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Willpower - Is It A Limited Resource Or A Bottomless Well?

Is is possible that willpower is in endless supply and that no matter what challenges are put forth to test that supply, it's always there? Or is it in short supply that, after a hard day of challenges, runs out?

There was a study done in 1998 that suggested that willpower is, in fact a finite resource. Subjects were shown a plate of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies and a bowl of radishes. Some of the subjects were asked to eat the radishes and some were given the cookies. Afterward, each of the subjects was asked to solve a difficult puzzle. The subjects who given the radishes only worked on the puzzle an average of about nine minutes while the subjects given the cookies worked much longer. It seems that the radish eaters depleted their limited supply of willpower not eating the cookies.

In another study, a group of subjects was asked to suppress their emotions while watching a sad movie while another group could react normally, without suppression. After the movie they were given a test of physical stamina. The group who withheld their emotions gave up much more quickly than the group who was allowed to express their feelings.

Having to behave a certain way in social or professional situations that require particular effort on a person's part can be mentally exhausting, especially when other resources are in short supply. If you are tired, have had a challenging day, or haven't properly fueled yourself throughout the day, you may find that your willpower becomes depleted so that, by the end of the day, you no longer are able to exercise the self-control needed to make healthy lifestyle choices.

Being expected to behave a certain way or use substantial amounts of willpower all day long may be the reason people find it hard to maintain their commitment to their healthy lifestyle choices when the day is over. Making healthy food choices that may require some prep time or choosing to exercise after a hard day of work, may be unappealing after spending the day depleting their willpower reserve.

Willpower depletion has a lot to do with belief however. If you think it's a limited resource than you will be more quickly depleted but if you believe the supply of willpower is plentiful, you are more likely to remain in control. Your supply of willpower is also impacted by your feeling of autonomy over your situation. If you perceive you have some level of control over your circumstances, you are less likely to become depleted but if you feel like you are a victim of your circumstances or have no control over what happens, depletion happens more quickly.

Willpower has been likened to a muscle that fatigues as it is overused, but like a muscle, can be developed and made stronger. It may take some attitude adjustment about your circumstances but it can happen.

Are you dreading the holidays, knowing that you won't be able to wear the same clothes on New  Years that you wore at the beginning of the feeding frenzy we call the holiday season? Are you worried that you might undo all the good you have done recently for your health? Do you think you might go off the rails with your food choices? Do the holidays get really stressful and cause you to make food choices that may not be very healthy? 

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