We’ve all been there before. We establish a goal to eat healthier and not a week goes by when we come home from a long and stressful day at work, the leftover cookies from a friend’s party are on the counter and without even a slight thought, we scarf not one, but all five cookies from the plate.
For a brief moment, the original stress is replaced by that blissful feeling we experience when the sugar hits our taste buds. Ironically, we also know that the moment is short-lived and soon we’ll experience some guilt over falling off the healthy eating wagon. Little do we know that at that moment, we’ve also managed to weaken our willpower and self control.
This simple practice, which is completely under our control, can absolutely change your daily behaviors which can help develop much healthier habits and ultimately a healthier life.
So, how do we develop a stronger willpower and self-control?
A good place to start is reflecting on the lives of Stoic Philosophers. Stoicism is an ancient Greek philosophy (developed around 300 B.C.) which teaches the development of self control as a means of overcoming destructive emotions.
Nowadays, the word “Stoic” is often used to describe someone with no emotion. This is a misconception since one of the main ideas of Stoic teachings was to create a shift in the way we think; to learn how to control negative emotions in order to find and enjoy more positive ones such as tranquility and joy.
One of the lessons Stoic philosophers taught is that willpower is like muscle power. Similar to how exercise strengthens the muscles, working on strengthening the “will” translates to stronger willpower. The body can only adapt is there is consistent practice.
The Stoics would practice self denial on a regular basis; whether it was lack of food or lack of comfortable clothing, this practice allowed them to refrain from doing things that others cannot resist doing. As a result, they had incredible control of themselves. The self-control helped them align their life values, which ultimately increased their chances to live a good life.
“The more pleasures a man captures, the more masters he will have to serve.”- Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Stoic Philosopher
Voluntary discomfort is something that the Stoics practiced and although it may sound crazy by modern standards, it’s worth a try when you realize that you are broadening your comfort zone and eliminating the fear of discomfort.
If hunger strikes, try going an extra 20 minutes without rushing to the kitchen in order to eat immediately. Try getting up 20 minutes before the alarm goes off.
Discomfort and uncertainty allow for growth.
Here are 3 ways to improve willpower and self-control:
1.) Shift your Focus. Whatever you focus on expands! The more you focus on the desires that you want, whether it’s alcohol, excessive food or video games, the more you’re going to want those things. Instead, if you can shift your focus to becoming the best version of yourself, then things really start to change.
2.) Change your story. We have the power to create incredible stories in our own minds. Some of them can be empowering, while others can be detrimental.
When we’re hungry, it’s easy to say, “Well, I’m stressed out and I don’t have time to go make anything healthy, I’ll just stop at the drive-thru so I can be more efficient with my time.” Those words may be true, but if it’s repeated regularly, it can slowly shift you away from your core values and you may not even know it.
Stop trying to justify unhealthy behaviors in order to subdue negative emotions.
3.) Control your Environment. Sometimes willpower and logic alone can’t save us. The actions we take are often controlled by two powerful emotions; we do things seeking pleasure, or in order to avoid pain.
When you’re feeling weak, take a look at your environment.
In regards to healthy eating, a house full of junk food will only inspire unhealthy eating. Eliminating the junk food out of the house and replacing it with healthy food will exponentially change your behaviors, and also make it easier to make healthy decisions without fatiguing that willpower.
If you suffer from lack of control when it comes to eating, then taking the time to learn nutrition and the affects of how certain foods can spike and drop blood sugar will also help you better plan our your daily eating habits.
If you have limited willpower, that willpower is best invested in setting up a positive environment rather than wasted on having to fight against a poor environment.
This goes beyond the kitchen too. Learn to protect your environment in life. Try to keep screens out of the bedroom so you get better sleep, avoid toxic people as they can drain you, wake up earlier and develop some time for yourself where you can focus on self improvement in order to be more proactive as opposed to reacting to the day (via checking email, social media, news, etc).
I encourage you to try those three things as well as the voluntary discomfort once in a while. This simple shift in behavior may just bring to light a richer life that you didn’t know was within you.
This is incredibly insightful and helpful. I stop over-eating at meals years ago and now feel especially uncomfortable when I’m full. I now want to try what you recommend here – not making excuses (too stressed or busy to eat healthy). I think a small amount of discomfort is key!
Good work Jackie. It’s tough in the beginning, but just like anything–your body adapts to a stronger willpower. Keep it going and let me know if you have any questions along the way!