"Willpower. Our Finite Resource"*
* Title (Eagleman, 2015)
I have a confession: I have had a touch of writer’s block. I have been really stuck. I feel terrible for not having written a blog for almost 2 months now. In fact, these first few lines I have edited multiple times just to make them relevant. The 3rd sentence went from “not having written a blog for a couple weeks” to its current timeline of “almost 2 months”. I have sat down several times to begin and nothing has come fourth.
It has been a wonderful time to talk about nutrition related topics too! February was heart month and March is National Nutrition Month for Pete’s sake (who is Pete, anyway?).
Yet, my blog remained silent. - insert cricket sounds :)
I tried to dig around by reaching for books, flipping through magazines and scanning headlines in search of inspiration. That familiar “pull” to write about a subject did not present itself day after day. I did many other things to procrastinate. I did not sit down to write every single day or dedicate scheduled time to writing – like all the great guru advisors recommend. I end up spending time brainstorming or collecting topics daily and sometimes several times a day that just to have them lumped together like tangled necklaces. I tried to go through the motions and I now have an unorganized loose list of various topics and notes collected for potentially very good blogs but, I still didn’t actually write.
While I wish I could pinpoint exactly what obstacle prevented my momentum, I can only conclude that I simply didn’t do it. It was the complete opposite of the Nike ® motto - I “Just Didn’t”. I lacked willpower. I lacked the strength to stay still long enough in front of my computer to just start and finish writing something.
I finally sat down with intention in my heart and bit of guilt on my shoulders. I wondered what my topic would be but, it didn’t matter because I simply needed to find my momentum. I needed to wind my clock and get the pendulum swinging again. I opened a book that I have been reading called “The Brain: The Story of You” by David Eagleman. I turned to the page I had bookmarked when I first picked up the book and quickly realized I was not alone.
Come to find out, this enlightening book is also a PBS series. I tend to be a much better visual learner so I dove deep into this free on-line series. For today though, I am going to maintain my focus on the bookmarked page with the quoted title I used today.
What does any of this have to do with a Nutrition Blog? Let’s dig in.
On page 123, the excerpt with the exact title that I used today, was the first thing I saw when flipping through the book and it immediately convinced me to check it out (quite literally, I checked it out of the library and renewed it twice).
It explains human willpower. Willpower is what I lacked these last couple of months. I had used it all up on other tasks. We each have a certain amount of willpower stored up from our evening of rest. If you don’t sleep well, have on-going stress, chronic illness or pain your “willpower storage” could be depleted. A day could start out strong with a great breakfast, healthy lunch with a quick power walk and you cruise through headed into dinner and BOOM! You get a flat tire, one child is screaming, the other has a note from the teacher, your partner is late from work and the dinner you planned is impossible since you seem to be missing half of the ingredients. Sound familiar? You could even hold it all together and get through the rest of the day only to give yourself a personal “pat on back” with a secret pint of ice cream after the dust settles.
I have referred to this many times as “the walls that come crumbling down” phenomenon. Everyone has their own protective barriers up at the start of the day or week or month. The “to do” list is engraved in the stone surrounding them: groceries, dinner, practice, work, chores, avoid sugar, get to the gym, cut back on the coffee, have breakfast each morning, etc. Then something BLOWS up your walls. Sometimes big and sometimes small but it always depends. It depends on how much your walls can bare at that moment. I thought it was unpredictable. Then I read this book. Come to find out, there has been some amazing research on these figurative walls.
A study group was asked to watch a sad movie. Half of them were told to suppress any feelings, not cry and avoid showing any emotion, the other half were instructed to react as they normally would. After the movie, the participants were asked to squeeze a hand-exerciser. Those that suppressed their feelings were not as strong as those that were allowed to express themselves during the movie. The findings demonstrate that some of our stored energy was used to hold back the water-works or the laughs. Energy is required to keep our imaginary “walls” standing tall and strong. Once we have expended some of this energy, it is difficult to stay strong both physically and mentally, which can impair the ability to make good decisions.
Have you ever stood in front of an audience and had to maintain your composure? Smiled through pain or depression for family, friends or work? Have you ever muscled through a poor night’s sleep from caring for a child or an aging adult? These experiences and many others are taxing. They steal your energy or deny us the ability to recharge our batteries leaving us susceptible to making poor choices. We become less in control of our decisions and physically weaker.
Many of the decisions we make in this deprived state effects our health. We do not choose something healthy to eat; we do not exercise or stretch our muscles; we seek out quick energy from caffeine or sugar; we order fast food or just eat a bag of chips for dinner.
I will point out the word “we”. Yup. I have been there, more often than I care to admit. And guess what? I might be “there” tomorrow – who knows? But at least now I know it doesn’t have to be as unpredictable as I thought.
This new-found explanation for the reason we end up making poor decisions is not in any way an excuse. We cannot fall back on “it’s not my fault I lack the willpower to (fill in the blank), my brain is just really tired”. NO!! Instead, this is an opportunity to seek the root of our perceived failings and use our big homo sapien brains to stay ahead.
That’s right. We are human with the highest known level of intelligence. We do not have to give in to survival tactics to stay alive. We can plan, use critical thinking, ask for help and say “no” sometimes when we really cannot fit any more on our plates (both literally and figuratively). However, when we are exhausted, running on fumes and not caring for our body the perceived short cuts, rushing and stress responses are the methods that we turn to just to get through each day. These methods were never intended to be used for long periods of time.
How can we improve the strength of our willpower?
Why did I choose to not exercise this morning?
Why is coffee part of my daily routine?
If you set a reminder to go to bed earlier could it become your new habit?
What happened on those days that I grabbed that late-night snack?
We can replace undesirable habits with better ones with some concerted effort. Perhaps a short meditation before sleep improves your rest. Practice it routinely for at least 2 weeks and see if it can become a new healthier habit.
Switching to tea reduces caffeine intake and thus helps with most people’s anxiety.
Practice saying “no” and put less stuff on the calendar or start scheduling partner time, family time or you time.
Eat meals from smaller plates and stop eating by a certain time of night to retrain your appetite.
Meal plan by starting with the first step. Just determine which nights you can likely cook at home, which night you plan to have left-overs or know for sure dinner must be fast. Recognize that you should be eating at home 4-5 nights a week.
Any one of these are a step towards taking back control of your health and wellness.
What do these suggestions have in common?
They require awareness and focus. Awareness to initiate them and focus to maintain them long enough for the change to become your new normal.
Each new day reassert your personal health goals and they become easier to maintain with time. I encourage everyone to take on just one at a time since stressing over multiple changes easily puts us back at square one. Recognize what causes your willpower to begin to crumble or even occasionally fall and this awareness is fuels you to get right back on track.
Most of all, remember how good healthy feels!
Nutrition From Your RD,