The Self-Discipline Muscle
Many patients come to my office desiring to loose weight, but complain of no self-control. They feel they cannot loose weight because they don’t have the willpower. Willpower, or self-control, is an elusive and mysterious thing. “If only I had more self-control,” I hear people say, “I could . . . ” exercise regularly, eat right, avoid drugs and alcohol, save for retirement, stop procrastinating, achieve a noble goal, or loose weight. A 2011 American Psychological Association study reveals that almost 30% of those interviewed felt that lack of willpower was the greatest barrier to making a change in any of these areas.
I meet and work with people every day who feel they have no willpower. In actuality, will power and self-control are learned behaviors that develop over time. Anyone can have willpower, you just have to understand how willpower in certain areas can be strengthened and what makes it weak. In fact, a 2005 study showed that self-discipline or willpower was more important than IQ in academic successes. This study also found that increased self-discipline lead to less binge eating, higher self-esteem, higher grade point averages, better relationship skills and less alcoholism. Fascinating isn’t it!?
The answer can be found in a quote from Henry P Liddon, “What we do upon some great occasion will probably depend on what we already are; and what we are will be the result of previous years of self-discipline.” This means that willpower or self-control can be learned or improved. How, you ask?
First, you must establish and write down a reason or motivation for change. In addition, that change must fulfill a clear goal. Just wanting to loose weight isn’t good enough. You have to be motivated because of a consequence that arises from the obesity or overweight. And, you “loosing weight” isn’t a clear goal. You must set a weight reduction goal. It has to be clearly written down with your motivational reason. Willpower or self-control cannot begin to form until these two steps occur.
Second, you must begin to monitor your behavior toward that goal. When it comes to weight loss, I ask every one of my patient’s to keep a diet journal. In this journal they are asked to write down every thing they eat and drink. The night before, they are to write down their plan for tomorrow’s meals, then the next evening, they account for their success or failure by journaling on that same page what they actually ate and drank, then after comparing what they did, they plan for tomorrow and journal why they were successful or why they weren’t. It’s the last part that is so powerful, a short 3-5 minutes of self-introspection. Self-introspection is the key to behavioral change. It is the key that allows a person to see their habits and then make very small changes that break bad habits, solidify good habits and strengthens willpower.
Third, willpower is developed over time. It is developed by being accountable to ones-self on very little things every single day. But it MUST be written down. If I planned to eat bacon and eggs for breakfast and I didn’t, why? When I look at my day, I may realize that I went to bed too late to get up early and cook bacon and eggs. So, instead, I ate a yogurt that was in the fridge. I am accountable to myself. If I plan to eat bacon and eggs tomorrow, I must either go to bed earlier, prepare them the night before, or throw out the yogurt . . . so not to be a temptation again. This is written down and I make a very small change tomorrow.
Over time, this self-introspection becomes easier and easier, to the point that you do it sub-consciously. It is this sub-conscious self-introspection and change will be seen by others as self-control or willpower. Just like a working or strengthening a muscle, recording short goals and and accounting for them makes your self-discipline stronger. The self-discipline muscle becomes more powerful. In time, a split second decision not to binge on that piece of cake will be seen as strong willpower by those around you. You’ll recognize that it’s just flexing your self-discipline muscle.
So, my next question to you is . . . where’s your diet journal?