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Willpower And The Willpower Gap

Written By Page Lauer • 4 min read

In the health and wellness industry, people give a lot of attention to willpower. Often, willpower is attributed to the thin, fit, and healthy, seen as a quality of great discipline. Thanks to science over the last two decades, we know so much about this incredible, personal resource! For example, we know willpower depletes over the course of a day and usually replenishes overnight. We also know that practice and exposure both strengthen and expand willpower. On the flip side, sturdy willpower isn’t a quality that only some are born with, nor is it a measure of personal strength as commonly believed. Learning exactly what willpower is and understanding what happens when it’s depleted can be fascinating. Today, we’ll explore Willpower and The Willpower Gap to stay strong on your health journey, even when willpower runs low!

What Is Willpower?

Willpower functions in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. When people use their willpower, scientists can actually observe increased activity in this area of the brain. Similarly, when willpower is depleted, activity in this brain area noticeably decreases. Specifically, willpower is in charge of resisting temptation as well as engaging in hard activities (i.e. exercise, eating well). Additionally, willpower is also in charge of performing tasks, regulating emotions, making decisions, and the ability to focus. Interestingly when glucose levels drop, which is common at the end of a long day, activity is at its lowest in this area of the brain. In other words, when you get home from work and expect your brain to make difficult decisions about cooking, portion control, food choices, and exercise, it’s quite challenging. This is human physiology, not deficits in willpower.

The Willpower Gap

I first learned about the willpower gap when reading Susan Pierce-Thompson, PhD, author, professor, and creator of Bright Line Eating. It demystified many questions for me. Pierce-Thompson cites research that using willpower in one area lessens willpower available for other areas. This means that if you answer 20 emails, make some tough decisions, focus at a meeting, and then deal with your kids or employees, there’s less willpower available to go workout or refuse a cookie. Though willpower replenishes each night, it remains a finite resource throughout the day. Generally, willpower often runs out somewhere between 3-6PM, explaining why so many go off track with health later in the day. Hence, the willpower gap.

What The Willpower Gap Means

When willpower runs out, unhealthy options come into consideration that would never be otherwise. Whether it’s resisting alcohol, fast food, sweets, overeating, or binge-watching TV, staying on track becomes exponentially harder when willpower is exhausted. However, there is good news. Here’s why. First, many frustrated health seekers no longer have to believe they are flawed or defective. Second, tools and resources expand as willpower no longer has to function alone. Third, significant health progress occurs when we anticipate and plan for depleted willpower.

How Can We Maintain Power When Will Is Low?

Here’s some options to consider, some positive skills that can take over when willpower reserves run low.

    • Primed Environments: it’s human nature to respond to cues in the environment. Set yourself up for success by making your environment pro-health! Examples include removing triggering foods, placing tennis shoes out, putting up positive images and messages, etc. Priming environments gives willpower a break!
    • Stock The Fridge: in advance, have healthy, tasty, food and water prepared. Whether this is ordering from a meal service (Trifecta or Thistle) or cooking in advance, when GOOD food is convenient, willpower is less necessary. Identify what meal planning or food sources look like, so meals are easy and convenient, giving willpower time to restore.
    • Thoughtfully Refuel: certain activities increase willpower in the moment. Schedule these on your calendar in the afternoon and evening, when willpower depletes. Examples include relaxing in a jacuzzi or shower, spending time with friends or pets, walking in nature, getting a massage, doing some stretching, practicing yoga, meditating, or going for a swim. Refueling willpower prior to the evening makes for much more successful nights!
    • Do Harder Things Earlier: if at all possible, do hard tasks when willpower is higher, usually before 3 or 4PM. Whether this is exercise, meal planning, work tasks, important deadlines, or challenging meetings; get ahead of the willpower gap by not expecting much of it when it can’t deliver.
    • Sources of Motivation: Inspiration and positivity play a significant role when willpower is depleted. This may be music, podcasts, role models/mentors, spiritual practices, friends, recent gains, rewards, etc. Plan activities and events that give you energy, especially when willpower is lacking.

The Bottom Line 

Willpower is a tremendous capacity within the brain to do really hard things and refrain from what sets us backward. Yet, there’s only so much willpower to go around in a given day.  In other words, willpower PLUS key tools and resources, delivers us to our health goals. To maximize use of willpower for health goals, use it earlier in the day and partner it with other vital tools and resources toward evening. It’s a game changer with health goals and we help our campers at Premier Fitness Camp tap into this tool everyday.

Willpower Tune Up

To make sure willpower is in its “sweet spot” and key tools are there when willpower runs out, connect with Page for a Willpower Boost – a 55 minute session that transforms health goals! Schedule Here

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