Working your willpower

How to maximize that mental muscle.

Opinions on willpower differ – some push willpower as the be-all, end-all trick to accomplishing any goal; others say the traditional way of thinking about willpower is outdated, and there’s a more positive – and effective – way to use it.

“We have to reframe the concept of willpower,” says Dr. Mary Jayne Rogers, exercise physiologist and 40-year veteran of the health and wellness industry.

“Willpower generally implies a denial of something,” she explains, such as sweets, carbs or calories. “Generally, we want to frame the particular behaviour we want to change in a positive way. For example, instead of ‘resisting’ a certain food, we can ‘replace’ it with something that makes us feel happy, fulfilled or nourished.”

So to strengthen your willpower muscle, focus on the positive of a goal you want to achieve – as opposed to thinking of willpower as the resolve to resist a “bad” thing. For example, rather than saying to yourself, “I have to avoid all junk food like the plague and run every day,” frame it in a more positive, manageable way, like, “I’m going to eat three balanced meals a day, with healthy snacks in between, and make time for exercise three times a week.”

Another trick to keeping those mental muscles strong is sleep, says Chris Brantner, Certified Sleep Science Coach at SleepZoo.com.

“When you get enough sleep, you have the energy necessary for self-control and an increased capacity to exercise willpower,” he explains.

“Brain research has shown that sleep-deprived brains exhibit less activity in the prefrontal cortex than those who have had adequate sleep. It's likely not a coincidence that brain scans show increased activity in this area of the brain when people attempt to exercise self-control. … So you want to exercise more willpower? Start by getting your seven to eight hours of sleep each night.”