Recharge Your Motivation

New research is redefining the concept of willpower. When you're running low on motivation, these tips can help refill your tank.
Gas tank on empty

It’s probably happened to you before: You resolve to make necessary changes that will take long-term commitment — like waking up earlier, starting an exercise program, or even simply eating healthier meals. You get off to a fantastic start, brimming with resolve and hope. A few weeks — even months — in, you’re still going strong. But eventually, if you’re like most people, your fortitude begins to wane. You have “fall-off-the-wagon” moments that you sometimes feel powerless to stop. You increasingly bargain with yourself. You start to slip back into old habits without really wanting to, sometimes fully conscious of what you’re doing and sometimes not. And the pattern repeats.

What happens — so familiar to most of us — seems outwardly simplistic: When you start to lose your motivation and willpower to maintain a new behavior, old patterns slowly creep back in. Those positive actions that recently seemed so energizing — or at least worth the effort — lose their novelty and appeal, and start to feel onerous. We call it “backsliding.” Neuroscientists call it “self-regulation failure.” No matter what you call this behavioral process, researchers are finding that it’s anything but simple.

In fact, unraveling the complexities of self-regulation has become a hot field, spawning best-selling books, a flurry of research papers — and the rehabilitation of the word “willpower.” “That term has been a bit loaded,” says Todd Heatherton, PhD, a professor of psychology at Dartmouth College and a leading researcher in the field. “It implies strength of character” — which naturally suggests that lack of willpower equals lack of character. An alternative view based on recent behavioral science views willpower, in Heatherton’s words, as “a set of known psychological processes.” Understanding them can help you identify ways to boost motivation and strengthen your ability to create positive, healthy habits.

A battle in the brain

Challenges to willpower start almost from the moment you decide to make a change, says Heatherton. At the outset, you’re typically dissatisfied with some aspect of your life. Say, how rushed you feel every morning, how tired you feel after light exercise, or the way your clothes fit. “Deciding to do something about it feels good,” he says. “For the first few weeks, you’re kind of enjoying it.”

But inside your head, there’s a battle going on between two lobes of the brain that constantly whisper to you like the proverbial devil on one shoulder and angel on the other. The devil lobe is the subcortical area of the brain that includes reward circuits, and the amygdala, which handles emotion. The subcortical brain isn’t evil, just more tuned to basic needs it has evolved to push you toward — like eating. The other area is the prefrontal cortex, which handles higher thinking such as goals, planning and decision-making about what you will and won’t do. “One lobe says, ‘You should eat this, you will like it,’” Heatherton says. “The other says, ‘No, you have long-term goals and can’t give in.’”

People only indulge 17 percent of the desires they’ve decided to resist, according to new research by Kathleen Vohs, PhD, a marketing professor at the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management, and her colleagues. “That shows the power of self-control in inhibiting problematic behaviors,” Vohs says. “On the other hand, it shows there is a nontrivial amount of self-regulation failure in everyday life.”

Willpower is renewable

The battle of the brain tends to seesaw back and forth. So why are we able to resist temptation or stick to an exercise program at one time but not another? One significant new insight holds that willpower isn’t a trait you either have or don’t — it’s a resource that can be depleted. “Think of the cheetah,” Vohs says. “Its top skill is running fast — faster than any other animal. But it can only do this for a brief burst.” Human self-control is like that, she says. “We can do it better than any other animal — but only for a brief period. Then we need rest.”

Unfortunately, “restful” is not a word most of us use to describe our days. Research suggests that being mentally taxed — especially engaging the prefrontal cortex — chips away at willpower and motivation. “Depletion is a daily phenomenon for lots of people,” says one of the theory’s leading investigators, Roy Baumeister, PhD, a professor of psychology at Florida State University and coauthor of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength (Penguin, 2011).

“Even small things like making yourself laugh at your boss’s joke that you don’t think is funny, holding off on going to the bathroom or figuring an alternate route to work because the ordinary one is blocked — any self-control, initiative, or decision-making depletes willpower.”

When high-functioning resolve flags, low-functioning emotions and desires fire up even stronger. “It’s like depletion turns up the volume on life,” Baumeister says. That leaves you even more vulnerable to additional psychological forces of temptation and procrastination.

What wears you down

Take food advertising. Studies of smokers find that watching someone puff a cigarette in a movie activates parts of the brain you’d use if you were grasping a cigarette yourself. “We think the same thing happens when you see food,” Heatherton says. “You prime the brain to perform the action, and before you know it, you’re having the food.”

Once you give in, a phenomenon known as “lapse activation” kicks in. “It’s the what-the-hell effect,” Heatherton says. “You say, ‘My diet is already broken, so I may as well eat more.’” In studies using MRI machines to view brain activity, reward centers in the brains of dieters who randomly looked at pictures of food lit up more strongly after being given an 800-calorie milkshake than before. Brains of nondieters who weren’t struggling to control their eating quieted down after the milkshake.

“The brains of dieters seem to respond most strongly to food cues at exactly the worst time,” Heatherton says. Partly that’s because we’re biologically wired to want food despite our resolve to avoid it, and partly because resistance itself takes mental effort that can wear us down.

Another irony is that willpower appears related to the brain’s supply of glucose — fuel that comes from food. Expending mental energy for self-control gobbles glucose. And when glucose gets low, willpower sinks as well.

How to refill your tank

The good news is that depleted willpower can be replenished. “Willpower works like a muscle,” Bauman says. Yes, it gets tired, but factors like exercise, rest and functional training can make it stronger. Here are just a few ideas to help accomplish this:

Know when you’re low. A frazzled state of mind — having trouble making simple decisions, being reluctant to exert yourself, feeling easily upset — can warn of waning willpower. “When you find yourself saying, ‘I can’t deal with this,’ that’s a sign your willpower is low,” Baumeister says.

Work out in the morning. Most people find their motivational resources are strongest when the day is fresh and frontal lobes are rested — before the daily grind of impossible deadlines, annoying coworkers, maddening traffic and tempting food wears down your resolve.

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Wellness, Managing Stress, Motivation, Motivation, Managing Stress, Healthy Living
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