Many people assume willpower is a limited resource, so if we try to improve in multiple areas at once, like say working out more and resisting junk food more at the same time, we will wear it out. Scientific justification for this came from a meta-analysis published in 2010 . Based on this, you may find authors recommending, for example, that you don’t try to start eating healthier and a new exercise program at the same time.
Stephen Guise’s mini-habits books are good examples of an approach based on this concept . This can work really well, causing you to make “relentless forward progress”, taking one small step at a time. Take one small step, say eating an extra piece of fruit a day. Establish it as a habit. Then take another step, cutting out potato chips. Establish it as a habit. Keep going, and don’t backslide on any of the progress you’ve already made.
But in a more recent analysis, the data the “limited willpower” is based on has been challenged . The new analysis was far stricter in choosing only studies that used tasks well-established in the literature as ways to challenge willpower, while the original analysis was looser in its criteria. The new analysis found little support for the limited resource idea, and even found evidence for the notion that willpower is improved by successively challenging it, which is referred to as “Learned Industriousness“. So rather than willpower being a limited “fuel tank”, it might be more like a muscle that can be trained to have more stamina.
All of this is explained nicely in an article in the research digest of the British Psychological Society, which is recommended reading.
The first thing to note is that this does not invalidate the mini-habits or baby steps approach. Even if our willpower is a trainable “muscle”, it might still be weak to begin with due to lack of use. But maybe after a few weeks of baby steps when you’ve made and sustained some significant changes, the steps could be made a little bigger. Maybe in the same week introduce 2 more mini-habits instead of one, like cutting back on another type junk food and walking further.
If willpower is truly not as limited a resource as previously thought, it also opens up the possibility of more aggressive changes. An obvious example is tv weight loss “makeover” shows. I recently streamed a fun one from Australia on Netflix called “Bringing Sexy Back”. The format is to take an overweight and usually sedentary person, and throw them in the deep end with both dramatic boot camp type workouts and major dietary cleanup simultaneously. This often involves the trainer showing up at their house and going through the pantry and frig and throwing away all the not so good food choices. The participants learn to eat better and work out more, and after a few months achieve dramatic results. We don’t know how it works out for them long term. Bad news came out about that about 3 years back concerning “biggest loser” participants: many gain the weight back, and further, have lower metabolisms so it’s harder to keep weight off. But the biggest loser competitors go through a drastic regimen of very restricted calorie intake and hours per day of exercise. Maybe the “push back on all fronts” approach would work better if the exercise and dietary changes were less drastic? There was only one season of Bringing Sexy Back, so it’s a small sample size, but it appears at least half the participants are still doing well several years later. The changes made during the makeover on that show were less drastic. I’ll revisit the idea of how big a change is too much below.
But there’s another drastic change many of us go through, and are woefully unsuccessful at, every year: New Year’s resolutions. We get pumped up by reading “New Year, New You!” articles late in the year, maybe have gained a few over the holidays, and are motivated to make dramatic changes in January. And it all fizzles out by february.
I think there’s a couple of main reasons this happens. The first is that it is often outcome oriented, not process oriented. The desired outcome is usually moving the needle down on that blankety-blank scale. Motivation can stay high as long as that happens, but peter out when we get a bad result or hit a plateau. This is yet another reason why the focusing on health, not weight approach is a good idea, it emphasizes the process (healthier habits), more than the outcome.
The second is that the changes made are too drastic and not sustainable. What if the changes were more reasonable, like maybe averaging a half hour a day of some enjoyable physical activity, while cutting back on junk and eating more fruits and veggies? The results would be more gradual but maybe the success rate would be higher.
I have personally experienced success with “Pushing Back On All Fronts”, but it usually happens when I have an athletic goal to focus on. I always lost weight and ate healthier the times I trained for marathons, for example. The long term goal of the race a few months away was good sustainable motivation for training, but I knew better than to ramp it up too fast because that could lead to injury. And as I got fitter I would seem to naturally crave healthier foods a bit more over junk.
More recently, since my post on July 29th I made serious but sustainable changes to both eating and exercise, and it has gone well. Of course that was actually a happy medium between a baby step and major change, as I was already exercising and eating reasonably healthily, I just got more serious about both.
I’m curious as to how small steps vs more major changes have worked out for other people, and invite comments on it.
- Haggar, M, et al, “Ego depletion and the strength model of self-control: a meta-analysis”, Psychol. Bull, 2010.
- Guise, S, Mini Habits: Smaller Habits, Bigger Results, Amazon Digital Services , 2013.
- Carter, E, et al “A Series of Meta-Analytic Tests of the Depletion Effect: Self-Control Does Not Seem to Rely on a Limited Resource”, Journal of Experimental Psychology, 2015.