When you’re trying to exercise more, eat better, and make healthier choices for yourself, it can seem like everyone is doing more than you are—and that everyone has more of this magical thing called willpower to keep them dedicated to their routines. But, even if you feel like your motivation to follow through with healthy habits is too low (or nonexistent), that doesn’t mean that it always has to be the case.
Good news: You might actually be able to teach yourself to have more willpower. “There’s been a debate in the field of psychology for a number of years concerning personality or skill when it comes to willpower,” says Vincent Granito, Ph.D., past president of the Society for Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology. “Some think it’s a personality characteristic that is set, while others argue that people can learn to be a certain way, and that willpower is something we can practice and improve.”
Researchers often refer to willpower as being like a muscle that needs to be worked regularly to stay strong. “Whenever we make any changes in our lives, it is something that needs to be worked on—it doesn’t just happen automatically,” says Granito. “These are life choices that need to be practiced and worked on.”
Keep reading for ways to pump up your willpower and stick with all your most ambitious healthy-living goals.
Pick a goal.
No willpower to get to the gym? Maybe your reasons for exercising aren’t specific enough. “Goal setting is a very powerful technique to assist in strengthening willpower,” says Granito. “Sometimes the goals just need to be reevaluated and adjusted to move forward.” Rather than saying, “I will run more,” tell yourself, “I will run every other day,” he says. A concrete goal is more likely to tug at your willpower and help you stick to it.
Set a schedule.
Think about your current level of willpower to follow through on certain tasks. Are you most likely to complete a workout if you do it first thing in the a.m.? Are you more prone to sleeping in, but stick to healthy meal prep when you set aside time to cook every other night? Set up your day or week so that you have time to do those healthy activities when you’re most likely to actually do them, suggests Granito. “Not everyone is the same; what works for one person might be completely different for another.”
Space out difficult duties.
Don’t tell yourself that you’ll do a HIIT workout, clean the house, pay bills, and do meal prep for the week all on Sunday. It’s too much and your willpower to keep plugging through the to-do list will disappear before you cross off everything. “The theory of willpower depletion does say that how we feel emotionally and physically can have an impact on our willpower reserve,” explains Granito. “So, if we feel drained physically and emotionally, then we’ll have less willpower in our tank to draw on.”
Don’t keep your healthy-eating and exercises plans all in your head. Write yourself reminders on Post-it Notes and place them on your office desk or bathroom mirror, says Granito; or set an alarm on your phone to buzz you when it’s time to get moving.
Note negative feelings.
When you skip the gym or forgo your healthy homemade lunch for fast food, it’s easy to feel down. Don’t be too hard on yourself, but do let that guilty feeling sink in for a minute, suggests Granito. “Acknowledge that feeling so [that] when the decision comes up again, you’re motivated to stick to your original health plan.”
When setting any healthy goal for yourself, Granito advises the SMART approach: Your goals should be specific, measurable, adjustable, realistic, and time-bound (short-term versus long-term goal). But, if you notice your willpower sagging and that you’re not sticking to your plan, cut yourself some slack, says Granito. “You may just need to adjust your goal. Anytime [that] you can use a growth-mindset approach to things you do, then that will allow for personal growth.”