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Beyond Trim

What is Willpower?

Did you make a New Year’s resolution this year? Whether it’s weight loss, smoking, spending money, etc., you may be relying on willpower to help you accomplish your goal.

The concept of “willpower” hasn’t been around for long. In the last couple of decades, research has examined how it works. Defined as the supply of mental energy or “volition” available to apply to a task, one of the most famous researchers to study the phenomenon is psychologist Roy F. Burmeister. He did a series of experiments to determine when willpower is depleted/increased and what situations lead to those changes. He found that stress seems to deplete willpower, while reward (in the form of food), may replenish it. He developed a theory that willpower fluctuates based on the amount of glucose available to the brain.

His work has been supported by others, most notably by a group of researchers who examined the pattern of decisions made by parole board members. After looking at thousands of parole decisions, they determined that the percentage of petitions granted fluctuated up and down during the day. The fluctuation was closely tied to the pattern of breaks and snacks taken by the board members. That’s right...if a petition was presented shortly after breakfast, coffee break, lunch, etc. there was a greater likelihood that the petition would be approved. The researchers theorized that when board members were rested and fed, they took more time to look closely at extenuating factors. When they were hungry and tired, they took the easier, default position of not granting parole.

So, it would seem one of the keys to enhancing “willpower” is eating regular meals! Dr. Doug Lisle, another well-known psychologist, suggests other simple steps to give our willpower a boost. They are:

  • Clear the clutter – A messy home or workplace is distracting and tires the brain, while a well-ordered and less busy environment is more calming and soothing.

  • Eat healthy food – While the brain thrives on glucose, it does better if that energy is delivered slowly over time. Sugary, fatty, junk foods make blood glucose spike and then drop too quickly.

  • Daily exercise – Exercise has been shown to support willpower; perhaps because it helps your body more effectively release stored glucose when needed.

  • Get enough rest – When we sleep, it is not just our body that is restored. Our brain also gets a chance to clean up, re-organize, and rejuvenate. Lack of sleep leaves us feeling more apathetic and less driven.

Clearing the clutter, regularly eating healthy, exercising, and getting enough sleep all sound like good advice for improving your willpower and for your health in general. Happy New Year to you! I hope you WILL achieve all your goals this year!