Working Your Willpower

By on August 13, 2015

Willpower comes in limited supply. It’s just another in a long line of reasons why you should decrease stress. Reducing life stressors helps not only decrease cortisol, but it also helps you not have to use your super willpowers.

No matter how disciplined you are, each time you take a chunk out of your willpower armor you risk missing a workout, choosing a fast food option, or simply compromising the positive habits that lead to your success.

You should eat before you go to the BBQ so you won’t be tempted. That’s common advice. It’s not just about hunger and physical desire.

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It’s also about willpower, which will be weakened by low glucose levels your brain needs. Restore run-down willpower by restoring glucose levels. That snack of crudités and hummus before you show off the little black dress can just save you unwanted calories of the wrong type.

If you’re driven by internal beliefs and desires about your health choices you don’t have to use as much willpower. If you have to use self-control you’ll be more easily depleted. If you’re allergic to chocolate (I’ll send a card!) and break out in hives, you’re not going to have to use much willpower to say no. Easy peasy for you. Say, you believe that the rich desserts will leave you feeling sapped later you’ll have less of a problem passing them up. If you love your chocolate and avoiding it makes you feel deprived you’re going to call on willpower to pass that dessert table.

Imagine you really love to exercise or you want results yesterday and you’re advised to rest more often or do light exercise. You’ll have to use willpower to resist your natural tendency to push it. If this is a foreign concept to you, just know that it does exist!

Driven by internal goals to complete a marathon or triathlon, you can get up early, give up social time, and do the extra laundry.  If you don’t have value in accomplishing that kind of goal and don’t have a coach or compelling reason to do it, your willpower may not last the months of commitment it takes.

Reduce Your Need For Willpower

If you don’t love exercise, do it early. You’ll have fewer obstacles, eat better all day, and get more work done in less time all in a better mood. You also have a full tank of willpower early in the day. Most of us put up with toxic stressors all day we take for granted. Constant interruptions during your work, distracting buzzing or ringing of your cell phone and walking traffic fountain passing your office door all require a small dose of your willpower in order to focus.

By nighttime, your willpower may be on E. The workout bag in the backseat may be ignored. The dinner out with friends becomes not one but two cocktails. The salmon and steamed veggies become fettuccini Alfredo and cheesecake.

Whatever you’re trying to do make it easier. Whatever you’re trying to avoid, make it harder. Put your workout clothes and shoes out in plain sight. Keep the ice cream down the street at the store.

Can you increase your willpower? Even knowing that you have a limited supply, it is possible to increase that limit. Turns out increasing willpower can happen with small things and spill over to other areas. Aim for stretching 5 minutes a day. Cue yourself to do it with an activity that you already do. Every time you … make a phone call or brush your teeth before bed. Coupling a new habit with the one you already have makes the reminder come automatically.

Other Willpower Saboteurs

When you’re low on sleep and or low on energy and brain-boosting glucose your willpower is depleted. That makes trying to finish the project by pushing lunch back an hour or two a bad idea. You’re not going to get your best effort and what you do get will take you longer to produce.

Delayed gratification can increase your self-control (aka willpower). Say, for instance, you look forward to exercising. You know you need to focus on work priorities that are most important to your work success first, while your brain is fresh. You’re not going to skip a workout if it’s been a habit for 30 years. You will lose the ability to focus and concentrate as the day goes on, however.  Your most creative juices flowing early.

So instead of getting up and exercising first thing as an exercise lover you might work an hour or two first (with a break) and dangle exercise like a carrot. Just putting that off increases your willpower. For optimal productivity try to work in 90-120-minute blocks. Your body has sleep cycles that last about 90 minutes and it turns out it also has wake cycles. Break for a light meal, hydrate, or stretch. Then, 10-minute refresher done, you’ll focus better for another block or exercise. Do less creative tasks later in the day. Meetings, research, and returning emails are things that have to be done but take less creativity go here.


On the other hand, let’s say you’re not in love with exercise yet. (Hater is such a strong word). Setting rewards for exercise that you might have snickered at in the past can increase your willpower. Say your first goal is to walk 20 minutes six days a week. Whether you reward yourself with new iTunes songs to listen to while you walk or a pair of shoes to make it more comfortable to walk that reward matters. It helps you to follow through with a goal that isn’t something easy. The change is the breakthrough you have to make. Like the space shuttle getting through its barrier, you have to launch yourself through the change. Once you do it takes far less energy because you can enjoy the ride. Good nutrition feels good. The right dose of exercise feels good.

Build Your Willpower

1. Couple a behavior you already have with one you want to add to increase your rate of success.

Every time I _________________ I will ____________________.


Talk on the phone… Stand up and stretch

Fill up my car with gas…. Check that I’ve exercised three times in the last week

Do a load of laundry…. Take a short brisk walk during the wash cycle

Put dinner in the oven….do a yoga tape or stretch

Clean the house…. Have a high protein smoothie (Personally, I should reverse this one!)

Take a shower…. do ankle mobility exercises

Go to the bathroom… drink a cup of water

Brush my teeth… tell myself today is going to be a healthy day

Drive home from work… stop at the fitness center


2. Add a reward to make the change even more appealing.

Every time I __________________ I will ____________________.


Go for a swim… Spend time in the sauna/steam.

Strength train… Give myself 10 minutes of massage at the end of the month

Perform cardio exercise… add $5 to a fund for new workout clothes

Reach my weekly exercise goal… buy new iTunes songs

Do cardio exercise… watch my favorite TV shows


Debra Atkinson, MS, CSCS – Founder & Barely Boomer, Voice for Fitness

About Debra Atkinson

Debra Atkinson, MS, CSCS is America’s Boomer Fitness Expert, speaker, and author of Navigating Fitness After 50: Your GPS For Choosing Programs and Professionals You Can Trust. After 30years in the fitness industry Debra committed to making sure women have good choices, real answers and putting an end to the diet and exercise confusion. Her new book, The After 50 Fitness Formula for Females based on her women’s coaching workshops is due out in 2016. Visit Debra at

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Working Your Willpower