More recent research from R. Baumeister (1998), saw participants offered chocolate cookies and radishes. The participants had to resist the urge and aroma of fresh-baked chocolate cookies (using their willpower) and eat fresh radishes from the garden instead. The participants were then asked to complete a puzzle. The participants who ate the chocolate cookies completed the puzzle in half the time it took the participants who ate the radishes. It is thought that after resisting the chocolate cookies for such a long time, the participants who ate the radishes could not find the willpower to fully engage in the puzzle.
A study in 2006 identified that maybe physical activity can boost your willpower and self-control. Oaten & Cheng gave participants free gym memberships and personalised training programs. Those participants who used their memberships and exercised frequently improved certain behaviours that required willpower. This included eating better, controlling spending habits, and reducing substance abuse.
So, it would seem that exercise is excellent for strengthening willpower! This is rather ironic when we think that the lack of willpower is a primary reason we stop exercising or going to the gym. Can exercising help us to eat less junk food, watch less television, save more money or procrastinate less? Is the simple answer and treatment of physical exercise?
If so, how much exercise do we need, and when do we need it? What type of exercise is particularly beneficial to improving willpower? They’re all relevant questions, but there is a lack of evidence to provide a conclusive insight on how we can tackle willpower with physical activity. The British Heart Foundation has suggested that as little as five minutes of regular physical activity, such as walking, is enough to make a difference to our self-control.
The key is to be prepared, like anything else in life. If you’re going to do something which may require time and thought, there’s a good chance you’ll need to plan ahead! The right footwear, clothing and drink bottle should be prepared in advance, so everything’s ready when you come to start your walk. But is this explanation too simple? Is our lack of planning in advance the main reason why so many of us use ‘lack of willpower’ as an excuse to stop doing something good, and go back to our bad habits?
When we set goals to stop smoking or lose weight, are we realistic in how we go about doing it? Does our willpower and self-control diminish in the first month of January because our goals are unrealistic? Do we need to plan in advance, and set small and achievable goals on our path to stopping smoking, getting fitter, or losing weight?
Baumeister (2007), identified that three steps were needed for willpower to succeed.
- Setting measurable targets
- Making them realistic, and
- Having the willpower to follow through
Baumeister highlighted realistic goals as an important step when planning; don’t set goals that are unrealistic, or too strict. Also, don’t be too hard on yourself if you have a slip-up every now and then. For example, consider someone with no history of exercise, who wants to complete a marathon in nine months. Being realistic with an exercise and nutrition plan is definitely needed, but nine months is a very questionable goal no matter how much enthusiasm you have. If a well-thought-out plan and strategy is not developed, the marathon goal will fail, because willpower will decrease. Sure, if you have a bad day and miss a training session, then let it go and come back tomorrow with a little more effort. Likewise, allow yourself a day off from your nutrition plan – have something you probably shouldn’t – but choose to see it as a treat for training well. Don’t be too strict to begin with; have a cheat meal and enjoy it, don’t see it as a failure. Planning is the key. A day off from a scheduled training session, or an extra beer or glass of wine should be seen as part of the journey to get to your goal. Don’t beat yourself up or stress about it, if you do then your willpower may decrease.