should spend some time visualizing where you want to be, as far as your goals are concerned. Feel it. Imagine how much better you will feel, the things you will be able to do, the feeling you will get from looking in the mirror and actually liking the person you see there.

Then (and this is very important), visualize all of the things you are going to do to get to the goal. Visualize the exercise you will do tomorrow, and how that is going to help push you forward. Visualize your weight loss over the week from sticking to your diet, and get some perspective. Understand that today is one day, and now is one moment, and all you have to do is succeed until tomorrow. Tomorrow, you can worry about succeeding one more day. And every day gets you closer to where you want to be.

Despite what your kindergarten teacher may have told you, daydreaming is not necessarily a bad thing. When you do it right, when you focus on your goals and get emotionally connected to them, you renew your desire to reach the goal. But do not forget about the process you have to take and the work you have to do to get there. Success isn’t pre-ordained; it is a result of your ability to do what you need to do. So don’t minimize that. Learn to enjoy the fact that you are succeeding, and in a strange way, you will start to enjoy the pain. And in doing so, you will learn the joy of doing a thing because it’s hard.

“Everyone must choose one of two pains: The pain of discipline or the pain of regret.” – Jim Rohn

Recommended Reading

Brain States & Willpower
The Willpower Circuit
The Science of Willpower
Stanford marshmallow experiment
Visualization: You’re Doing It Wrong


Baumeister, R.F. 2003. Ego depletion and self-regulation failure: A resource model of self-control. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 27 (2), 281-84.

Baumeister, R.F., et al. 2006. Self-regulation and personality: How interventions increase regulatory success, and how depletion moderates the effects of traits on behavior. Journal of Personality, 74 (6), 1773-1802.

Gailliot, M.T., et al. 2007. Self-control relies on glucose as a limited energy source: Willpower is more than a metaphor. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92 (2), 325-36.

Mischel, W., Ebbesen, E.B., Zeiss, A.R. 1972. Cognitive and attentional mechanisms in delay of gratification. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 21 (2), 204-218.

Muraven, M., Baumeister, R.F., Tice, D.M. 1999. Longitudinal improvement of self-regulation through practice: Building self-control strength through repeated exercise. Journal of Social Psychology, 139 (4), 446-57.

Oaten, M., & Cheng, K. 2007. Improvements in self-control from financial monitoring. Journal of Economic Psychology, 28, 487-501.

Tice, D.M., et al. 2007. Restoring the self: Positive affect helps improve self-regulation following ego depletion. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 43, 379-84.

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