We all lead busy lives. Some of us are more fortunate than others to have the freedom necessary to make a delicious healthy meal or work out. Others have children to tend to and put out fires all day long. Whether by their own choice or not! Any and all lifestyle factors contribute to the successes we have in our own lives with nutrition. Learning how to increase willpower through psychology is the key to making healthier decisions.
We all want to be healthy, that’s no secret. And we also have a good sense of what we have to do to accomplish a health goal. So why don’t we do it?
Psychology is a fascinating subject to which many of its principles can apply to healthier living. While we should always believe that we have control, it is imperative to build in backup plans for when we don’t.
There are many different strategies to becoming healthier, but we can learn a lot from taking the willpower out of the picture. Below are 5 ways to use the power of psychology to increase willpower in the pursuit of your health goals.
1. Avoid Narrow Mind Frames
In fitness and nutrition, when you think of things as either or, neither nor or whether or not, you drastically limit the options. You may make unnecessary sacrifices because you have only considered what is currently being offered.
Nutrition is no different as healthy food is associated with this sacrificial mindset. Unfortunately, this is where most people fall off. They don’t enjoy these things. And according to what they follow, there is no built-in flexibility that thinks beyond this either-or frame of mind.
“Any time in life you’re tempted to think, ‘Should I do this OR that?’ instead, ask yourself, ‘Is there a way I can do this AND that?’ It’s surprisingly frequent that it’s feasible to do both things.” – Steve Cole
Yes, there needs to be some sacrifice, but viewing indulgences as “cheat meals” will only make you feel worse about it. Nutrition should be about minimizing impact while maximizing happiness. Why can’t you have both? Constantly denying yourself is a sure way to negatively associate health with sacrifice.
Don’t sacrifice what you love. Just eat less of it. No, shit right? Which might mean indulging a little each night or on occasion. The more you change your association with the foods you eat, the more likely you will feel more accepting of the foods you eat.
A good process will always trump whether or not it’s the right choice. A great process should always look beyond a this-or-that mindset and think more about how to consider more than what is offered.
2. Avoid Overconfidence
Do you honestly believe that after a long day at work or after dinner that you can refrain from that delicious bag of cookies on your counter? What about if you go out for dinner with a group of friends? You will only eat one of the two pieces of za’ you bought, right? This is the reason buffets are bad news for this guy.
It’s also easy to convince yourself that you’ll do something during a high emotional event as well.
Think about a huge Thanksgiving dinner. You ate the shit out of everything and afterward, you sit on the couch with a bloated stomach, you say, “on Monday I start my normal routine!” Reactive decisions get us nowhere.
Decades of research have discovered that willpower is not necessarily something we have or don’t have, but rather it is a resource that can be used up and restored. Think of this as a muscle. If it’s tired, it’s going to take the path of least resistance. As you go about our day, any busyness removes you from making health a number-one priority.
Thinking about preparing a meal or exercising is not what leads to results, and thinking that you can wing it is the wrong move. Visualize the struggle and learn to prepare solutions to the obstacles you will face, especially if you are just starting out.
- Trust the schedule – When you disrespect the schedule, it disrespects you. If you were consciously thinking about your emotional states during this planning period, you know that the schedule knows best.
- Plan tomorrow today – Do this the night before you go to bed with positive thoughts of taking action the next day. Or do this first thing in the morning.
- Build in flexibility – Not everything goes according to plan, but if you build in flexibility, you give yourself a couple outs.
The only strategy for me is to stick to the plan. It is not sexy, but the more disciplined I live, the things I can do that bring me happiness. The takeaway here is that systems must be put in place that is designed to take away the indecisiveness or reactive states of mind.
3. Remember the Pain
Pain is a powerful motivator, even more so than pleasure. I’m not talking about actual pain and pleasure here, but rather the perception of it. You may perceive lifting weights as painful only because you dread doing it, not because you physically hurt yourself while doing it. Nutritionally speaking, it’s more painful to choose a salad over a double cheeseburger from Wack Arnolds (shout-out to the Chappelle Show).
Despite the fact that we don’t really ever know for sure what the future will hold, our brain is constantly making assumptions and judgments about the future as it relates to the pain-pleasure connection. Who would want to choose something that is perceived as painful?
“Always remember the pain of defeat, and never let it happen again.” – Dan Gable
Generally, any decision that will cause you immense pain is always viewed from a short term. Your experiences of pain and pleasure are nothing more than personal interpretations based on your perspectives at the time. The balance between the short and long-term pain and pleasure is often hard to recognize in fitness and nutrition. But if you step back and look at the long-term pain of not doing it, it becomes possible to see what you are missing out on.
When it comes to finding peak levels of motivation, it all comes down to how much pain I associate with not achieving my goal. I think long and hard about what I’m missing out on or what I could have had instead. The question becomes, is the short-term pleasure/pain worth the long-term pain/pleasure?
- Identify – What limiting behaviors/habits might be holding you back? Know your habits as it relates to nutrition and fitness.
- Stir up the pain – Bring it to your mind and think about the opportunity cost of inaction. For me, being fat was not something I was OK with. I always remembered the short- and long-term pain in addition to the moments where this was in practice.
- Keep the end in mind – I am a firm believer that our thoughts have the power to reproduce themselves into physical reality. There still needs to be a little reward, right? Visualize the picture in your mind of where you want to be.
- Pick a hobby/habit that puts you closer – For my wellness, I chose bodybuilding. I love it. What was an inputted healthy habit eventually grew to be an unbreakable commitment in my life. What’s a physical activity you enjoy that you can pursue more?
- Adapting to big changes – As you grow in health, changes happen rapidly. You must recognize that during this growth there must be steps to reevaluate and adapt to the new-new.
Rewards are nice but our brains are programmed to avoid pain. You can never grow if you always choose the path of least resistance. By designing a system that brings up the immense pain of inaction, you can better allow yourself to take action.
4. Set up Triggers Everywhere
Triggers are things that you can build into your life that is designed to raise awareness. They can be environmental, emotional and time-based, pretty much anything you want them to be. When used correctly, they contribute to the success of a wanted positive change.
Let’s use a bad habit for example. If you want to eliminate the habit, you might go about by removing all of the things that make it easier to do. In the case of nutrition, if you remove all of the junk food to a place that makes it a pain in the ass to get to, you are more likely to choose something healthier (think about that cold room your deep freeze is in. Yikes.). Especially if you place that healthier “something” right in front of your face.
You might re-organize your fridge to stack all of the health food up front. The instant you open the refrigerator you see a healthy choice. If your fridge is stuffed to the brim like ours used to be, you don’t want to deal with the “pain” or hassle of moving everything out of the way.
No matter how small the obstacle, this might be all it takes to distract your mind from grabbing the unhealthy thing that used to be easily accessible.
Think about the many habits you want to adopt in your life. Run every morning? Lay out your clothes ahead of time. Eat healthy at lunch all week? Pre-make your weekly lunches. Healthy on a budget? Make a list! Work out every night? Know your plan ahead of time. All of these things harness the power of triggers to raise our awareness of what we previously committed to.
Look to creating triggers to accomplish your health and fitness goals. These can be time-based, location-based, or pre-routines. Hell, do all three!
- Time-based – If you understand the reason why these habits pop up at the same time each day, then it can become easier to find a new habit of filling the void. Be mindful of how you spend your time.
- Location-based – Organize things specifically to bring awareness of either a good or bad habit. Change your cupboards, pantry, fridge or anything you can think of. Whatever it takes to get you out of your robot mindset.
- The lead-up – Maybe you have a pre-workout routine? This can be great for putting you in the right mindset to take action. During the early days, I drank a pre-workout drink which made it damn near impossible not to workout unless I wanted to deal with the annoyance of tingling skin (Be careful with these. They are strange potions).
If you do everything in your power to make it easier for yourself, eventually you will run out of excuses for inaction. At this point, you will realize that you really are just being a lazy pile.
5. The Power of Perspective
Like everything else, our perspective going into something can be a determinant for your emotional states. Similar to the placebo effect, if we are led to believe something will help us, our minds trigger responses to better align with this reinforcement. The same is true in health and nutrition.
To illustrate my point, I would like to get all scientific for a moment! The limbic system regulates emotions and key physiological functions and in combination with the hypothalamus, drives the mind-body connection. In other words, it takes sensory, emotional, and thought input and transduces this information into physiological responses.
If you consume any food with a full measure of delight, the hypothalamus will modulate this positive input by sending activation signals to key digestive processes and organs will be initiated. This helps to stimulate digestion and you’ll have a fuller metabolic breakdown of the food you eat.
If you’re feeling guilty about eating the food or judging yourself for eating it, the hypothalamus will take this negative input and send signals to initiates inhibitory responses in the digestive organs. Which means what you’re eating may not be fully metabolized.
Any guilt about food or judgment about health is considered stressors by the brain triggering similar reactions.
Through constantly learning more about health as it applies to your life, you can understand what is good and what is bad. Armed with this knowledge, you can be more trusting with your decisions. This trust builds the confidence you need to create a strong emotional connection with your health decisions.
Challenge your existing perspectives about health by focusing more on how you’re progressing, not where you want to be. Your own viewpoint will always be the strongest determinant of your thoughts, actions and your emotional feelings toward health.
As we look to psychology, we see the many complexities of humans. What we perceive is often different than what is and vice versa. How can we “trick” our minds and set up things that help us begin to development more great habits?
We must become more aware of how we move throughout the day because through mindfulness we find healthiness. It comes to us when we build a better understanding of our thought patterns, emotions, and what struggles we may face. Having a positive perception of our wellness is one of the many ways to lead change.
Part of the solution to becoming healthy lies within our ability to plan around obstacles and take the willpower out of our decision making. Using specific techniques that incorporate environmental, time-based, and location-based triggers, we can encourage good behavior. Putting the right systems in place is a sure way to take away the amount of willpower you may need to expend.
Have a great practice in your life that takes willpower out of the equation? Comment below to keep the conversation going!