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  • by Jaclyn Foster

Save Yourself from the Losing War with Willpower

I’ve found that some of the best feelings comes along with the satisfaction of knowing I followed through on a goal. That I stuck something out or prioritized it enough that I made progress towards and even reached my goal. Whether it be creating an exercise routine, maintaining better sleep habits, sticking to healthier eating habits, or pursuing a career or passion project that has been on your mind for years. The accomplishment of it and the completion of steps along the way can feel extremely gratifying.

The challenge is, our drive to continue can hit a speed bump or completely stall out when we encounter a feeling of deprivation, struggle, or a need for willpower along the way.

It can be very common to think that in order to make a change we’ll have to lose something, cut something out, or we’ll have to force ourselves to take action… again and again, and again. And man, just the thought of that takes a lot of energy. It can be exhausting.

So, we don’t. Or we start to, but then we stop.

The Struggle

Have you ever had that experience? You have the desire to accomplish a goal followed by the deflating feelings that come along with the thought of the energy it will require.

Let’s take a moment today to talk about what goes on internally in those moments of deprivation. When we feel like our only option is to force ourselves to make something happen followed by the inevitable fall when we decide: “Yeah, that’s not happening.”

There is a light at the end of this tunnel so stick with me, but let’s first take a moment to understand what’s happening.

The Feel Good Chemical That Keeps Us Looped In:

We all have a chemical in our brain that’s released by pleasurable and rewarding experiences such as food, sex and drugs. That chemical is called dopamine, maybe you’ve heard of it. The more stimulating something is and the better it feels, the more encouragement we receive internally to continue the behavior. Internally, your brain is like, “Dopamine hit? Yes, please. I’ll take another, anytime.”

This is why making big diet changes, or even trying to diet, period, can feel like it’s a battle after battle situation. It becomes a vicious cycle quite easily. We restrict by going on a diet, become deprived, so we crave a dopamine hit. We eat to get back to our heightened state of arousal which leads to weight gain, then we start to panic and start the cycle all over again of trying to restrict.

The richer, more calorie dense the food, the bigger the dopamine hit and the more we want to go back for more. Part of what keeps up on this yo-yo cycle, is that when we diet, we try to force ourselves away from rich and calorie dense foods eating salads or limiting our meals and calories, but that deprivation and binge cycle only keep us stuck for longer. We get a dopamine hit when we binge, and then we force ourselves to go without, which just keep us on a bigger rollercoaster for longer.

And these dopamine hits aren't the only thing driving our actions and responses.

Our Primal Human Drives That Influence Our Choices:

In addition to dopamine, as the human animals we are, we have three primary forces that run in the background in consideration of the actions we take. These driving forces, coined as the motivational triad, influence our choices under the surface of our conscious mind.

The three driving forces are to: seek pleasure, avoid pain, and use the least amount of energy possible.

Makes a lot of sense, right? As animals, on a base level, this is quite a valid aim. When we seek pleasure (yay dopamine hits!), avoid pain (I’m alive and going to survive), and conserve energy (saving my energy, so I’m prepared for a threat.) The primal part of us is does what it needs to do to survive and if those things happen, that primal need is satisfied.

So, are we just supposed to be slaves to dopamine and our primal drives to survive? Or does this mean I we have to push harder against these forces to try to make any significant changes?

Finding a Way to Work with Our Primal Needs:

I am happy to say that the answer to both of the above questions is no. There are ways to work with this knowledge of our human impulses and take new actions. In fact, when we realize we want to do more than survive, when we want to reach new goals and pursue projects that matter to us, it’s can be a very helpful, and I want to say imperative, to respond differently to these human drives and impulses.

Rather than reacting to them, we can be prepared for them. We all have two very powerful resources that support us in changing these vicious cycles (that are always available us!), and they are: CURIOSITY and PLANNING.

Curiosity Saved the Human:

Let’s start with curiosity because from my experience, if your curiosity muscle is in use, so much is possible. One simple and powerful way to use your curiosity in this conversation is knowing that if you have a desire to seek pleasure, avoid pain (aka seek safety), and use as little effort as possible (seek ease) you can factor this into how you approach your goal.

You can’t get around our needs for these, but you can save yourself much frustration by factoring them into your decision making and choices.

In knowing you have needs for pleasure, safety (physical and emotional), and ease – you can explore and make sure that these needs are getting satisfied. It’s important to point out that you know you best. You know what resonates with you, what soothes and motivates you. This can take some practice, but by brainstorming ways that you can meet and affirm these needs (whether they feel directly related to your goal or not) can make a world of difference.

Planning to Get There Faster:

Now, let’s talk planning for a moment. Remember, you have a primal drive to energy conserve, so your need for ease is a very real thing. You are not lazy, or bad, or incapable – you have a need for ease. This is very important because changing requires new actions and ways of thinking which often consumes more energy by its very nature.

So how do we work with this seemingly contradicting situation – I want to accomplish by goal, but I want to save energy. Well, for one, we can plan. We can think through the actions we want to take to set ourselves up for success, so when we are in critical moments (where we may have failed in the past) we are equipped with a strategy that allows for a new choice.

Exploring Strategies:

Now that we have a better understanding of how we humans are motivated, we can set ourselves up for successful goal planning with strategies that resonate with our primal motivations. One thing I’m working through for myself is that I enjoy healthy meals and having some variety, but I go off and on with planning my meals ahead and shopping accordingly. So sometimes I am not prepared at all when the “What’s for dinner?” question rolls around.

Who likes to decide what’s for dinner when they are feeling hungry? I don’t.

Lately, I’ve been letting this slide and not planning much at all the last few weeks (okay, maybe months) and I’ve been feeling that evening frustration and struggle to figure out something quick and healthy to put on the table. Sometimes that means take-out, sometimes it means scrambling together a mix of leftovers.

Sometimes the meal works out and I feel satisfied, but often I’m reminded of how good it feels to be prepared. As I write about it with you, I’m getting inspired to do my own meal planning and preparing my week’s shop better for the coming week.

A planning activity that feels really good for me is to do a bit of recipe research finding 2 or 3 new recipes for dinner that I can make enough for left over the next day. I do this especially when I find myself in a food rut when all my usual go-to’s seem unappetizing. More than 3 and I'm overwhelmed, but for me, that feels just about right for needing to shop ingredients and organize prep time.

I’ll think through the week ahead and also ask myself, “What are some breakfast options you want this week? And lunch? And Dinner?” I’ll make sure I list out the ingredients needed so I remember to pick them up.

This is just one example of how being prepared can make a difference. Here are several other strategies in areas that we consistently look to set healthy goals for ourselves.

For food changes:

  • If there are certain foods, you are wanting to reduce or give up, eliminate them from the house

  • Cook in bulk and put left overs in Tupperware for the next day

  • Don’t go hungry (stock up and have healthy snacks on hand)

For exercise:

  • Clear your schedule and make an appointment on your calendar for your workout times

  • Find an accountability buddy that will meet you for your workouts or will check-in to see how they went

For sleep:

  • Set an alarm to go off each night an hour before bed to start winding down

  • Pre-pick bed time activities with the intention of entering a restful state and keep a journal to track how much sleep you get and how rested you feel so you know what's working for you

Would like some additional support? I feel you, changing takes trial and error. It’s a practice and more often than not it can greatly benefit to reach out for support of a coach, friend or mentor.

If you are a Whole Health Plan Member, the Medical & Wellness Centers located in Austin, Texas and Glendale, California are available for support. Give us a call.

If you are Whole Health Plan member and have not established care with the Center for your primary care services, call us to make an appointment or learn more about the benefits available to you as a patient of the Center.

You can explore our website to learn more about us as well.

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