Do you blame your lack of willpower on your fat loss failures?

Well I’ve got news for you.

Let me start with the bad news – perceived lack of willpower is not an excuse for your fat loss failures.

And the good news? You can develop willpower just like any other learned skill.

Most people believe, particularly those who haven’t been successful in achieving a certain goal e.g. fat loss, that willpower is an innate quality, or superpower, bestowed only upon a few chosen ones.

But let’s look at what exactly willpower is?

According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, willpower is the ability to control your own thoughts and the way in which you behave.

Roy Baumeister, a renowned social psychologist, cited willpower as “what separates us from the animals. It’s the capacity to restrain our impulses, resist temptation – do what’s right and good for us in the long run, not what we want to do right now.”

In essence, it is the ability to delay instant gratification, or short term rewards, for long term rewards.

Research has demonstrated that willpower, or the ability to delay gratification is an indicator of success. The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment was a series of studies on delayed gratification in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In these studies, a child was offered a choice between one marshmallow, provided immediately, or two marshmallows, if they waited for approximately 15 minutes, during which the tester left the room. In follow-up studies, the researchers found that children who were able to wait longer for the two marshmallows tended to have better life outcomes, as measured by SAT scores, educational attainment, BMI, and other life measures.

This famous series of experiments demonstrated that the ability to delay gratification was critical for success in life. Success is therefore achieved by choosing discipline over distraction i.e. delaying instant gratification.

Willpower is trying very hard not to do something you want to do very much. – John Ortberg

However, we all know too well, it’s not quite as simple as choosing discipline over distraction, and here’s why.

What affects our willpower?

Our Environment

We are products of our environment. External, environmental cues have the ability to cause us to behave in certain ways.

The smell of freshly baked sourdough, oozing from the bread basket on a restaurant table, the buffet table of pastries at a morning meeting, the chocolate biscuits in the kitchen,

catching your eye, every time you open the cupboard door; are all external, environmental cues that can influence our ability to exert our willpower.

Sleep Deprivation

Research has found a relationship between sleep deprivation and reduced willpower.

Sleep deprived individuals are more likely to give in to impulses, have less focus, and make questionable choices.

When individuals attempt to control impulses or behaviour, heightened activity in an area called the prefrontal cortex is observed on imaging studies. Imaging studies performed in sleep deprivation research, have noticed a decrease of activity in this same area.

This suggests that the capacity to exert self-control could be impaired when an individual is sleep deprived.

“Effective leaders have the ability to consistently move themselves and others to action because they understand the “invisible forces” that shape us.” – Tony Robbins

These invisible forces include our environment and sleep deprivation, and now that we recognise and understand their influence, we too, can move ourselves towards action.

“People don’t just find…the willpower they need, they create it.” – Anonymous

So how do we create this willpower?


“The will to win is not nearly as important as the will to prepare to win.” – Bobby Knight

Aristotle famously said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

Prepare a routine

By preparing a structured routine, you are eliminating a significant proportion of daily decision making that would otherwise deplete your willpower. In doing so, you are setting yourself up for success.

Prepare your meals on a Sunday evening, which will armour you in the fight against temptation to go to your workplace deli at lunch time, or order a take away midweek.

Prepare your training schedule for the week ahead on a Sunday evening, and pre-commit to these sessions.

By removing these future decisions from contention, i.e. what will I have for lunch today? or will I work out today?, you are bypassing temptation before it strikes – willpower doesn’t even come into play.

Prepare your environment

We’ve previously identified that we are, indeed, products of our environment. It makes sense then, to create an environment that will cultivate success in our lives.

If you know the smell and the sight of that bread basket is going to test your willpower, then don’t wait until the crusty, fragrant, sourdough is on the table, and within reach to refuse it, decline the bread basket from the start, before it even comes into sight.

If those chocolate biscuits are testing your willpower on a daily basis, then put them out of sight. Further still, do not buy them in the first place. When you resist buying the biscuits in the supermarket, you only have to resist the temptation once, but having them in your kitchen, you are testing your willpower, every time you open that kitchen cupboard.

Prepare for sleep

Again, we’ve identified the impact that sleep deprivation can have on our willpower, so prepare for adequate sleep, accordingly.

Switch off – the light from phones, tablets, computer screens, and televisions can all hinder the production of melatonin, a hormone required to enter the sleep phase. Prepare for sleep by switching off all of these electronics an hour or two before sleep.

Relax – up to 50% of insomnia cases are believed to emotion, or stress related. Engage in the use of stress reducing outlets that will assist you to relax prior to sleep e.g. journaling, deep breathing exercises, mediation.

Remember, “Willpower isn’t something that gets handed out to some and not to others. It is a skill you can develop through understanding and practice.” – Gillian Riley

Hopefully, now that you have developed an understanding of what willpower is, and more importantly, what it isn’t, you can start practicing this skill, as you would with any other. Start implementing the preparation techniques outlined above. And above all, be ready and willing to screw up, more than once. As with the practice of any skill, you won’t always get it right. Even the most successful people in the world screw up. What separates them isn’t their willpower, but their ability to bounce back.