How to Build Willpower and Self-Discipline (and why motivation might be hurting more than helping)

By now, we're likely all familiar with the "depletion hypothesis" of self-control, which shows us that the more effort we exert in controlling our behaviors (suppressing thoughts, paying attention for long periods, consciously overriding subconscious behaviors), the more "depleted" our willpower becomes.

A typical day in the life of a dieter...

Let's say that you start your day by coercing yourself to wake up at 5am so you can get to the gym before work. The bed is warm and cozy and you don't want to get up, but you've got goals, so you get up anyway. You just depleted your willpower resource.

Next up is breakfast. You opt for 3 egg whites and kale--which you don't care for--but you heard that it's good for you, and you're committed to eating healthy like it's your job now, so you do what you feel like you gotta do. There goes some more willpower.

Once you get to the gym, you realize that it's leg day...and you hate leg day. Every time you do this workout, you're sore for the next 3 days. But you do it anyway. More willpower, gone.

You've only been up for 3 hours, but you've already been working your ass off. You're proud of yourself...but you're also starting to feel like you deserve a little treat for all of your hard work so far. You tell yourself "no," and opt for a protein shake with a greens supplement instead of what you really wanted--a large #3 from the drive-thru you used to frequent. Probably a good choice, but there goes even more willpower. 

At this rate, you're starting to feel like you're not going to make it through the day without slipping up somehow. The cravings are becoming more distracting and harder to suppress by the hour.

And even if you make it through the day--it's still just Wednesday! How are you going to survive the next two days, and THEN the weekend?! 

At some point, enough is enough and you embrace the "fuck it" mentality as your willpower fails to stop you from making a decision that you know isn't good for you and you're definitely going to regret, but you feel powerless to stop in the moment.

We've probably all been there. I know I have. "Just this one last indulgence, then I'm back on track for good!" we tell ourselves.

We all know how that ends up.

This scenario highlights the way that most of us go about our business. We're really good...until we aren't. Then we repeat the cycle--making progress, undoing it, making more progress, undoing more of it, and so on. Vicious!

The willpower-depleting scenario you just read is an example of external motivation. Every task seems like work, like a job to be done.

And while it feels good to complete those tasks, the research is clear: when we're relying on external motivation, our ability to exhibit self-control diminishes with every task that we complete.  

It seems like a "damned if I do, damned if I don't" type of situation. The remedy, if there is one, is not obvious. 

What can we do about it?

Let's re-visit what we talked about last week with the Self Determination Theory of motivation. SDT posits that intrinsic/internal motivation (associated with autonomy, competence, and social support from relevant sources) is more compelling and proven to have a stronger long-term effect than extrinsic/external motivation (motivation that's imposed upon us and associated with receiving external rewards for our effort).

Some of the negative consequences of relying too heavily on external motivation can be mitigated through social support, but once that's gone...you're back to that "up sh*t creek with a tragic lack of paddles" situation. Not building in self-reliance (and creating dependence on outside factors) is a costly mistake, in my opinion.

So if external motivation (and having our behavior goals--meal prepping, working out, getting to bed at a decent hour, etc. framed as "work") actually depletes our willpower, does that mean that internal motivation enhances our willpower? 

To put it simply, yes. It just depends on how we're framing what we're doing. The research is pretty clear here, too--we can re-frame our behaviors to look less like "work" and more like fun, rewarding challenges that invigorate us rather than deplete us.

But here's where the water gets even muddier: there's a relationship between how close we are to completing a task, and how much it can deplete us.

For example, someone who is externally motivated to lose weight (say, 30 pounds) to become more attractive to potential partners won't necessarily have their willpower depleted if they never finish their workouts, meal prep, etc. So they'll still have plenty of motivation, but without the follow-through to actually get the shit done that they need to get done, it isn't very useful.

Let's say they do follow through and they reach their goal weight. They're done, they've made it.  Any ideas what happens next? You got it...a spectacular depletion of all self-control because now that they've "made it," there's nothing left to do. That's an all-too-common scenario.

This scenario shows the danger in following conventional fitness wisdom, which basically says:

Decide how much weight you want to lose, by when, why it matters to you (without bothering to make the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation), and know that when the going gets tough, the only thing you can do is rely on your willpower and motivation to help you navigate the choices your biology wants to make for you unconsciously. 

No freaking wonder we have such a hard time sticking to diets and maintaining our weight loss results once we've got them. Not only are we trying to fight our own biology--we actively work against our own psychology, too!

So what's the solution? What's the secret that we're all missing that, once we figure it out, will be the key to solving all of our problems? If only complex issues had such simple resolutions...

Here's a start, though: forget what you think you know about health and fitness. As soon as we start thinking that we know shit, we stop discovering things. Instead of getting practical use out of new information, we run it through a filter that either confirms or denies what we already know (or think we know) about fitness. Anything that agrees with us gets to stay, and anything that disagrees is discarded.

This is confirmation bias at work, and it exists within all of us. The problem with it is that it stagnates us. Reconciling new and conflicting information with our established database of truths is hard and often uncomfortable work. From an evolutionary standpoint, it's much cheaper/easier to just do away with conflicting information.

It's also worth nothing that being too rigid in our thinking closes us off to "discovery mode," where this stuff is actually fun and exciting...where it's intrinsically motivating and sustainable. Rather than learning and improving, we shift our concern to merely feeling like we're right, because we won't allow anyone to tell us otherwise. Not very helpful.

If you're just skimming through, here are the cliff notes so far:

  • We can be motivated intrinsically and extrinsically.

  • Intrinsic motivation is associated with enjoyment, sustainability, and revitalizing our self-control mechanism.

  • Extrinsic motivation is associated with work, lack of fulfillment, and depleting our self-control mechanism.

  • This shouldn't be taken to mean that intrinsic motivation is always superior and extrinsic motivation is always inferior. Some combination of both may be the best approach, but it depends on the person. It doesn't have to be an "either-or" situation.

  • The closer we are to completing a task, the more it either revitalizes (if we're intrinsically motivated) or depletes (if we're extrinsically motivated) our self-control mechanism. In laymen's terms: someone who is externally motivated to lose 30lbs is going to lose that motivation fast once the weight is off.

  • If we can let go of what we think we already know about fitness and nutrition, the more open we are to discovery and excitement which can help us build intrinsic motivation, which in turn leads to sustainable behavior change (rather than losing 30lbs, stopping, re-gaining it, and repeating the cycle).

  • If we can re-frame healthy behaviors as something fun and rewarding that we're doing for ourselves (not for anyone else--even for our families) rather than to ourselves, we stand a much better chance of sticking with it for the long haul because these behaviors will invigorate us and make us feel better, rather than deplete us and make us feel like we need another vacation.

Where should you start with this? It's ultimately up to you, but I'd recommend starting with the smallest possible step and building from there. Don't start with something that you can only accomplish on the best of days when all of the stars are aligned and everything is going your way. You already know that days like that are few-and-far-between.

Instead, aim at something that you'd be able to do every day, even on the worst of days. Then find a way to make it fun. Remember how excited you got as a kid at the prospect of being able to go out and just play? Do that again. Find that enthusiasm. It isn't selfish if it helps you become the best you can be, because other people are going to benefit more from you at your best than from you unfulfilled.

One of the ways that I've done this is with meal prep. I used to dread the process of "wasting" hours on my one day off just to cook food that was going to be gone in a few days, anyway. Then I started thinking about how I could make it a little more exciting. And while it still isn't quite on par with feeling my stomach drop out of my ass on a rollercoaster, it's enjoyable enough for me to keep coming back to it without the negative connotations. 

I started with the process of game-ifying the chopping of vegetables. Every week, I look at it as a way to improve my knife-chopping skills and see if I can get it done more efficiently than the week before (I do). I chop the veggies up and store them in gallon ziplock bags as I'm chopping. Seeing the bags fill up, knowing that I'm doing something now that I'll thank myself for later, is (a little) exciting and helps me feel accomplished. It feels like I'm accumulating "points/experience" to help me "level up" and become a stronger version of myself through the accumulated experience. As someone who grew up thoroughly enjoying video games, this strategy works well for me. 

Now it's your turn. How can you start re-framing the behaviors that you know you need to be engaged with in order to be successful on your fitness journey? What can you do to make your obstacles less like obligations, and more like rewarding challenges that you actually enjoy to some degree? I'd love to hear your ideas, or even help you come up with some together! 

References

1. Werle, Carolina O. C., et al. “Is it fun or exercise? The framing of physical activity biases subsequent snacking.” SpringerLink, Springer US, 15 May 2014, link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11002-014-9301-6.

2. Laran, Juliano, and Chris Janiszewski. “Work or fun? How task construal and completion influence regulatory behavior.” Journal of Consumer Research, University of Chicago, 21 Aug. 2015, miami.pure.elsevier.com/en/publications/work-or-fun-how-task-construal-and-completion-influence-regulator.