Willpower functions similar to a muscle — it can be exhausted, and it can be strengthened depending on our actions. If you’ve done a poor job exercising willpower to work towards your goals for a long time, getting started can be an incredibly challenging task. Also, if you work at a job that you hate, chances are you’re depleting your willpower almost daily, leaving little to do the things you really want to do. So…if we were to apply that to our work out goals, the best way to start regaining your willpower is to start with small chunks of ego-affirming activities that help build willpower over time. If you try to tackle huge goals all at once, you run the risk of fatiguing your willpower.
A lot of us are left scratching our heads asking ourselves why the hell we keep failing at these goals that we want to achieve so bad. Ego depletion does a lot to help explain why it can be so difficult to get into shape, why we fall out of the habit of going to the gym or cheat on our diets The good news is that the best way to overcome these issues is to start with a lot of very small steps, properly timed. You’re going to achieve your fitness goals in two very predictable very well-known ways: by taking control of what you eat and by getting exercise.
Diet plays overwhelmingly the largest role in this entire process, and it will inform everything else. The very first step you need to take is to start getting into the habit of knowing how many calories are in the food you eat. Also, discard most of the dietary rumors you’ve been told. Scientific evidence suggests that when it comes to weight gain, it doesn’t matter when you eat, how long you go between eating or the carbs or fat or sugar or any other content that is in the food. There are exceptions here and there, but “How many” calories you consume is, for all intents and purposes, the bottom line.
The next step is to find out what your baseline is. Go online and do a quick assessment to gauge how many calories you burn in a given day just by being alive. This will vary based on your height, current weight, and how active you are. Once you know that number, you can start to make decisions based on it. For those of you who don’t know, there are approximately 3,500 calories in a pound of fat. So… if you want to lose a pound per week, you would have to create a 500 calorie deficit each day.
Your goal now is going to be to establish dietary habits based on when you’re most likely to be able to make good decisions. So for instance, for me personally, I’m often less likely to keep my dietary commitments for dinner. This is probably going to be true for a lot of you out there, especially all you nine-to-fivers. If it is, what you’re going to want to do is try to make the best possible food decisions for breakfast and for lunch each day, knowing that when you get home, you’re free to eat pretty much whatever you would like. Aim to hit less than 50% of your caloric budget for the day during what you have assessed to be your high-willpower times of the day, knowing that you still have plenty of room for the times of the day when you know you’re more likely to cheat.
Exercise isn’t as huge of a calorie-burner as a lot of us might think. Many of us like to kid ourselves by assuming that we can atone for our dietary sins of the day by planning to work out extra hard to make up for it. This is a mistake for two reasons. For example… to make up for a really savory meal of a cheeseburger, fries and a soda, which could easily add up to 1,600 calories, you would have to run for two hours and after such a huge meal your body will be in a food coma and not be very willing to run at all. So aim to eat as light as you can during the day and work out in small, manageable chunks throughout the day. Your goal should be to do enough to get out of breath each time. Elevating your heart rate in this way will do a few really amazing things. Eventually… you’ll notice that you’ll have far more energy throughout the day. You’ll stop hitting that terrible wall at around 3 p.m. You’ll also be a lot sharper mentally. I’m not making that up — studies have shown that even moderate intensity exercise increases working memory and self-reported mood. Best of all, though? By peaking your physical activity in small chunks throughout the day, you’ll receive the benefits of the effects all day long. The calories you burn doing this activity might be relatively low at first, but the most important part is that you are flexing your willpower muscle in small chunks and building a positive habit.
If you find yourself slipping, don’t beat yourself up over it, and don’t be afraid to move the goalposts a little closer if you’re having trouble working up the willpower to keep with it. The most important part is that you do it at all. Once you start developing your willpower, everything will become a lot easier.