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Alex Allan Nutrition
By Alex on 08/01/21 | Nutrition Tips

"Men are rather reasoning than reasonable animals for the most part governed by the impulse of passion"

- Alexander Hamilton, 1802

It's January. Everywhere you go you'll see images and messages about change. Changes in diets. Changes in exercise patterns. New challenges to try - dry January, Veganuary, walking challenges, drawing challenges. It's a great time of year to start working on these new things - a time to re-assess our lives and see what we'd like to tweak. But how can we make these changes stick? How do we know we're not going to be popping those new watercolour paints into the bottom drawer with last year's hobby?

To begin with we often try to rely on willpower. Willpower can be defined as the ability to delay gratification, resisting short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals, or what could otherwise be called resolve. Secondly, it can be defined as the capacity to override an unwanted thought, feeling, or impulse, or what could be termed suppression. For example, when you find yourself heading towards that leftover box of Christmas chocolates, you resolve not to eat it so you can have the reward of not gaining weight, and you also suppress the urge to eat them all because they are delicious.

This combination of resolve and urge suppression requires a great deal of self-control. However, research shows us that when we use willpower to resist temptation, this can leave us with less self-control to tackle other challenges. In a recent report, the American Psychological Association stated "A growing body of research shows that resisting repeated temptations takes a mental toll. Some experts liken willpower to a muscle that can get fatigued from overuse". So by resisting eating those chocolates, you may find yourself reaching for a burger later on, rather than the salad that you had planned to have.  In a world where we have so many distractions competing for our attention - social media, one-click shopping, online streaming - the ability to resist tempation may get sapped quite early on.  And additionally, it may have a knock-on effect on our ability to control our emotions, behaviours, or thoughts.

However, this doesn't mean we should give up! What can help us to ensure we keep going with that early morning yoga practice?  Recent research has shown us that building habits may help maintain an activity indefinitely. A habit may be defined as responses that develop over time when people do the same thing in the same context. Habit building can be encouraged by including some or all of the following:

  • Creat a behaviour chain or trigger - for example, if I regularly leave my yoga mat next to my bed along with my yoga clothes, when that alarm bell goes at 7am I'm ready to get dressed and get going, without the thought of having to coerce myself into doing it.
  • Narrow down your options - this stops willpower being involved too much! And allows you to focus on what you really want to change.
  • Make it daily - and mark that time out on your calendar. Consistency is key in laying down new habits. 
  • Keep going for 66 days - research shows that's the magic number to make it stick! 
  • Start simple - don't try and change everything at once. Rather than throwing everything out on day 1, make a plan to simplify and make small changes each week. If it's a new way of eating you're after, start with your breakfasts - build this habit. Then move on to lunch, and so on. This way it will really stick.

So maybe if you're looking to tweak how you eat, exercise, or live your life, rather than relying on willpower and self-control to keep it going, have a look at how you can build it into a habit. Then it may last a lifetime.

Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash

Ainslie G (2020) Willpower Without Effort Behavioural and Brain Sciences 1-81 DOI: 10.1017/S0140525X20000357
American Psychological Association (2021) What You Need to Know About Willpower: The Psychological Science of Self-Control last accessed online 08.01.2021 at
Duckworth AL Milkman KL Laibson D (2018) Beyond Willpower: Strategies for Reducing Failures of Self Control Association for Psychological Sciences 19 (3) 102-129
Neal DT Wood W Drolet A (2013) How Do People Adhere to Goals When Willpower is Low? The Profits (and Pitfalls) of Strong Habits American Psychological Association 104 (6) 959-975

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