I was reading a good article by Melinda Watman in “Weight matters” magazine, and I was struck by how she wanted us to stop using the word ‘willpower’ and substitute it for what is really happening when we give into the temptation to eat when we aren’t hungry.

Let’s start with this sentence: The study of willpower is fraught with controversy and conflicting research, with the consideration of whether or not willpower works for weight management.  When it comes to willpower, there are likely some common questions floating in most of our minds:

  • Does willpower exist?
  • Do I have it?
  • How do I get it?
  • Why can’t I control it?

Actually, willpower is a much more complicated entity than we realize.  It may mean controlling your impulses (i.e. not buying chips to relax with on the weekend); delaying gratification (i.e. not eating chips in order to achieve bigger goal of weight loss); controlling emotions (i.e.  trying to change your mood) or controlling performance (i.e. managing how you do something —speed, accuracy etc).

Since it’s an ill defined term, she prefers to refer to our issues not as ‘lack of willpower,’ but instead as: ‘ego depletion.’  Studies suggest that ego depletion refers to the fact that we have a bank account of willpower and once it is used up, it has to be replenished.  Not surprisingly, resisting food and/or dieting results in ego depletion. On top of this are many other factors such as: stress, sleep deprivation, hunger, illness, complex decision making and trying to achieve numerous goals at the same time.  Most of us have several ego depleting factors happening simultaneously.

So, why try to differentiate at all?  Well, we must realize that we are bombarded with an unusually high number of concurrent ego-depleting circumstances, such as stress, emotions, sleep deprivation, illness and hunger.  Recognizing in yourself which ego depleting factors are occurring and causing you to make faulty choices means increased awareness.

So: make decisions when you are fresh, alert, not hungry or tired; set short-term, concrete goals; minimize stress as best you can; use pre-determination thinking by planning ahead, for example: “If someone offers me a piece of chocolate, I will say no thanks.”

All of this is simply to re-frame our thinking.  Try not to be harsh on yourself, and really focus on not feeling guilty or weak. Recognize that the circumstance you are in is depleting your ability to focus on trying to change.  Aim to be prepared, mentally and physically.  At the end of the day, if you are tired and just want to put your feet up and nibble, you are ego-depleted from a hard day at work.  Recognize that this will likely occur day after day, so have solutions for this.  Have healthy foods prepared ahead of time.  Go for a meditative walk or spend 5 minutes outside deep breathing to help you focus and regain energy.

This is a long journey that requires change. Awareness of the things that make us more vulnerable will go a long way in changing our habits long-term.

You can do it, just never give up!

Dr. Doug