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How to Improve Willpower

Boost your willpower for exercise by learning what zaps it

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Updated April 16, 2014

How to find exercise motivation

How to find exercise motivation

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Do you find yourself running low on willpower by the end of the day? It may not be your lack of self-control that has you worn down and reaching for the chips and the remote each night, it may be all the decisions you've made during the day.

Psychologists have recently uncovered a fascinating bit of science that affects all of us in one way or another. Decision fatigue is what they have labeled this powerful phenomenon that slowly erodes our willpower and decision-making ability on a regular basis. In simple terms, we have a limited capacity for making decisions, and the more decisions we have to make, even simple ones, such as plastic or paper, can slowly wear us down and send our willpower into a tailspin until it is crumpled and cowering in a corner.

Social psychologist Roy Baumeister conducted experiments aimed at studying and measuring mental discipline. The results of his studies surprised many. He showed that individuals have a finite amount of willpower, or mental energy, for self-control. When people resisted one temptation, such as eating candy or warm chocolate-chip cookies, they were less able to resist other subsequent temptations.

Another of his experiments had people resist getting emotional during a tear-jerker movie. After succeeding on this task, however, they gave up more quickly while working on tasks requiring self-discipline, such as solving puzzles or squeezing a hand-grip exerciser.

Baumeister concluded that willpower was actually a type of mental energy, and much like a muscle, it could be fatigued and exhausted. Early on, researchers focused on acts of self-restraint draining willpower, but over time the theory became more generalized, and it turns out that any and all decision-making can deplete these mental energy stores.

The many dozens of decisions we make each day (what to wear, what to eat, what to buy, what project to start first, what route to choose, or workout to do...) result in a sort of mental fatigue. The idea that we have a limited amount of available mental energy to use for decision-making is a new discovery. But it turns out that if you use up your willpower on these little, or less important decisions, you will have no chance of making a good decision at the end of the day. This may matter to you if you find that you eat well all day but struggle to resist temptations in the evening, or can't make yourself go to the gym after work.

If you've already made a hundred small decisions during the day, you may find that by five o'clock you can't decide if you want to exercise, get take-out, cook at home, call your mom, walk the dog or do something else. Eventually, you may just give up, and do nothing. The research on decision fatigue can help you recognize that it's not necessarily related to your lack of willpower; it may be related to the number of decisions you've already made in a given day.

Tips to Avoid Decision Fatigue

  1. Take control. Baumeister found that people with high levels of self-control actually structure their lives in a way that conserves willpower. They don't put themselves in situations that require making lots of decisions or exerting willpower. They don't take on numerous responsibilities and resist endless temptations. They plan ahead and make intentional choices.
  2. Increase your awareness. The first step to having more decision-making energy is to become aware of how you use your willpower reserves each day. Just recognizing this phenomenon can help you conserve your decision-making energy for the most important decisions.
  3. Reduce the number of decisions you make. Next, become mindful of the number of decisions you are making. Consciously choose the ones that are most important to you, and let go of those that aren't worth your mental energy.
  4. Hire a trainer. A trainer can be the source of a tremendous amount of motivation when you have none. A good trainer allows you to use their willpower to tap into your own. All you need to do is show up and they can make the rest of the decisions for you.
  5. Exercise first thing in the morning. In addition to the fact that those who exercise in the morning tend to be more consistent, if you exercise in the morning, you are more likely to have more decision-making energy available.
  6. Just add music. Music has been shown to increase exercise motivation, so plan a great playlist and plug into some ready-made willpower.
  7. Make big decisions early. Try to make your most important decisions in the morning; make less important decisions later in the day.
  8. Plan your day. Especially for athletes, it's important to make decisions about your training early in the day. So decide what exercise you'll do and when you'll do it first thing in the morning, and put it on your calendar.
  9. Set goals and plan your week. Even better, set up a weekly training plan so you don't have to decide what to do, or when to do it. The decision will have already been made, so you, as Nike says, "just do it." No thought required.
  10. Cut yourself some slack. If you find you have exhausted your decision-making ability, recognize that you're more likely to act impulsively or do nothing at all. Learn from this and make small adjustments for the next day.

To begin making better choices, plan ahead and be mindful of the many decisions you make each day, and as the saying goes, "don't sweat the small stuff." Adopting a few simple strategies makes it much more likely that you'll be able to save your willpower for the decisions that really matter most to you.

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