Consistency Series: Mental Fatigue, Willpower, & Motivation
If you missed the Part 1 post on time and effort and how it relates to consistency in nutrition and exercise efforts, check it out here!
Outside of time and effort, the second most common issues surrounding consistency with nutrition (and exercise) have to do with mindset and mental fatigue.
“I wish I had more willpower.”
“I’m just not motivated.”
“I can’t resist.”
These are not uncommon statements. In fact, I'd venture to say that one or all of these statements has been said by nearly every individual at some point in their health and fitness journey. I know that I've said them more than a few times. Here’s the thing: they’re all bullshit.
Before we move on to discuss why they’re bullshit and what we can do about them, there is one big caveat that needs to be addressed when it comes to the realm of nutrition and mental fatigue. If you have been dieting (in a caloric deficit or on an ultra restrictive plan for non-medical purposes) for over 3 months with no reprieve, you don’t even need to read any further. Dieting is not a lifestyle. IT IS NOT. For your health and your sanity, you should not be spending 6+ months in an extreme dieting phase. You can not continue to cut and cut from an already low spot - it’s like trying to continue to remove pebbles from an already empty glass. If you feel burnt out and at the end of your rope because you’ve been dieting for an entire year, you may want to stop dieting and try maintaining for a bit. I realize that sounds scary and there is a lot of anxiety surrounding the issue of gaining weight back and such, but maintaining a new body weight and building up your metabolism are critical endeavors for long term health. If you’re a little freaked out, it’s okay. I recommend seeking out the assistance of a coach to help guide you through the process.
Beyond the constant diet cycle, there are several other factor that come into play when we look at consistency and compliance to a protocol (of exercise or diet). So let’s dive right in.
“I wish I had more willpower”
Willpower is a fascinating topic that has been investigated extensively. There are several different theories about how willpower works when it comes to things like delayed vs. instant gratification, if we have a set amount of willpower, and self control. One popular theory has to do with something called ego-depletion. Ego depletion states that willpower is a finite resource and that exercising self control requires us to draw from this limited pool. Once we’re out of willpower or have drained that pool, our ability to exercise self-control is impaired. There is some debate on whether ego depletion is real thing and what things impact it, which is beyond the scope of this post (see this meta-analysis for a good review). Why even bring up ego depletion? Because it hits on an important concept, which is that willpower is not rigid. Regardless of whether we only have a set amount of “willpower reserves” or infinite willpower, we can and should utilize willpower more efficiently.
I like to conceptualize willpower as a muscle (because meathead things) that can be worked over time. To illustrate this, let’s walk through a scenario about squats:
Trainee A is a brand new lifter. They’re really excited and enthusiastic to get started and today is their squat day. It is also the day they graduate to a barbell after spending some time learning good squat mechanics with other mechanisms. After some instruction, they put the bar on their back and proceed to squat. Since this is a new skill, they're likely trying to focus on a whole lot of stuff: sitting down and back, keeping their chest, gripping the bar, keeping their weight in their feet, etc. It’s a mentally exhausting endeavor.
Trainee B is an advanced lifter who has been training consistently for 5-7 years. They’ve been squatting 2-3 times a week for several years now. It is also their squat day. They warm up with a few sets and then put 315# on to do their working sets. They are focusing on a few specific items but they’ve also squatted thousands of times and have ingrained certain aspects of the movement. Their set may not feel mas mentally overwhelming (or rather, it may not be mentally taxing in the same way) as the new trainee’s set.
Both of these trainees have the same muscles that have the capacity to work in a similar fashion. Both trainees have the potential to build and express their strength and proficiency at the skill being addressed (squatting). The difference? The amount of time and practice the second trainee has had to build up their skill proficiency, muscle, etc. Willpower is no different! You have to practice and develop the skill in order for it to become “easier”. The more you practice, the more routine some aspects of the skill become and the less mentally taxing the skill becomes. Are there times when it is mentally taxing? Absolutely. However, by practicing -instead of throwing in the towel the second you have to exercise some self control - you build a stronger foundation to stand on.
“I’m just not motivated”
This is probably one of my favorite statements to hear because it speaks volumes about how we view motivation and attainment of goals. Now, I’m sorry to tell you that the way motivation is conceptualized and presented in the fitness industry is a lie. And here’s what I mean by that. Motivation, or the reason for behaving in a particular way, is usually extremely high when we start something. We are so stoked to clean up our diets, hit the gym, drink all of our water, and so on. This spark of motivation may carry us for a week or month but eventually, that spark fades and we are left feeling one of two things: 1) like there is something “wrong” with us for not leaping out of bed with motivation everyday or 2) like we should just give up. That is when motivation, as it is traditionally presented, is problematic.
Motivation is just that, a spark. It can ignite a fire in us and propel us towards action but it is not a sustainable source of everyday drive. If motivation is the spark, then discipline is the fuel source for the fire. No one, no one, wakes up every single day and leaps out of bed like an overly caffeinated Mary Poppins who is ready to eat chicken and rice, go lift, and do some cardio. And that’s perfectly okay. What is not okay is deciding to skip the gym or say “fuck it” on your nutrition plan because you’re not feeling like a Disney princess who gets dressed with the assistance of small woodland creatures (sidenote: where can I find some of those to do my dishes everyday?)
Instead of relying on motivation, we have to start to relying on discipline. Discipline is what carries you through. Discipline is doing the things you should do to reach your goals (those things that motivate you!) when you don’t feel like doing them. Does that mean doing stuff you hate? NOPE. You should be making goals and plans that are centered around the things that do set you on fire. You should try to have to the discipline to be compassionate with yourself when things don’t go according to plan (and that will happen). Make peace with the fact that, at some point, it is going to be hard but you’re capable of doing hard things. So do them.
“I can’t resist”
Is someone throwing cookies down your throat? If so, that’s pretty impressive. If not, then you absolutely can “resist”. Truth be told, I don’t love the term “resist” when it comes to discussing choices about food. You are an adult who has free will and the power to make choices about what you put in your mouth. There are certainly situations when it may not be socially appropriate to whip out some tupperware and there are definitely times when you should eat something different because life and stuff. However, it is important to own that choice. No one is making you eat or not eat anything. You have the power to make the decision of what you do and do not eat.
Beyond the fact that you can absolutely decide what you eat, I think this line of thinking is particularly damaging because it creates a negative self-narrative that can lead to some self-fulling prophecy. If you constantly tell yourself that you are going to fail at something, you are much more likely to fail because you have already set the expectation of failure. Telling yourself that dieting is going to suck and that you suck at dieting makes dieting extremely difficult. You would never tell a friend “Hey, I know you really want to do this thing but you’re going to suck at it and probably fail.”, so why tell yourself that?
It is also worth noting that sometimes having a small "taste" of something to "quiet the temptation" can do more harm than good. For a good portion of people, having juuuust enough of something the historically lack control around turns into a slippery slope of eating, guilt, and over restriction. It's okay to not have a "cheat day" or "cheat meal" if it doesn't work for you. Often times, life will provide little diet reprieves in the form of special occasions and no one should be dieting so often that they are going without for half of the year.
Bottom line: the story that you tell yourself about yourself can influence your thoughts and actions. If you tell yourself you have no willpower and are powerless to the influence of baked goods, you’re gonna have a bad time.
All of these topics can be an entire article or articles on their own (and they probably will be) but I hope this provides a brief snapshot of some of the more relevant points when it comes to consistency in dieting and exercise.
Part 3 will be coming next week!