The Importance of Willpower for Weight Loss

On these forums you tend to see a focus on things like CICO (Calories in, Calories Out), nutrition, macro split, how much exercise to do, how much water to drink etc. All of these things are relevant of course but given those topics have been covered a ton I thought I'd post on what I consider to be the most important factor for successful weight loss that doesn't get brought up much: paying attention to willpower and making sure you don’t overspend it. The transition I personally made between being unsuccessful and being successful at weight loss actually had little to do with my understanding of what caused weight loss or what I needed to do for weight loss and much more to do with how I approached it in terms of thinking about it as an expenditure of willpower and making some intentional hard choices about where that willpower was going to come from.

So what do I mean by willpower? The way I am using the word I just mean the energy you have available to you to either do things you don’t really want to do or to enact changes in your typical daily routine. Things that are part of your routine can cost willpower if they are not something you would naturally do if given free choice. For most people that is what work is, they go to work because they need money not because they particularly want to go to work. That costs willpower to do. Any sort of change to your daily routine costs willpower as well simply to break the inertia of your normal activity. If you typically do X but you decided instead you are going to start doing Y then getting yourself to do Y costs willpower. How much willpower it costs has a lot to do with how much you enjoy doing Y and how much you enjoy doing X. For example if you love X and hate Y the willpower cost will be very high while if X and Y are equivalent for you but you are just used to doing X then the willpower cost will be relatively low to change. As an example for me getting a gym membership and going to the gym would be very high willpower cost while going for a walk would be low willpower cost (i happen to like going for walks).

The key idea here is no one has an unlimited supply of willpower, it is a finite resource. Once you are out of willpower in a given day you will struggle mightily to do anything outside of your normal routine. If you want to lose weight (or enact any change in your life), then that is going to cost willpower. The key to success is to limit the amount of willpower it will cost you so it comes as cheap as possible and in addition account for where that willpower is going to come from so you don't go into "debt". I think the number one reason people fail when they attempt to lose weight is they try to make too many changes in their routines all at once spending a ton of extra willpower they don’t really have while not changing anything in their lives that would free up the willpower they need to enact those things. As a result they stick with the changes when they are in the adrenaline of the moment of deciding to make a change but they quickly burn out and end up quitting.

When I was successful with weight loss it was because I did the following. I minimized the cost of willpower necessary to enact what I needed to do to lose weight and I made changes in my life that would free up some willpower. It had much less to do with what method I chose to lose weight and much more to do with thinking about how much it would "cost" me.

To decide what I needed to do differently that would cost willpower I made a list of everything I’d want to do to improve my health. Lose weight, get into better shape, be able to run a 10k in under an hour, drink more water, drink less coffee, put on an extra 5 pounds of muscle etc etc. Then I took a very hard look at my list and eliminated anything I thought wasn’t the highest priority and put everything else aside no matter how "easy" it seemed. So basically I just picked one narrow goal and chose to just “lose weight” as I figured that would be the highest impact thing I could do. I then made another list of ways I could possibly lose weight along with how much willpower I felt it would cost (just low, medium, high). I picked two things I could do to lose weight from that list that had low willpower, one that would change my calorie intake and one that would increase my activity level. The things I picked were minimal changes to my routine that required the least effort.

To decrease calories while maintaining satiation I chose to keep my meals the same but increase the amount of protein and decrease the amount of carbs. This wasn’t really changing what I ate so much as changing up the recipes, switch from rice to lentils or beans for example or just double the amount of meat then lowering portion size. Keeping meals essentially the same as they were in terms of taste. In cases of low nutrition high calorie foods like ice cream I just chose to limit my intake only as much as needed to hit calorie goal, so I still ate them just less frequently or smaller portions. I like meat and I like the foods I was already eating so this was low cost to me. I counted calories for a bit just to make sure it was on track and then kept that routine on autopilot to limit the willpower cost it took. For exercise I decided the simplest thing to do would be wake up 30 min earlier and use that extra time to change my commute from a bus ride to a 6 mile walk. So every day I walked 12 miles. My route was automatic (get to work) so it took no thought and in general I like walking anyways. That was it. I’d meal prep on the weekend (did that anyways), portion it out and then my workouts were basically my commute. If I went out to a restaurant I didn’t worry about it other than to just be mindful of my portion size and how full I was feeling. I did not add a complicated exercise routine, I did not change how much water I drank, I did not mess with my coffee intake, I didn’t attempt to put on muscle, I didn’t get a gym membership or sign-up for classes. I kept it as painfully simple as possible with minimal changes to my routine.

Still, even then I recognized this was going to cost willpower to pay more attention to meal planning, calorie intake and waking up earlier and getting myself to walk even if it was raining or I didn’t want to that morning. So I made another list. A list of things that were currently taking up my willpower including my job, aspects of my family life, meetup group, social outings etc. I then thought about what I could cut back on to make room. I ended up deciding that I had been pushing hard in my career lately doing 50 hour weeks and I should probably cut back on that a bit in favor of my health. So I made a conscious decision leave work 30 minutes earlier than I otherwise would have during the time I was planning to lose weight. That would give me an extra 2.5 hours a week of a high-willpower activity which would probably give me more if it cost less will to do.

Finally I just satisfied myself that this was a good plan and then committed to it wholly. I followed the plan to increase protein for satiation while decreasing carbs. I followed my plan to walk daily as my commute. I viewed each as spending willpower but recognized I had made up for that by leaving work earlier so it was taken care of in terms of my stress. I trusted in the system I established. My routine barely changed at all, I stuck with it for about 6 months and lost about 25 pounds of fat while retaining my lean mass (didn’t lose muscle).

Previous times I was unsuccessful I realized what I had done. Everything above was there, but on top of that I had tried to cut back on coffee, increase the amount of water I was drinking, add in a full weight lifting routine, nitpick my food choices to death, read up on whether I should be lifting heavy with low rep or light with high rep and added cardio and with all of that I did absolutely nothing to cut back on my normal routine load of willpower requiring activities and at some level I realized I was just pilling on myself in terms of stress. I started out enthused and strong and stuck with it for a couple weeks but eventually it would just fall apart. Couldn’t point to what caused it to fail, it just would after that initial excitement wore off.

So yeah, my best advice to anyone trying to lose weight. Increase activity a bit, decrease calorie intake a bit and intentionally don’t change your routine otherwise. Recognize that as harmless as it sounds deciding to intentionally drink 16 cups of water a day or cutting out soda completely actually does have a cost to it in terms of willpower and that that resource is limited. Ask yourself the hard questions about whether or not this change to your routine is absolutely necessary to achieve your goal and if it isn’t then don’t make that change right now. Keep it as simple as possible, realize it takes effort and try to source effort by reducing some other aspect of your workload throughout your daily routine to compensate. Don’t try to superman it. If there are other things you want to change in your life ask if they are higher priority than weight loss and if they are not then put them aside for now, you can come back to them once you’ve achieved your goal weight.


  • TrishaCisneros
    TrishaCisneros Posts: 171 Member
    I really needed this.

    Thank you
  • Aaron_K123
    Aaron_K123 Posts: 7,122 Member
    Great post. Fits in good with mine over in introduce me about making sure you have a good plan and choose choices based on you and not by changing everything based on success from others or because someone told you that this way is more successful then any other way and find themselves struggling to change their lifestyle to that one.

    I don't know if read it but I would like to link to your post in it to go with the other link to the must read stickies. Is that Okay?

    Yeah I mean you can link to anything you want on here, my post is no exception. Go for it.
  • Aaron_K123
    Aaron_K123 Posts: 7,122 Member
    I really needed this.

    Thank you

    Thanks, that is nice to hear.
  • Aaron_K123
    Aaron_K123 Posts: 7,122 Member
    edited November 2017
    One thing I've learned through my struggles with depression is that willpower is a muscle: it gets stronger if you exercise it! But OP is right too. Trying to exercise it in too many places at once will overwork it, the equivalent of a stress injury from trying to do too much too fast. The quote I chose for my profile is "how do you eat an elephant? one bite at a time" and that's how I try to approach my daily life. I focus on a few things until they don't take as much of my willpower any more, and then I add.

    My brother and I had this discussion not long ago, and he made the same argument you are making: that willpower can be grown through persistent usage.

    I can agree - to a point. Consistently using willpower to force yourself to do something you dislike can, in many cases, become easier over time as it becomes routine. But I think that there is still a limited supply of Willpower, and you can only grow it so far, and it really depends on what you are using that willpower for - as the OP said. Anything new is hard and takes a lot of willpower and determination to start; but things that you either enjoy or can come to tolerate, will take less willpower to continue as time goes on. But I think that if its something you hate doing, and continue to hate doing, over time, it will take MORE willpower to keep going.

    If willpower is indeed like a muscle that can get stronger overtime, I think that just like a muscle, there is a limit to the maximum efficiency you can get out of it - even the strongest man in the world hits a limit in what he can do that no amount of training will get him past; call it human physical limitation. No man is going to be able to lift a 10 story building, no matter how much training he does; its not humanly physically possible. I think that willpower, even if you can strengthen it, still has a limit to the capacity and like a muscle, once its stretched to its limit, it has to be rested to recover.

    So I think that there is a limit to what a person can use sheer willpower to accomplish, and it really does come down to the effort it requires that person to maintain it - and we're talking mental effort here, now. In some things, practicing that will power will make the task easier with time, but some things will always require an enormous effort from a person because of their personality and personal preferences, and the question becomes: is the effort and expense of will power worth the result?

    For me, it took some willpower to get started counting calories and logging. But as I established a routine, it took less effort for me to continue. But I'm somewhat analytical, so logging, planning, weighing, and strategizing appeals to me. Once I established it as a routine, it's not bothersome to me at all to continue; its become something that I don't think much about, that I can tolerate reasonably well.

    On the other hand, a few years ago, I tried joining a local gym, and hated every minute of it. It took a ginormous amount of will power to force myself to go and to force myself to stay through an entire workout. I hated every minute of it. As time went by, it didn't become easier; I didn't come to the point where I was enjoying myself, and it didn't become routine - I still hated it with a passion. So over time, I slowly lost the fight with myself to continue going. After skipping an entire summer, I finally just gave up and quit wasting the money on the membership.

    So I think the OP's point is spot on: don't make huge changes all at once, get to know yourself, your likes, your dislikes, and make little adjustments that you can maintain; don't waste willpower on something you absolutely hate doing unless you have no choice!

    Well said that was largely the point I was trying to make. Recognize and admit what is difficult for you and don't force yourself to do it just because you think you should (ie gym membership) because you are burning your willpower for probably less gain than you would have gotten distributing that same amount of will over things that you tolerate or even like.

    Take time to take stock of what you dislike, what you like and what you tolerate and think hard on which things will cost less willpower that will still have you making progress to your goal. If your goal is just weight loss and if you hate going to a gym but enjoy going for walks it is probably better for you to go for walks for exercise and use that willpower you saved to apply to other aspects of your goal like meal planning for example. Whatever it is you choose to do should have a focus on your goal and not be a sidetrack to it (like people who want to lose weight so they focus on making sure they drink 16 cups of water a day).

    I think the amount of total willpower people have does vary person to person and I think you can "exercise" and grow your willpower by doing things you are not 100% comfortable with. I think if you avoid anything you dislike and avoid any and all discomfort then you will likely have a much weaker will than someone who pushes themselves on a daily basis. That said I also thing there is a limit to how much willpower one can have. Using the muscle analogy I also think you build it slowly over time incrementally, you don't try to just lift the heaviest weight in the room you lift what you can lift but that causes you a bit of discomfort on those final reps.

    I don't know where I fall on the "willpower" spectrum. I feel like I am a very strong willed person. Even then I am conscious that I have limits and that I operate near those limits so that if I want to make some change in my life that energy or "will" has to come from somewhere else in my life, I can't just manifest it out of thin air and expect that to be sustainable.
  • CarvedTones
    CarvedTones Posts: 2,340 Member
    Aaron_K123 wrote: »
    I love the OP. Too many times people fall into the trap of perfectionism - and a lot of the messaging in society encourages that idea. It's a false dichotomy of all McDonald's or all homegrown veggies, and there are so many people on this board that struggle with it because it feels like not doing everything "right" means that you are wrong and a failure. Making changes takes energy and figuring out what changes minimize energy utilized to maximize impact is really the way to go.

    Thanks and yes I agree, there is an "all or nothing" attitude that seems pervasive. I think it comes from the culture embracing this "you can do whatever you set your mind to!" idea of "as long as you have a positive outlook you can do anything" that honestly is unrealistic. No, you can't do anything you set your mind can only do so much, so think hard about what you want out of life and act accordingly.

    With weight loss, as long as the goal isn't unreasonable I think it can be that binary. Either you're all in or you're not. You can make a single firm commitment or you can nurture your willpower everyday and accept that some days there just isn't enough to go around. It can easily turn in to a way to give yourself permission to stray from the path without accepting responsibility for it. This doesn't mean that you have to be rigid about never exceeding you calorie goal. You can give yourself permission to make an exception. But treating willpower like there is a finite amount seems like giving yourself permission to fail.