Willpower is a finite resource

I don’t know about you, but I find that I have the hardest time sticking to my diet plans at the end of a long week, or at the end of particularly stressful days.

And research1 suggests that there is actually a reason for this, and it essentially boils down to each person having a finite amount of ability to make difficult choices on any given day. It also might have something to do with blood sugar levels, which means it is harder to make difficult decisions when you are dieting2. So if you spend the whole day choosing to not tell your coworkers that they don’t have enough brain cells to operate a toaster, choosing to not strangle your children for whatever it is they are doing at that exact moment, and deciding to not hunt down all those little bastards on Xbox Live and have sex with THEIR mothers, by the time dinner rolls around and you have to decide to spend an hour making a healthy meal that lets you hit your calorie and macro target for the day, you are going to just order a pizza instead. Probably from a place that will also deliver you a bottle of vodka with it. And going to the gym? Yeah, that’s not happening.

So what I have chosen to do in my life, and might help you out, is I have completely removed myself from the decision process when it comes to my diet and training. Of course, I am currently single and don’t have any kids (that I know about), so my plan will probably look a lot different from yours will if you have those extra complications. But the premise is the same, and from what I understand from others who have people who love them and little hellspawn, it is still possible, but just requires a little more planning.

As has been mentioned previously, I’m a bit of a data geek. So I have a spreadsheet with all of my nutritional targets on it, and a list of about 30-50 of the most common foods or ingredients I cook with or eat on a regular basis (I built this up over time, not all in one go – don’t freak out). In the spreadsheet, I have each food and the protein, carb, fibre, fat, and calorie counts listed along with a serving size. This makes it really quick and easy to plan out meals and get my nutrition right. This means I weigh out all of my meals for monday to saturday. You don’t have to do this all the time, but I actually enjoy it. Yeah, I’m weird. Moving on.

What I do is on saturday, I sit down and plan out my meals for the week. I generally eat the same thing monday-saturday, just because that’s easiest. And I am nothing if not lazy.

I have a protein shake for breakfast, and a cup of coffee. I would much prefer to have a real whole food meal, but my alarm already goes off before 5:30AM and I am just not going to get up even one minute earlier. On saturday and sunday I will generally do something with real foods instead.

I plan out a lunch and a dinner meal, and factor in a protein bar for a post-work/pre-gym snack. For both of my real meals, I plan a protein, starch, and at least one vegetable. The day usually looks something like this:

Breakfast: fruit (usually blueberries), vanilla, skim milk, whey protein, creatine, fibre supplement.

Lunch: oven roasted mini potatoes or rice, pulled sundried tomato or roasted red pepper chicken breast, balsamic vinegar roasted artichokes, green beans (from frozen).

Dinner: rice (I prefer brown but it doesn’t really matter what type), chicken breast, broccoli. I toss this all in a bowl with some broth and have it as soup. It is filling and quick and easy.

So on sunday, I prep enough food for lunches and dinners for the week, portion it all out into tupperware, and toss it in the fridge. This takes me about an hour or so of actual prep time, maybe less. A fair bit of waiting while things are in the oven, but that doesn’t count. I’ll post recipes for all of these things I listed, as they are all really simple and quick.

This means that on an average weekday I spend about 4 minutes on food, and that is entirely in the making of my morning shake and coffee. For lunch I simply grab a container out of the fridge, toss it into my work bag, and head out the door. For dinner one goes in the microwave, then gets added to some boiling water from the kettle and a stock cube.

I have completely removed any choice from my day to day with regards to food. It means that I don’t even have the temptation to eat a bunch of garbage instead, as it is literally easier for me to eat the healthy (and delicious) pre-made meal I have waiting for me.

On Sundays, I eat basically whatever I want, so long as I hit my calorie and protein requirements for the day, I don’t worry about anything else. Some people can do this, some can’t. You might need to plan out sundays so you don’t eat 10,000 calories and destroy all of your progress for the week.

I also don’t have a choice in not going to the gym, though that is because of my work situation. My company busses me to and from work every day, and when I leave for the day, I just hop on the bus that takes me directly to the gym. If I am feeling really sick or something I can take a different bus home, but I almost never do. If I am not really feeling it, I still go in, and let myself just pedal away on the bike for a few minutes. I find that usually gets me in gym mode and I can just go. But if I’m feeling terrible, I will just pack up and leave.

I know that I am a lazy asshole. And given the choice, I will make pretty much the worst possible decision I can make from a progress standpoint. It’s that whole poor impulse control thing cropping up again. So I figured out a way to get out of my way and built a system around making it easy to do the right thing.

So I can spend all of my daily willpower on not telling people they are being dumb, when they are in fact being dumb. Because that takes up more than I have on most days.

  1. Baumeister, et al. (1998). Ego depletion: Is the active self a limited resource? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(5), 1252–1265.
  2. Gailliot, M., et al. (2007). Self-control relies on glucose as a limited energy source: Willpower is more than a metaphor. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(2), 325–336

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