Text image. Background is a pink marble. Text reads "I have no willpower." A case for self-care.

“I have no willpower.” A case for self-care.

Welcome to February. In this month, most people who set New Year’s Resolutions will have given up on them. It is also a month of love – with Valentine’s Day putting romantic relationships on display. These two facts might seem unrelated. But I think these two ideas are more connected than we might believe at first glance…

The Problem with Willpower

The American Psychological Association defines willpower as: “the ability to resist short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals.”Willpower is a way to force ourselves to do something that is difficult but that will also help us later on. Studies have shown that kids who are able to delay gratification, by waiting 15 minutes to eat a marshmallow, were most likely to succeed later in life.

Text image. Background is a green marble. Text reads Willpower can help us reach our goals. But it seems to run out by the end of the day.

And yet, there is also willpower depletion (sometimes called ego depletion). You might not know it by name but I bet you’ve experienced this before. You had a stressful day at work, or maybe you had to deal with a difficult relative. You handle that situation as best as you could. But then you find yourself heading into the kitchen, or stopping to pick up something at a drive-through on your way home. You grab that chocolate bar you’ve been stashing away. Or a pint of ice cream. Or some salty chips or fries. Your resolution to eat healthier forgotten, you devour whatever you can get your hands on.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with eating for emotional reasons. But it can also cross a line where it becomes unhealthy – physically or mentally. Especially because it doesn’t end with the eating. Next, comes the guilt, and the self-blame, and the judgements. And besides, you didn’t even enjoy the food.

So what’s a person to do? You can’t avoid difficult situations or stressful days. They are going to happen. It’s part of life. (Although always, always, seek help if you are struggling to cope.)

So is there an alternative to willpower?

There are going to be situations that you just need to get through by sheer force of will. As I said, it’s part of life. But there are several things we can do to deal with this. 1

  • Know what works for you. Why waste willpower trying to make yourself run when you hate running? Instead, choose an activity that you actually enjoy.
  • Recharge your batteries. Using willpower takes energy and recharging allows you to replenish your willpower
  • Take care of your needs. This is the proactive version of recharging your batteries.

They all come back to the idea of self-care.

Take care of yourself.

First things first, self-care is a bit of a buzz word online. Yoga, meditation, minimalism, baths, journaling – these are all things that come up when you see talks about self-care. And these can all be great ways of taking care of yourself. But not everyone is into those things. Yoga isn’t self-care for everyone. Some people just don’t like it. But even for those of us who do enjoy yoga (for example), it can become a task to check off on the to-do list.

Text image. Background is a green marble. Text reads Self-care isn't about performance. It's about taking care of yourself.

Self-care becomes a thing to do, rather than a way of taking care of ourselves. The point of self-care is about fulfilling your needs. It is about knowing yourself.

I can’t tell you what you should do. I don’t know what you need. You are the only person who can know these things. And, at the same time, it is okay not to know. It is a lifelong process to know what it is, exactly, that you need. It’s about reconnecting to your intuition.

There are patterns though. And that what this site is all about. It is about the basic habits, skills, and mindsets people need to thrive, to develop their full potential, to live the good life.

Recharge after tapping into your willpower

Text image. Background is a green marble. Text reads Taking care of yourself can refresh your batteries, and your willpower.

This is one specific way that we can take care of ourselves. Tapping into our willpower takes energy. It takes focus. It drains us in a very specific way. Think of it like your cell phone battery. The more you use it, the more it gets drained. It’s pretty simple to recharge a cell phone – plug it in. How do we recharge ourselves though?

Let’s take an example that I mentioned off the top of this post; dealing with a difficult person. We’ve all had to deal with a difficult person. For some people, it’s an everyday thing. For other’s, it’s less often. But we all know how challenging people can be at times. Once the situation passes, you need to recharge somehow, at some point.

You might take time to be alone. Or you might go and surround yourself with other people.
You might take a bath to rest. Or you might go to the gym and lift something heavy.
And you might find that sometimes you do one thing, and other times you do the opposite.

There is no one right answer for all people.

It can be frustrating to know that. To know that there is no perfect answer. No formula to follow.

And yet, there isn’t an infinite number of answers. If you find 10 possible solutions that have worked for you in the past to de-stress and recharge, chances are one of them will do the trick. You will recharge your batteries and be able to handle the next thing that comes by. Some possible ways to recharge off my list include:

  • Eating well
  • Going for a walk
  • Doing yoga
  • Breathing exercises & meditation
  • Writing in my journal
  • Calling a friend, talking to my husband, or calling my mom
  • Taking a bath
  • Going to bed early
  • Putting my cell phone away
  • Having a cup of tea

Fuel your Body and your Brain. Power your willpower

Another interesting thing some researchers have found is that people have lower blood sugar after they need to use willpower2. This would explain why we crave carbs and especially sugars after a stressful day. But having a bunch of sugar isn’t actually all that helpful if you’re trying to have balanced sugars. The sugar crash is real.

Text image. Background is a green marble. Text reads Fueling your brain with a healthy diet (and water and exercise) may help you maintain your willpower over time.

A more effective way to balance your blood sugar is to fuel your body and brain with foods like whole grains. Foods that are high in fibre and paired with protein and healthy fats. One way we can approach this healthy eating is shown in the brand new Canada’s Food Guide. I’ve also talked about some healthy patterns of eating on this blog before. Eating well on a regular basis is a great way to be proactive in helping you to start your days with a high level of willpower.

Plan your go-to snack

But at the moment when we need a boost of energy, many of us reach for food. When our willpower is used up and we need to recharge, we all have our go-to pick-me-up. I went through so much chocolate and Pepsi in university. And also learned that doesn’t work. It can be really helpful to have a snack planned out that serves as a pick-me-up and that also helps us feel good in the long term. Here are a few ideas that could fit the bill:

  • Nuts
  • Fruit
  • Roasted chickpeas or other beans{note] Heads up – I have liked all the homemade ones I’ve had, and disliked all the store bought ones. So if you want to give it a try, I’d encourage you to make your own. [/note]
  • Yogurt
  • Tea (decaf if it’s later in the day)
  • Dark chocolate
  • A movement snack
  • 3 deep breaths
  • A glass of cold water

Okay, those last three things weren’t actually food. But they are also a great way to fuel your body. Dehydration and extended sitting can both cause fatigue – so drinking water and moving in ways that feel good can boost your energy. Deep breathing also helps with energy because it gets a little boost of oxygen through our body (including the brain).

Bottom Line

Willpower can help us get where we want to go. But to get the most out of willpower, it is best to use it only when it matters most. And when we do use willpower, we need to be able to replenish it. Self-care is one way to both reduce your reliance on willpower (by knowing what works for you) and to recharge your batteries.

How do you recharge after doing something difficult?

You are reading this because you are interested in improving your life. That means we have something in common. I’m still working on what the Foundations for the Good Life is all about, and I’d love for you to join me in this journey. I’d love to build a community with you. With people who are trying to figure out what “the good life” means, and how to set up their life to make it possible for them.

If this interests you, join the newsletter to be the first to know about updates, new articles, and to try out tools as they are developed and improved. I hope to connect with you soon.

  1. That American Psychological Association article on willpower is a great resource in addition to what I’m sharing here. :)
  2. Research study as a pdf: Gailliot, M., et al. (2007). Self-control relies on glucose as a limited energy source: willpower is more than a metaphor. Journal of Personality
    and Social Psychology, 92, 325-336.

1 comment

Thank you! I always considered myself a person with weak willpower. Do you work out regularly? Oh, no, I’ll give up in a week. Eating right? I guess I’ll give it a try, but I’ll probably quit too. It’s like that in every area. But really, I just don’t have enough motivation. And now I’m working on setting the right priorities. And maybe that will help.

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