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Willpower Hacks: Make Lasting Changes

Willpower Hacks: Make Lasting Changes

Has this ever happened to you: You’ve bought a block of chocolate with the intention of savoring just two squares a day, but before you know it you’ve eaten the whole thing in one sitting? Or, have you ever said to yourself, “This week I’m going to go for a run every day,” only to realize it’s the end of the week and you’ve only been once?

As Naturopaths, dietary and lifestyle change is a big part of what we prescribe, because healthy habits are what will help keep you well long-term. But dietary and lifestyle change is also the most difficult part of treatment for our patients. Why? Because, frankly, changing your habits is very hard.

What is it that makes us more or less likely to make a positive change? And how can we make positive change easier for ourselves, so that the changes we make actually stick? The answer is by strengthening our willpower, and protecting it from factors that deplete it. The more willpower we have, the easier it is to make changes.

The following willpower hacks (tips) will help you build your willpower and make the lasting changes you want to make.


Hack Number One: Prevent willpower depletion.


Most of us have had the experience of wanting to make a change but being unsuccessful because we have run out of willpower. Willpower is a finite resource that can be used up while trying to make a change – we can run out of willpower. But, willpower is also something that can become depleted through other means.

In order to understand willpower depletion, we have to understand two things about the brain. Firstly, there are two major parts to the brain: the primitive brain and the higher functioning brain. The primitive brain is geared towards survival and reproduction, and pushes us towards energy dense, high fat, high sugar foods. When humans lived as hunter-gatherers, energy dense foods were scarce, so we evolved to instinctively seek them out to help us survive periods of famine.

The second part of our brain controls our higher functions such as reason and willpower. This part of the brain developed when we started living in groups and tribes. It became extremely useful for us to be able to control our urge to, for example, steal our neighbours’ food, in order to avoid a fight!

This tension between our desire (primitive brain) and our willpower (higher functions) hasn’t changed. Whenever we try to resist temptation, our ‘willpower brain’ must be able to temper the desires of our primitive brain.

To understand the factors that make it harder to overcome the primitive brain, we need to understand a second point about the brain. The brain loves repeating old patterns of behavior. It loves to do the same old thing it’s always done, because that takes less energy, less time, and less emotional resources. If you’re feeling tired, stressed, and you haven’t been sleeping well, or your blood sugar is low, you will always be more likely to repeat an old pattern. And that is because stress, fatigue and low blood sugar deplete willpower.

Simply, preventing your willpower from being depleted involves managing stress, sleeping better, and keeping your blood sugar stable. Unfortunately, managing your stress, sleep, energy levels and blood sugar levels using dietary and lifestyle strategies requires willpower! This is where seeing a Naturopath can help. We can give you herbs and supplements to help keep your energy and blood sugar stable while you build your willpower.


Hack Number 2: Link your habits to your values.


When we try to change our habits, it’s usually because we have a specific goal in mind. When somebody wants to lose weight, for example, they choose a goal weight. They then measure their progress according to how close they are to their goal weight. Conventional goal-setting wisdom says that having a clear, measurable end point – a goal weight, in this example – is a positive thing, as it allows you to monitor whether you have achieved your goal or not.

In the context of developing healthy habits and making lasting change, linking your habits to specific goals is not useful. This is because as soon as you reach your goal, you take your attention away from maintaining those healthy habits. Soon, old patterns begin to creep back in, especially if you become tired or stressed. This is one of the reasons why many people who reach their weight loss goals end up regaining some or all of the weight back.

Instead, to build lasting habits, we need to link our habits to our values. If you really drill down into why a person wants to lose weight, it’s often because they want more energy, they want to be able to run around with their kids, or they just want to feel comfortable in their own skin. These are the values behind the goal, and these have no clear endpoint. If you become more energetic, you can always strive for more energy, for example.

A great question to ask yourself, then, when you’re about to make a choice, is “Will this choice bring me closer to, or further away, from my values?” or, “Do I want to be the sort of person who would choose this?”

Don’t know what your values are? No problem. Have a good think about who you want to be, and what you want to experience or achieve in life. Write those ideas down, and also write how your life would be if you lived those values. Here is an example from my own list:

“To be healthy, fit and well. To be an inspiration to people. My body feels light and energetic. I am fit and I spend a lot of time outdoors. I am calm, unshakeable, and on the ball.”

Once you’ve written your values down, the next step is to write three changes you could make that would bring you more into alignment with each value. Make sure you read next month’s newsletter to find out how you can implement those changes in an attainable and sustainable way.

Willpower Hacks Part Two will appear in the Empowered Health January newsletter – just in time to help you with your New Years’ Resolutions! In the meantime, check out the book ‘The Willpower Instinct’ by Kelly McGonigal, which inspired many of these hacks.

Gauri Yardi, Naturopath Melbourne, specializes in stress and anxiety, digestive and skin disorders, and loves to help motivate people to make healthy and lasting change. To get Gauri’s help making those positive changes, call 1300 21 44 25.



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