When many of us set out on a health and wellness journey, we tend to tell ourselves that all we need is willpower. We mistakenly believe that we can stick to our diet plan, sleep schedule, workout regimen or meditation program as long as we stay "mentally tough."
But that's a myth. Success in these areas has way more to do with something called "skillpower" — realistic goal setting and healthy habit-building — says clinical psychologist Gary Foster, PhD, chief scientific officer at WW (formerly Weight Watchers) and author of The Shift: 7 Powerful Mindset Changes for Lasting Weight Loss.
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In fact, relying on sheer will is a trap that can work against your aims. Here, Foster explains why white-knuckling can be toxic and offers healthier ways to stick to your health and wellness goals.
Why Relying on Willpower Is Harmful
Here's how willpower can be counterproductive — and even damaging — to your health and wellness goals.
1. It’s Unreliable
"Willpower, which by definition means saying no to what you want to do or yes to what you'd rather not do, is unpredictable and not constant over time," Foster says.
"Sometimes it's available and easy to exert, while other times it's impossible to summon, especially when you're tired, stressed or presented with situations that run contrary to your goals," he adds.
In other words, no one can have superhuman discipline and control 24/7. And let's be honest: Willpower is no match for screaming kids when you're trying to meditate, frigid temps when you're scheduled for a walk or a box of donuts at work when you were too busy for breakfast.
All this is to say, depending on willpower alone won't help you achieve your health goals in the long-term.
2. It Depletes Energy
Willpower — which is essentially the opposite of forming a habit, where behaviors are automatic and occur with little thought — requires immense intention and conscious effort, Foster says.
"Simply put, willpower is exhausting," he says. And while willpower may serve you on good days when you have a powerful pep in your step, it's bound to falter on other days when your tank is on empty, leaving you feeling depleted and discouraged.
3. It Can Be 'Shame-y'
"Willpower is perceived to be a strength, so when it fails, there's almost instant self-recrimination," Foster says. "Your inner critic starts up: I'm not good enough. What's wrong with me?"
But shaming and chastising yourself isn't motivating. "Actually, it can seriously undermine your efforts or even derail them completely," Foster says.
Willpower is no match for screaming kids when you're trying to meditate, frigid temps when you're scheduled for a walk or a box of donuts at work when you were too busy for breakfast.
What to Do Instead
When you're working toward a health goal, these smart strategies will help you build the skills you need to rely less on wavering willpower.
1. Work on Habit-Building
People who prioritize healthy behaviors often rely on a set of habits rather than willpower. "With practice and repetition, habits become second nature, require almost no thought and can lead to success," Foster says.
To create a new habit that sticks, take these steps (then keep repeating them), he says:
- Identify a simple behavior. ("I want to start working out on my new exercise bike.")
- Pair it with a specific cue that you're exposed to regularly. ("I'm going to get on the bike when I get home from work at 6 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays.")
- Follow it up with a positive reward. ("I get to take a relaxing bath and listen to my favorite podcast after my sweat session.")
And here's the good news: "Once established, it takes a lot to dislodge habits," Foster says. "In fact, they are likely to continue even if you lose motivation or interest — that's how ingrained they can become," he says.
2. Set Realistic Goals
When it comes to forming healthy habits, starting with reasonable expectations is key.
Dr. Foster suggests doing an audit of your goals: Are they incremental and realistic? For instance, "swearing off ice cream when you normally eat it four nights a week is far harder than cutting back to one or two nights," he says.
To set realistic and sustainable behavioral goals, Foster suggests following the four-step STAR method:
- Specific: "Be clear on what you want to accomplish — set your intention by asking yourself what, how, when and where," Foster says. For example: I will eat a salad with greens, red peppers, carrots and avocado for lunch every Monday and Thursday at 12:30 p.m. in my kitchen, and I will prepare the veggies the night before.
- Truly doable: Again, realistic expectations are essential to set yourself up for success. So, taking the above example, if your week is looking busy, commit to prepping one salad instead of two, Foster says.
- Active: "Focus your goal on doing rather than stopping," Foster says. For example, building a habit of eating a salad twice a week is better than saying I won't eat pizza for lunch.
- Relevant: "Your goal should be meaningful to you and tie into what you want to achieve down the road," Foster says. For example, you might think: Having a salad for lunch will help me feel more energetic in the afternoon, so I can play with my kids after work.
Instead of taking a black-and-white approach, focus on the big picture and your progress over time. You are not your slip-ups. Cut yourself some slack. Give yourself some grace.
3. Nix the All-or-Nothing Thinking
"It's almost inevitable that every health and wellness journey will be met with setbacks," Foster says. "Maybe a busy week comes along, and you miss a couple of yoga classes, or a stressful work Zoom call has you mindlessly finishing a bag of chips."
Life happens, and despite our best intentions, our plans get derailed sometimes. "The truth is, it's how you think about these setbacks that's important," Foster says. The best way to handle a stumble is to shake it off and keep it moving.
But if instead you get deeply discouraged and throw your hands up (I ate three pieces of pizza — my week is ruined, so I might as well eat the whole pie), you turn a temporary setback into something that can throw you off course entirely.
When you're falling into this unproductive and harmful all-or-nothing mindset, Foster recommends taking a step back and thinking about it like this: If you spill a little wine on your carpet, does that mean the whole thing is ruined? Of course not.
"So instead of taking a black-and-white approach, focus on the big picture and your progress over time," he says. "You are not your slip-ups. Cut yourself some slack. Give yourself some grace."
4. Utilize Support Networks
When starting out on a lifelong journey of health and wellness, no one should have to face the challenges or walk the road alone. Indeed, research shows that support networks — "people who provide you with acknowledgement, encouragement, specific information and resources to help you succeed" — are essential tools in achieving health and wellness goals, Foster says.
Here are some tips to help you get the most from your support networks:
- Be specific about what you need from someone. "Vague statements like I want you to be supportive don't give much direction," Foster says. Instead, say something like: If you could do the dishes this evening so I can take a walk, that would be great, or if you put the cookies in the cabinet rather than on the counter, that would be amazingly helpful.
- Find your tribe. "Drawing on the wisdom and experience of people who share your goals can be affirming," Foster says. "For people who aren't on the same path, look for those who aren't judgy, who listen carefully, who are empathetic even if they can't relate and who leave you feeling stronger and happier after you talk."
- Learn to say no. Setting appropriate boundaries and putting your needs forward is fundamental for a successful health and wellness journey. For example, you may need to place "guardrails around the things that are critical to meeting your goals, such as saying no to requests that conflict with the times you've carved out for exercise," Foster says. And don't worry about hurting someone else's feelings by saying no. "You're not being rude or selfish when you pull out a sorry, I can't," he says.
Examples of Healthy Support Networks
Need a little inspiration? Here are some ways to utilize your support networks:
- Challenge a friend to see who can walk the most steps in a week.
- Send a buddy photos of your meals.
- Do a virtual spin or yoga class with a friend.
- Share healthy recipes and prep meals over Zoom with an out-of-town friend.
- Start a book group that focuses on inspirational people and themes.
- Volunteer, tutor or get involved in a community project — widening your circle by doing good can lead to a positive mindset.
- Join an online community like WW’s Connect or the LIVESTRONG Challenge Group.
5. Have Self-Compassion
Striving to reach healthy goals is hard work. That's why it's important to be caring to yourself along the way. "Self-compassion makes any health journey positive, not punitive," Foster says.
- Being kind to yourself (rather than engaging in self-criticism) when you have setbacks.
- Being mindful and accepting your experiences right now for what they are without judgment.
- Recognizing that imperfection is human — not achieving a goal the first time (or fifth time) is something that happens to everyone, not just you.
In fact, showing compassion toward yourself can help you achieve your aspirations, especially if they involve losing weight. Research on weight loss tells us that people with higher degrees of self-compassion are better able to maintain a healthy diet, have better overall health, experience less fear of setbacks and enjoy a more positive outlook, Foster says.
Still, learning how to embrace a self-compassionate mindset may be a challenge for some, especially if you're accustomed to being more self-critical.
"One proven way to improve your self-compassion is to talk to yourself like you would your friend," Foster says. "What would you say to [them]? How would you say it? When you recognize how you show compassion to others, it can become easier to apply that compassion inward," he says.
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