Despite the long standing scientific belief that may be feeding our excuse generators
I recall, years ago, reading an article about the theory that we all have a “bank” of willpower that we draw from to get us through tempting situations each day, and for that reason must forgive ourselves when our bank account runs empty. What a great reinforcement for not trying harder to tap into the deeper well of will that is in us all. The bank theory is no longer the accepted one, leaving us with the challenge of explaining how we tap into our will in a way that can be understood and utilized as a tool. Not an easy thing to do when it comes to the complicated mechanics of the mind. My favourite description of it comes from a professor at the University of Toronto, and premier source for all things about the science of ego depletion (aka lack of self control), Michael Inzlicht. He describes self control as being more like an emotion. This, to me, is a relatable description because we can all understand what it feels like to sometimes wear out our ability to keep other emotions in check, like sadness, anger or maybe even happiness if we’re lucky. From his lab studies Professor Inzlicht hypothesis that “self-control is thought to wane over time not because people are unable to control themselves, but because they are unwilling to control themselves.” I liken this to pretending to be in a good mood when we’re really not, and eventually just becoming sick of the act and snapping at someone, he states that “Self-control performance is thus a product of motivation, not capacity.”
This subject particularly interests me because it is often the primary challenge for people wanting to improve their nutrition but lacking the motivation – or willpower – to maintaining dietary changes. They are eager at first but after a period of time being denied some of their favourite foods, they simply become sick of eating in a way that doesn’t satisfy them so they lose motivation and often give up entirely. Many simply dismiss this as being out of their control and they just simply couldn’t keep it up any more. The reality is they were just not willing to dig deeper to stick it out.
I feel like it’s helpful for people to know and understand this because these things often feel so out of our control when really that isn’t the case. It’s completely within our control and requires us to stay focused, be patient and work a little harder to not lose momentum. If we believe that we’ve depleted our willpower resources then we don’t even try to withdraw from the bank anymore. But if we know it’s always there and we just have to work a little harder to make a withdrawal, maybe that will be enough to keep us going.
While past research always focused on how we manage our self control as if it were a resource, now the focus is on how we manage it as a skill. Studies often discover that those who are best at exercising it have strategies. So when some of us look at a cupcake and imagine how delicious it tastes, then just can’t resist experiencing it, those who can resist it do so by imagining the negative consequences on their waistline, or imagining that it tastes like dirt, or some little mind trick that gets them through the moment unscathed. So it requires a little planning ahead. We need to know about ourselves that we are tempted by cupcakes, plan our strategy for how to react when we might see them, and learn to employ that strategy when we do. It’s just a new skill to learn and we’re all capable learning when we try.
It’s also worth pointing out that, when it comes to things like weight loss and obesity, there are also other factors at play such as genetics and environment, so when we do work hard to learn those new skills and they don’t seem to work, it’s time to employ the skills of a professional to help us develop that strategy.