slider. ask sally. by Healthista

How to increase your willpower – advice that will change your life

Sally Brown

Ness from Caterbury feels she has no willpower and can’t stay motivated to lose weight because of her social life – we can certainly relate. Healthista therapist Sally Brown has life- (and body) changing advice

Dear Sally,

I am a student who lives with three others girls. When I live with my parents over the holidays, my motivation to stay fit and eat healthily seems to triple. I can only eat what is put in front of me, mainly being healthy, and there is less partying! 

My problem is, when I live with other people my age, my healthy eating habits and motivation to keep fit goes completely out the window. We all buy our food separately, so I can easily stick to what I know when planning my meals and buying lots of fruit and veg. However it doesn’t seem to make a difference when I am being surrounded by others who don’t watch what they eat.

Our social lives mainly revolve around food and drink. We go out drinking once or twice a week, which means the next day is spent indulgently eating. Or we will have a ‘night in’, which too, involves eating a large meal and baking something unhealthy, drinking wine and then having more dessert!

I try hard to stick to eating three meals a day, and avoid over-eating. But with such weak willpower, and easily influenced by people and environment around me, I’m finding it impossible to avoid the constant treats waved in my face and quality time with my housemates. It’s also proving difficult when I am under the pressure of university work, and all I want to do is comfort eat with some friends after a tough day.

How can I strengthen my willpower? 

Ness, 20, Canterbury 

Sally’s Advice: 

Dear Ness,

I have some good news – your problem is not due to ‘weak’ willpower, so you can forget about trying to strengthen it. Everything we thought we knew about willpower has been turned on its head in recent years. Research has shown that rather than being ‘weak’ or ‘strong’, willpower is more like a tank that starts off full every morning and drains away as the day goes on. Every time we have to make a decision or choice, you use up a bit of willpower.

Willpower is more like a tank that starts off full every morning and drains away as the day goes on. Every time we have to make a decision or choice, you use up a bit of willpower.

You use willpower when you tell a friend that her awful new haircut isn’t so bad, when you resist yelling at the old lady who stood on your toe on the bus, when you force yourself to listen to a dull lecture, or you focus on finishing off some work instead of internet shopping. There is also a theory that the tank runs out quicker if you’re tired, have a cold or have PMS.

woman tired on bed.Ask Sally. By Healthista

So by the end of the day, a lot of the time, you simply don’t have enough willpower left to resist that third slice of pizza or fourth glass of wine. But you can help your tank last longer, by establishing helpful daily habits that run on autopilot rather than drawing on willpower. Change expert Caroline Arnold calls them ‘micro-resolutions’. I’d highly recommend her book Small Move, Big Change: Using Micro-Resolutions to Transform Your Life Permanently. She talks about her frustration at not sticking to her healthy eating and exercise intentions, despite being a motivated, conscientious and successful person (she has an impressive day job in technology on Wall Street). But her breakthrough came when she tried making lots of tiny micro-resolutions. For example, instead of ‘stop snacking’ she decided to ‘never eat biscuits during meetings at work’. Another one was ‘never eat after 8pm’. That might be too early for you, but ‘never eating after 9pm’ could cut out that extra helping of dessert.

How about a micro-resolution that ‘half of your plate is always salad or vegetables’? Or one that you ‘never eat unless sitting down.’ Or ‘to follow every glass of wine with a glass of water’? Do you get the idea? They’re super-specific and framed in simple terms

As a bonus, it gives your food a chance to digest before bed, which will help you sleep better. How about a micro-resolution that ‘half of your plate is always salad or vegetables’? Or one that you ‘never eat unless sitting down.’ Or ‘to follow every glass of wine with a glass of water’? Do you get the idea? They’re super-specific and framed in simple terms and you then focus on sticking to them one day at a time. It does take effort but the theory is that, after a few weeks, you do these things on autopilot, so they require no willpower at all.

water and wine. Ask Sally. By Healthista

But there’s another issue at work here. As a double-whammy, you’ve also got the social pressure of fitting in with your housemates rather than being a party pooper.  It seems a bit unfair that you’ve ended up living in a house where everyone apart from you equates having a good time with consuming large quantities of food and drink (but let’s face it, they’re not unusual in that).

food at party. Ask Sally. by Healthista

Being the odd one out is an uncomfortable place to be so our natural instinct is to mould our personality so we fit in. It’s particularly true when it comes to eating habits – researchers from Arizona State university found that we tend to mirror the eating behaviour of the people we spend the most time with because there is an unconscious aim or belief about food that the group shares. In the case of your group, the dynamic seems to run along the lines of ‘being healthy is boring/hard work,’ with an undercurrent of ‘we deserve it’ when it comes to treats.

It also strikes me that at the moment it seems like you’re almost embarrassed about the healthy side of you. Are you worried about looking like a goody two shoes? I wondered how you’d feel about ‘coming out’, and being a bit braver about being the real you. You say you’re healthy at your parents’ house because you only ‘eat what’s put in front of you’. Then back with your housemates, you can’t resist the ‘treats waved in your face.’

But it seems that doing what you want to do when it even slightly deviates from what people around you want feels uncomfortable…. Being adaptable and flexible is a useful character trait, but not when it erodes your sense of self.

In both cases, you’ve conjured up a picture of yourself as being rather helpless. But now you’re a grown-up, it’s really up to you what you eat. You don’t have to eat what’s put in front of you at home (if you don’t want to), or join in with your housemates comfort food binges.  But it seems that doing what you want to do when it even slightly deviates from what people around you want feels uncomfortable. Did you grow up being told not to ‘make a fuss’, by any chance? Being adaptable and flexible is a useful character trait, but not when it erodes your sense of self.

It’s time to be a bit more brave about ‘being you’

It’s time to be a bit more brave about ‘being you’, starting with your housemates. I wondered if all of them were 100 percent committed to their party lifestyle? It could be that some or all of the group are just as sick of the booze and food binges as you are. Even if health isn’t top of their agenda, I bet they care about staying slim. You don’t have to preach, but I wondered what would happen if you were a bit more vocal about the things that you like to do, whether it’s how great your yoga class is, or how much energy you get from going for a run.

Have you ever thought about making one of your favourite healthy dishes to share on one of your nights in? Or suggesting you all do a Body Attack or Ballet Barre class together as an alternative night in, or hold back on the booze one Friday night so you can all do Park Run on Saturday morning? Or perhaps you could find a charity challenge for the group, one that would necessitate some regular training together, like the Three Peaks Challenge, a half marathon or a Moonwalk.

group workout. ask sally. by Healthista

Time will tell if you can ‘nudge’ your friends around to your way of thinking. While you wait for that to happen, how would you feel about widening your social circle and spending time with people who are on your wavelength and share your interest in healthy living? Developing a stronger sense of self and living authentically may mean distancing yourself from your housemates and making new friends, and I know that’s a daunting prospect, especially when you’re just finding your feet at university. But there’s no getting away from the fact that the closer your life reflects what you love and what inspires you, the happier you will be.


Send your questions to sally@healthista.com

Other Ask Sally advice columns:

‘Why do I cry after sex?’

‘I’m no longer sexually attracted to my husband’

He’s perfect but he doesn’t want kids- Should I leave?

‘I get so jealous when he goes out’

‘Why aren’t I happy?’

Sally-Brown-agony-aunt-by-healthista.com_11-300x300

Sally Brown, is Healthista’s resident therapist and agony aunt. She loves finding out what makes people tick and will winkle out your life story if you sit next to her at a dinner party. She feels lucky to make a living from hearing those stories, and helping people make sense of their lives and reach their true potential. Registered with the British Association of Counselors and Psychotherapists, which means she has the qualifications and experience to work safely and effectively, she also writes about emotional and psychological health for the national press. Find out more at therapythatworks.co.uk.

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