Do you often start the day with plans to eat healthfully, exercise and avoid getting trapped in the mental vacuum of screens big or small, only to find all your good intentions have fallen to the wayside by late afternoon? Why is that?
Do you find it easier to stick with the habits and behaviors you want to keep on some days than on others? Why?
One reason may be willpower exhaustion, also called decision fatigue or ego depletion. No matter what we call it, most of us experience it from time to time.
Personally, I most often experience it in the mid-afternoon during a very full workday, where I have had to do a lot of thinking, on other people’s schedules, rather than one of my own choosing. I am especially prone to it when I am feeling overwhelmed by how much I have to do and how many hours I am likely to be doing it.
Our brains are fueled by glucose. When we are at rest physically, our brains are responsible for consuming 60 percent of the glucose used by our entire bodies.
So, thinking hard, without adequate opportunities for rest, burns through a lot of glucose, leaving us feeling physically and mentally worn out.
This makes it harder to make good decisions and harder to stick to our goals and intentions.
We can’t always avoid this situation completely, so how can we minimize its effect on us?
Here are some things that can help:
- Expect it. If you know you have a full calendar of intense mental activity for the upcoming day, be prepared. Have healthful, nourishing snacks readily available. This way, you are less likely to grab a candy bar or chips. Fruit with nut butter; hummus and veggies or homemade trail mix, made with mixed raw nuts and/or seeds, dried fruit and a sprinkling of vegan dark chocolate chips (like Enjoy Life brand) are just a few of the options. Make sure it is something you like and make it easy, but also make it nourishing. When willpower exhaustion hits me, I often feel “desperate” for food. Knowing in advance what I pan to eat and having it easily accessible makes it more likely that I fuel my body and brain in a productive way.
- Oxygenate your brain and body. Breathing exercises are beneficial for helping to calm our nervous system and fill our bloodstream with fresh, oxygenated blood. There are many good options that can be done quickly most anywhere. Simply take a moment—eyes open or closed—and try this: First, breathe out forcefully through your mouth. Next, inhale through your nose for a count of 4. Hold your breath for a count of 7. Exhale with a whoosh through your mouth for a count of 8. Complete this cycle four times. This helps you relax by stimulating your parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) nervous system, and it refreshes your brain with oxygen-rich blood.
- Get up and move for a few minutes. When we are in the midst of busyness and mentally-draining activities, it can be hard to allow ourselves to take a break. One helpful practice that I have used for a long time is a brief bathroom-break walk. When I get up for a bathroom break, I take a quick walk on a predetermined loop. Since I have been working from home, it is a loop around the interior perimeter of my home, both upstairs and downstairs. It takes less than two minutes, but it gives me a short mental and physical break. As I walk, I do a mental run-through of the 3 Good Things practice, identifying three things that have gone well so far in the day. Then I think of three things to which I am looking forward for the rest of the day.
These three strategies don’t eliminate willpower exhaustion—at least not for me—but they help. When I am buried in busyness, it can be hard to discipline myself to take the breaks to grab a healthful snack, breathe or walk, especially if other people are around, but it feels good to take care of myself with these simple practices. When I use them, I am more likely to keep eating in a way that honors and nourishes my body, and the physical effects of stress feel less intense.
Do you experience willpower exhaustion? What does it look like for you? What helps to alleviate its effects?
In addition to the techniques I mention above, being clear about what we want to achieve and why can also help us stay on track with our intentions, even when willpower exhaustion strikes. Click the button below to subscribe to my newsletter and receive a link to download my Blossom 2021 Self-Coaching Workbook, with powerful questions to help you live the way you want to live and make the difference you are meant to make. Working through the questions can help you identify what’s really important for you and steel your resolve against the insidious repercussions of willpower exhaustion.
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