The Science Behind Willpower

Wednesday, February 12, 2020, in Wellness, Mindset by

Want to eat bananas instead of bacon in the morning? Train for that half marathon? Or prioritise your finances instead of spending ad hoc? All of these tasks require a lot of self-control, and there are some important things you need to know about willpower.



You may have heard the mantra ‘tell your mind what to do and your body will follow.’ It seems sensible that willpower works simply via your mindset, however, it’s actually a full-blown mind-body response. This mind-body response triggers a ‘pause and plan’ effect, which puts your body into a calmer state, unlike the adrenalin rush of stress, which depletes your willpower reserves and leads to poor decision making. The result is the difference between reaching for that chocolate bar or taking a deep breath and boiling the kettle for a cup of tea instead.

The Fix: Increase your capacity for pressure

Look for ways to reduce stress in all areas of your life. Understand how the demands of your job, family and other relationships may interfere with your ability to follow a healthy and balanced lifestyle. This will help you slow down and proceed with intention, not instinct.


Willpower is a finite resource – meaning you can exhaust your supply. Here’s why: Different types of tasks seem to draw on the same reserves of self-control. That means if you easily avoid a banana bread with your morning latte, but after a long day of making difficult decisions at work, you have much harder time resisting desserts or that second glass of wine. In other words, as the day wears on, people are more prone to give in to temptation.

The Fix: Eat for energy

When your blood sugar (aka glucose) is low, which is commonly seen in when crash dieting or skipping meals, it’s harder to control your impulses. Plan your meals and snack ahead of time. This ensures you’ll have stable blood sugars throughout the day and will avoid the temptation of choosing processed or takeaway foods when hunger strikes. Choose foods that have a combo of protein, fibre, and slow burning carbs, like wholegrains, legumes, with lean meats, nuts, leafy greens, or Greek yoghurt with fruit.


Changing habits is hard, and trying to make lots of changes all at once is a recipe for disaster. Why? New habits create some kind of stress on the body and coping with this stress depletes willpower – hence why relying on willpower alone is not the sole solution.

The Fix: Embrace social support

Share your goals and successes with friends, family or co-workers to keep yourself accountable. Another strategy is changing your environment. Whether it’s stocking your fridge and pantry with healthy foods to avoid ordering take-out the third night in a row, or laying out your workout gear the night before to motivate you to stick to training for that half marathon.


Willpower is like a muscle – It has to be trained and strengthened. Research shows that flexing your willpower muscle in one domain (e.g. sticking to regular exercise) can strengthen your resolve in other areas (e.g. eating and sleeping habits).

The Fix: Start small

Rather than decide to put all hands on deck to do everything at once, flex your willpower in one area you feel confident in. For example, eating a better breakfast instead of overhauling your entire diet. This will improve your self-efficacy (having the confidence to exert control over one’s own motivation and behaviour) which improves the likelihood of continuing other healthy behaviours.

Kathleen is a trusted health expert in the field of nutrition and fitness. She is an exercise physiologist and nutritionist, author and founder of The Right Balance. Follow Kathleen on Instagram and Twitter, or get in touch: [email protected]

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