Anyone who’s tried dieting has been lambasted with the concept of “willpower.” It’s a voice in your head that barks, “don’t eat this and that or you’ll get fat.” In the case of eating disorders, willpower also translates to willing yourself not to binge or purge or restrict.
That may sound like the right approach to healing. But if you think about willpower this way, healing is submitting to a punitive, parental force that tells you “don’t” when some other child-like part of you says "do." Maybe not such a good healing tactic.
Brain researchers think of willpower in an entirely different way. Willpower, in science-speak, is about choices and decision-making. Your mind makes a plan to act and then (here’s the willpower part) you choose whether or not you will carry out your plan. That’s the hard part. But you are in charge. You get to choose.
Scientists at Case Western Reserve are studying why the execution part of the plan is such a tough thing. It turns out that the brain resource you need to draw from in order to follow through on your best intentions is limited. It’s a kind of mental gas tank that can be overtapped.
Scientists know this because they recruited volunteers to do an impossible-to-solve puzzle. At the same time, the volunteers were also asked to eat radishes, a bitter but “good-for-you” food. Of course, no one really wanted to eat the radishes. And to make the distaste even stronger, the researchers presented other volunteers working the puzzles nearby chocolate chip cookies. This is the worst nah-nah-you-can’t-have-it temptation. Not surprisingly, the radish eaters gave up more quickly on the puzzle -- eight minutes sooner and nearly half as quickly as the cookie eaters. The conclusion: your willpower runs out sooner if you have to spread over two challenging tasks.
In recovery, the translation might be if you are trying to stop bingeing, for example, you shouldn’t file for divorce or go back to school to change careers – at the same time.
However, a common theme of recovery is that once a person starts to move forward, many aspects of his or her life start changing at once. You can use this reality to your advantage. If you time these changes things right after the other, rather than on top of each other, you actually can strengthen your willpower. The Case Researchers found that when volunteers did several unrelated tough tasks in a row, they were more effective having learned “I can do this” on a previous task.
“Willpower” is a brain muscle that thrives on training.
So, according to this research, a good way to plan to curb unhealthy behaviors is to clean your plate of as many other stressors as you can -- before you start. Then take on one life change at a time. If you can. Willpower, not self-punishment.