Willpower, or the ability to say, ‘no, thanks’ and mean it to cupcake No. 2, or yet another clothing sale at anthropologie.com, isn’t always easily summoned. For many of us it’s a struggle to deny ourselves the things we momentarily desire, especially when they’re covered in thick butter cream or going fast at up to 60 percent off.
But self-control isn’t something you just have or you don’t. It can be developed. In fact, researchers believe you may be able to strengthen your willpower just as you would a muscle in your body.
Researchers at the University of Chicago (via Time.com) found that participants who briefly flexed their muscles before making a decision showed a momentary increase in their ability to endure “short term pain for the benefit of long-term gain”, writes Chicago Tribune writer Gregory Karp.
What’s the connection between our muscles and our willpower? It’s not entirely clear. But the authors speculate that because the act of flexing is a form of self-control in itself—you’re telling your body to do something it may not want to do—that it may have a similarly restraining effect on one’s mind.
Another theory: Flexing those biceps or making a fist offers just enough of a pause for second thoughts.
Making a fist helps with self-control, but dieters may be surprised to learn that eating well actually prevents overeating or making decisions that undermine health and fitness goals.
According to Roy Baumeister and New York Times columnist John Tierney, authors of the non-fiction book, Willpower (via The Daily Beast), the caloric energy (a.k.a glucose) our bodies derive from eating may make all the difference in the soundness of our judgment—and not just when it comes to dieting, but also at work.
Daily Beast writer Jamie Holmes cites one study that found that judges deciding whether or not to parole convicts were more “likely to grant parole roughly 65 percent of the time after a meal break,” but almost never approved parole right before a meal break.
Willpower co-author, Roy Baumeister told Holmes that the glucose-impulse control connection is a “catch-22” for would-be dieters, but it’s a workable one. Said Baumeister, “The catch-22 is that to diet you need willpower, for willpower you need glucose, and for glucose you need to eat. So, in a sense, you need to eat in order to have the willpower to not eat.”