Sarah Land

It’s that time again… Busy season. Days and weeks are long, schedules are hectic, and stress is high for many. During this period, you may struggle to meet life’s basic requirements, let alone indulging in the “luxuries” of mental and physical health, self-care, or relationships. Even so, prioritizing your wellness is more important now than ever.

Dedicating yourself to your health may seem unfeasible when you’re stretched so thin. In fact, making the right choices related to our well-being is never easy, and especially not when you’re building new habits. If you ever feel like a failure for not conquering your own will, you’re not alone in the battle.

Did you know:

  • Self-control is a limited resource. Participating in one act of self-control engages the executive function in your pre-frontal cortex, where you process and prioritize competing interests. Studies have shown that self-control appears to rely on glucose as a limited energy source. After a single act of self-control, blood glucose levels drop, so any subsequent attempts to do right may be slightly impaired. (Baumeister, Gailliot, DeWall & Oaten, in press Muravan & Baumeister, 2000).
  • There is a price to be paid for resisting temptation. Each time you overcome temptation, willpower declines, and the feeling of missing out increases. This is known as temptation cost, and the greater the temptation, the more it costs you.
  • You’re at odds with yourself. Each decision-maker consists of two selves; the long-run and short-run self and these two do not play nice. Your long-run self likes to plan for the future and your short-run self is responsible for execution. These functions take place in different parts of your brain. Your long-run self engages the executive function of your pre-frontal cortex and the short-run self lives in your amygdala (think fight or flight). Your long-run self is able to override your short-run impulses but this can only happen when you’re not dealing with other, more pressing concerns (like those of busy season).
  • It’s hard to delay gratification. Have you ever laid out plans, exercise clothes, and running shoes for the next day, committing yourself to a morning workout only to hit snooze until it is too late to go? We can thank our conflicting selves for this but it also relates to a phenomenon called hyperbolic discounting, where we have the tendency to opt for a smaller, more immediate reward over a more valuable reward later; in this case the comfort of your bed vs. increased energy, weight-loss, confidence, etc.
  • When you’re emotional, judgment suffers. When charged with emotion or stress, the limbic system in our brain is turned on. This is known as a hot state. In a hot state, judgments are automatic, driven by impulse and reflex rather than logic. This makes you more prone to affective bias, leading you to find evidence that supports the more comforting desire to slack off.

Reading this, you may feel like the cards are stacked against you, and in some ways they are. However, with knowledge of your inner workings, you acquire the ability to counter these less-than-desirable “mind quirks.” Here are some strategies for addressing the challenges laid out above:

  • Remove temptation. If battling your own will essentially weakens your ability to make the right decisions, the solution is to remove or decrease the need for decision making and therefore, lessen the need to impose your will upon yourself. Here are a few ideas:
    • Order groceries so you aren’t tempted to pick out unhealthy items as you walk store aisles
    • If you plan to wake up early for some exercise or another form of self-care, place your alarm on the other side of the room so you must get out of bed to turn it off.
    • Eating out? Avoid a menu full of unhealthy choices. If you’re with company, have them read the healthy options aloud to you and order on your behalf.

This reminds me of one of my favorite books, Atomic Habits by James Clear. In it, he suggests that to change a behavior you must make the positive choice obvious, attractive, easy and satisfying. For more on this, read this great article by James on How to Start New Habits That Actually Stick.

  • Replenish self-control. For example, if you’ve been working all day and plan to go to the gym after work, give yourself 10-15 minutes to do whatever you want before you go, preferably something you haven’t been able to do while working; like scrolling through social media, taking a walk or a 15-minute power nap.
  • Reduce self-control drains. If you can help it, limit time spent with people who are a negative influence on your wellness, in turn reducing your already limited ability to resist temptation. Instead, when you have time, spend it with those that have shared interests in their well-being and yours, too.
  • Eat a balanced diet. Knowing the link between self-control and glucose, you understand that low blood glucose levels reduce your ability to overcome your will. Seek out healthy foods that increase your glucose levels (in moderation), especially if you’re feeling tired, distracted or mentally weak. Healthy options to boost your levels include carbohydrate-rich foods such as fresh or dried fruit, milk, whole grains and honey. To prevent energy crashes, pair these foods with healthy fats and proteins.
  • Avoid distractions. Positive decisions are easier to make and follow through on when you are not distracted, allowing you to direct your cognitive function away from impulses and the immediate demands of your environment and toward healthier decisions. When engaged in a home workout, for example, try to have your other responsibilities on hold, out of sight or taken care of… “Honey, can you please watch the kids?”
  • Consider taking supplements to boost dopamine. Dopamine plays a role in cognition, memory, motivation, mood, attention, and learning. As a result, when levels are low, your decision-making ability is affected too. Click here for a list of dopamine-boosting supplements and consult a physician if you wonder if one or more of these might be of benefit to you.
  • Regulate your emotions with meditation, breathing exercises, yoga or another mild-to-moderate exercise. Avoid those emotionally charged hot states by soothing your central nervous system. You can find a number of resources online; on YouTube or through the use of an app like Calm, Insight Timer, Headspace, Glo, AloMoves and more.
  • Identify triggers. At the end of your day, take a moment to reflect on the specific moments that put in you into stressful states. Try capturing three wins for the day and commit to one thing to improve upon the next day. As you do, consider if there is any way to prevent these hot states, or if not, to moderate your reaction to them. Tamera Loerzel explored some great ways to Stay Positive in this popular blog.
  • Remind yourself of the benefits of a healthy activity while you’re doing it. This increases your motivation to carry on when you’re in the thick of something good for you that might feel unpleasant in the moment, such as a tough workout. Try to recall the last time you completed a challenging workout and mentally list the positive outcomes of doing so. Another perk: this may keep your mind a little further from any discomfort you’re feeling.
  • Incorporate Mastery. Okay, okay, mastery might have to wait until after busy season. But if you want to keep intrinsic motivation high, prioritize mastery over performance goals. Setting performance goals related to your health will improve your performance but has little effect on your continued involvement. To keep something up, we must have an interest in it. Want to eat better? Take a nutrition course. Want to improve your running form? Why not brush up on the biomechanics of running?

So, if you’ve been struggling to do what you know is best for you, know that it isn’t entirely your fault – it’s how you’re wired. Luckily the superpower of self-control is like a muscle and while it does tire out from time to time, you CAN strengthen it. Set yourself up for success by employing some of the techniques above and share some of yours with us below!

Be Well,

Sarah