Discipline, willpower, motivation — these are all great to have when you’re focusing on building healthy habits, but they don’t come out of nowhere. Although you might feel an initial rush of willpower when you start on a path of better nutrition and exercise, it’s vital to build your reserves of self-control mechanisms for all those many moments when your discipline might be tested.
“The more adapted you become to tapping into discipline, the more your mind will adjust to the new setpoints,” says Dr. David Greuner, head physician at NYC Surgical Associates, adding that much like your body begins to crave movement once you find a fitness regimen you love, your mind will start to want the buzz that comes from developing self-control.
“In the same way you’re training your body to adapt to any new exercise, you should give yourself time to focus on developing consistency when it comes to self-control,” he says. “That means recognizing all the ways it could be sabotaged.”
Greuner suggests keeping a journal of the times your self-control feels lowest, so you can recognize the effects of saboteurs like these:
When you multitask and take on numerous work and home responsibilities — especially common around the holidays — you may experience a major surge in cortisol, the hormone that helps you handle stressful situations.
That’s helpful in the short term, but if it becomes your everyday life, that elevated cortisol starts to derail your self-control, Greuner says.
“With cortisol switched on all the time, the body responds by keeping your blood glucose levels elevated to try and handle the stress,” he says. “That leads to a cascade of effects, including loss of muscle mass because your body is tapping into your muscles for the glucose. There also tends to be an increase in body fat, especially in the belly area.”
Messy kitchens can do a major number on your self-control, according to a study on snacking behavior that placed participants in either cluttered kitchen areas or tidy ones, and let them eat as many cookies, crackers and carrots as they wanted.
Those in the messy space ate far more cookies than the clean-kitchen group did, suggesting there may be a correlation between clutter and high-calorie snacking.
The researchers noted a chaotic environment can create a vulnerability to making unhealthy food choices, but that mindset matters as well. If you’re really committed to eating healthy, you probably will, but why put the strain on your self-control mechanisms? A little de-cluttering can go a long way toward keeping you on track with less effort.
If there’s one habit to change when it comes to increasing your self-control, it’s sleep.
There have been several studies noting lack of sleep is linked to overeating and weight gain, mainly because sleep problems — too little of it, inconsistent sleep schedules and waking up often — mess with hormones that are directly related to eating, says Dr. W. Chris Winter, author of “The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep Is Broken and How to Fix It.”
“Your circadian rhythms inform your hunger and digestion,” he says. “Poor sleep can throw those signals out of whack. What many people find is that if they focus on creating good, consistent sleep habits, it’s easier for other healthy choices to come more easily, like eating better food and exercising regularly.”
Taking on a new approach to eating can be a crucial first step toward your goals, whether those involve weight loss, addressing a chronic health issue or simply trying to get on a healthier path. But numerous experts note that using a discipline-only strategy doesn’t have great results.
“People tend to do well at first, and can thrive when they change their eating habits,” says Catherine Crow, nutritional therapy practitioner and founder of Butter Nutrition. “But when it feels restrictive, or like you’re depriving yourself, and you need to rely on willpower to power through your meals, that’s when you see increased food cravings and struggling.”
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t bother, she adds, it just means you may need to be more flexible in your way of eating and figure out what works best for you. Some people do well on a keto diet, for example, because they love the structure. Others need to build in more treats or to plan for high-calorie meals. Crow suggests taking time to contemplate what’s worked best for you in the past, and what approach is the least taxing on your self-control.
Why do so many jubilant New Year’s resolutions sputter out so quickly? According to some estimates, self-improvement and losing weight are the top two resolutions, but only about 8% of people reach their goals.
There are two main factors for the self-control sabotage, according to James Tyler Dodge a performance coach and sports nutritionist at Professional Physical Therapy in New York, failure to create a set of realistic goals and a lack of a plan to reach them.
“Getting to your goals is about progress,” he says. “It’s fine to have one big milestone to reach, but that can’t be all you have. Without smaller, realistic goals that follow a certain timeline, you’re going to find your self-control fading quickly.”
He suggests setting a timeframe for that large goal — for example, losing 100 pounds in two years or working up to walking 5 miles in the next six months — and then working backward to create mini-goals that can keep you on track and help you celebrate your wins. That provides a boost to your self-control rather than maxing it out.
Self-control and discipline sometimes get a bad rap because they sound like restrictive, painful strategies, but they can actually be freeing when you build them up over time, Greuner believes.
“Think of self-control as a muscle group instead of related to punishment or something negative,” he says. “You develop it gradually and then you begin to see results that are truly beneficial and help you meet your goals over time.”