Weight loss motivation: Why willpower doesn’t work

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Have you ever been absolutely committed to losing weight? You watch what you eat, say ‘no’ to your favourite foods, and then end up having a binge. You beat yourself up and proclaim that all you need is more willpower.

So you get back on track, re-focus and double your efforts. But it isn’t long until you cave in again and end up eating food that you swore you wouldn’t touch.

What happened to that willpower?

Is it really the secret to losing weight?

What is willpower?

A lot of people who set out to lose weight talk about willpower, as if it’s the secret key that will unlock your results. But it’s not. Willpower is simply self-control — the ability to resist the temptation of giving into immediate gratification. While all of us can do this for a short-time, (and some longer than others) long-term it’s not realistic.

Have you ever had days where you feel like you’re on top of things? That it’s easy to resist tempting foods, and stick to your exercise program? You feel as if this time, it’s going to be easy to lose weight because you have so much motivation to lose weight, and you believe you have so much willpower it will be a no brainer.

But on other days, even taking the simplest action towards losing weight seems too difficult. All of a sudden you find yourself slipping back into old habits — binge eating, drinking alcohol and spending too much time on social media. Your willpower seems to disappear.

If you have, you’re not alone.

The reason that this happens is that willpower actually diminishes the more you use it. It’s like a battery that needs to be recharged all the time. Fail to recharge, and it will fail to work.

Why it doesn’t work

Willpower doesn’t work because it’s a short-term measure. There’s only so much willpower available to you. Once you’ve used it, there’s no more. And some days you’ll have more willpower than others. Willpower requires self-control, determination and hard work! And no one can work hard all of the time. As you become fatigued with the pressure to stay in control, you end up lapsing into old habits, which don’t support your weight loss. This explains why so many people are ‘off track’ a lot of the time when trying to lose weight — because they’re using willpower to get results.

Willpower goes hand in hand with dieting, restricting food and following food rules. While it might seem like it’s the answer, this approach only creates a cycle of starving and bingeing. Eating is like a clock pendulum. When you use willpower to restrict your food the pendulum swings one way. Pendulums are only still when they’re perfectly balanced, and so it will eventually swing the other way, causing you to binge. The harder you swing to one side, the harder you’ll swing to the other.

Willpower just isn’t the solution to your weight-loss woes.

Why do you rely on willpower?

So if willpower doesn’t work, why do people continue to rely on it?

Because many people see it as the easiest and quickest way to lose weight. If you focus on willpower and controlling what you eat, then you don’t have to focus on your habits — the things that led you to become overweight in the first place. Many people are afraid to work on their habits because it means they have to confront the things that they have been running from most of their life.

But focusing on willpower is just another form of dieting that just doesn’t work. While it may help you avoid the hard work in changing your habits, it’s just another quick-fix strategy that will leave you feeling disappointed and frustrated. People who lose weight using willpower won’t lose weight for the long-term. They will also find it harder and harder to lose weight — because of the impact that diets have on your physical and mental health, and because your willpower depletes even more with every attempt.

What happens when you rely on willpower?

Willpower might give you short-term gratification, but it will only cause more problems when it comes to weight loss. The problem when we don’t work on our habits and rely solely on willpower, is we end up developing self-sabotaging habits that deplete your willpower further, which leads you to fall off the wagon all the time.

Let’s look at an example.

Josie has had a challenging day running her business. She was run off her feet, didn’t have time to eat lunch, and had to deal with some difficult customers. By the time she leaves work late, she’s hungry, extremely stressed, frustrated and angry. On the way home, she goes through a fast-food drive-thru to buy dinner, telling herself that it will just be easier than preparing a meal when she gets home. Even though she’s trying to lose weight, she just doesn’t have the energy to do what she knows she should, to keep on track with her weight loss.

Josie gets home, eats her fast food, and then starts to feel guilty. She berates herself for having such low willpower and tells herself she must use more self-control next time. While she has a shower, she beats herself up even more and starts worrying about what the fast-food will do to her weight loss this week. By the time she gets out, she’s even more stressed, so she decides she might have some of that ice-cream that’s in the back of the freezer, that she bought for ‘emergencies’ — because that might make her feel better. She also tells herself that she’s already blown it today, so a bit of ice-cream won’t hurt. She’ll be ‘more focused’ tomorrow. Josie only intends to have a small amount, but ends up eating the entire tub. Josie then feels sorry for herself, so has a few drinks before heading to bed, and berates herself even more for being so undisciplined and weak-willed. By the time she gets to bed, she’s even more worried about her weight, but is doubting her ability to lose it at all, given she has no willpower to stick to her diet.

In the above example, it’s clear to see that Josie’s ‘lack of willpower’ and accompanying binge was due to her poor habits rather than her lack of discipline.

  • She hadn’t taken the time to do meal-prep to ensure she had a healthy lunch or a healthy dinner to go home to
  • She hadn’t learned how to deal with stress and instead fell into her old habit of eating junk food
  • She hadn’t dealt with her perfectionist habits which caused her to beat herself up for ‘making a mistake’
  • She looked at her day with an ‘all or nothing’ mindset which caused her to eat ice-cream
  • She didn’t know how to deal with her feelings in a positive way, so turned to her old habit of drinking alcohol.

The events of the day caused Josie to feel a great deal of stress, which initially depleted her willpower. Because she has not worked on her habits of stress, poor time management, feeling the need to be perfect, having an ‘all-or-nothing’ mindset, and soothing her feelings with food and alcohol, Josie fell into her familiar self-sabotaging patterns of behaviour because her willpower was depleted. With every habit she fell into, her willpower became less and less until, by the end, she had none left at all. So she promised herself that she would be stronger and more focused the next day.

However, if Josie had mastered her habits of meal prep, stress management, perfectionism and acknowledging her feelings, she wouldn’t have needed to rely on willpower at all. Even if she was still tempted to take the easy way out and get take-away, she may have been able to resist because her willpower would have been greater, because she knew how to manage a stressful day.

Josie will continue this vicious cycle while trying to lose weight, because she believes that she needs willpower to lose weight, instead of focusing on her habits.

Habits always trump willpower

Using willpower to lose weight will only see you go around and around in circles.

The only way to lose weight permanently is to work on your habits. Habits give you the skills, knowledge and tools to help you manage any situation because willpower is not guaranteed. But the right habits also eradicate the obstacles that deplete our willpower in the first place.

So if willpower doesn’t work, what does?

Forget willpower…you need to…

Have a goal

You need to set yourself a goal — a SMART goal. A SMART goal is one that is specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound. Setting a SMART goal automatically increases your chances of achieving it because you have clarity around what you’re working towards. Your goal must also be meaningful to you, not someone else. If you set a goal that means nothing to you, you won’t be bothered to turn up and work for it. It doesn’t matter what your goal is but you should avoid comparing what you want to what someone else wants.

Have a WHY

Along with your goal, you need to know why you want to achieve it. Why do you want to lose weight and change your body shape? We call it your WHY. Your WHY will be the driving force that will keep you taking the actions to move forward towards your goals, even when you don’t feel like doing it. Those people who know what they want and why they want it, are the ones who keep progressing, despite what’s going on around them. A WHY is stronger than willpower. Your WHY is what will keep you going when the going gets tough. It will push you to find solutions when all you see are obstacles. It will keep you going when all you want to do is give up. If you haven’t found your WHY yet, make sure you read our blog Find your why to lose weight.

Ditch the diets

As we touched on above, willpower and diets go hand-in-hand. Because diets are so restrictive and follow so many rules, you need to ‘dig deep’ in order to follow them. But even if you could keep following the rules, diets don’t work for long-term weight loss. Research proves that. What does work, is taking a more relaxed approach with your eating. It’s important to focus on good nutrition because this will help get you results faster. But at the same time, it’s just as important to be flexible with your eating and allow yourself some of your favourite treats every now and then, or to eat out with family and friends. When you allow yourself to eat all foods, and stop looking at food with a diet mindset, you’ll be far more relaxed around food, and you’ll be more likely to be consistent with your healthy eating. This means you won’t have to rely on willpower to stay on track.

Drop perfectionism

Perfectionists and procrastinators often use willpower. They believe that in order to achieve anything, you must get it right. You must be perfect and make no mistakes. People who struggle with this habit use willpower as a way to control their environment, and as a way to achieve perfection. If you fall off the wagon or go off track, you’re not undisciplined. Your willpower is just running on empty.

Change your habits

The truth is that weight loss is never about food or exercise, or even willpower! It’s primarily down to your habits — the reason you do what you do. People who don’t have the skills and tools they need to navigate any situation are the ones who use willpower. But those who work on their habits don’t need to rely on it at all.

Interestingly, there are certain habits that will help you lose weight, and help you recharge your willpower on a regular basis. Those people who can master their habits won’t need to rely on willpower to reach their goals, but they will notice they have more of it to call upon if they need it.

Some of these habits are:

Sleep — sleep is very important for weight loss and body shape change and for the energy you need to keep working towards your goals

Stress reduction — knowing how to manage and reduce stress will contribute significantly to body shape change

Structure — people who have a structure or plan and follow it will get better weight loss results

Consistency — you don’t need to be perfect but you do need to be consistent

Prioritising yourself — taking care of your own needs before looking after everyone else’s will reduce stress and ensure you have time to do the things that will help your weight loss

People-pleasing — dropping your people-pleasing habits will mean you’ll no longer worry about what others think, and you’ll be free to do the things that will get you closer to your goals.

(If you want more information about the habits listed above, be sure to click on the links to read the accompanying blogs.)

How to build your habits (and willpower)

The only way you can change your habits (and charge your willpower on a regular basis) is through increased awareness, structure, and accountability.

Increasing your awareness means understanding and questioning how your choices, habits and behaviours are responsible for your current situation and outcome. This involves collecting data on what you do when you do it and why you do it. This will allow you to identify patterns of behaviour that don’t necessarily support your weight loss goals.

Then you need a structured approach or action plan that will enable you to confront your fears and work on your habits, one at a time. And in order to keep you on track and working on your habits, you need accountability — someone to hold you responsible for taking the actions you need to take, not someone who enables you to do what you want to do.

Remember, the more you build your habits, the more your willpower grows.

Need help changing your habits?

At Imani Tribe Transformations we help our clients work on the habits that have been holding them back from permanent weight loss, so they don’t have to rely on willpower.

Through our structured approach, we provide them with a personalised action plan designed to help them change their habits, and the accountability to stick with the plan. This approach allows our clients to develop the skills and tools they need to navigate any situation, without needing to rely on willpower.

Ready to lose the weight for good & reclaim your freedom, vitality & quality of life?

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You’ve tried dieting and figuring it out by yourself a million times before, none of them worked, in fact, they all left you worse off and more miserable than when you started.

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People don’t have weight problems, people have personal problems (identities, habits, mindset, beliefs and fears) that reflect throughout their life, which can’t be resolved with dieting and focusing on food and exercise.

Dieting and focusing on food and exercise without addressing the habits and mindset that got us overweight is just like refilling a flat punctured tyre with air over and over without sealing the puncture and addressing the cause — a waste of time.

We cannot achieve long-term weight loss and transformation with the same habits and mindset that got us overweight. Nothing changes if nothing changes.

Put simply, weight loss takes care of itself when we address and eliminate the personal problems that leads to weight gain and hold us back from losing the weight for good.

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