How to Build Willpower

Sunday Jul 26 | BY |
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Willpower concept with boy staring down pile of cookies

We each have our own weaknesses. For me, it’s coffee. I’ve quit drinking caffeine,on so many occasions that I can’t count them anymore.

Every time I quit caffeine for several months I feel great, but then I’m faced with temptation and I tell myself the same story: “This little bit won’t hurt.” I have a little coffee and the next day I feel like having more, and pretty soon I’m routinely back on caffeine.

Caffeine helps me feel better for a while, but after a few weeks or months I end up in the same place, feeling tired, overstimulated and having trouble sleeping. I’ve learned that caffeine can be my weakness.

For some people, their social commitments at work or elsewhere include lots of meetings at restaurants. Eating well there can be a challenge.

MasukaS7flashbackFor other people, the food available at work is a weakness. I know several people working in an office building and there’s always someone bringing a tray of cookies or doughnuts.

If you’ve seen the TV show Dexter, you might remember Dexter bringing doughnuts to his team. The point is, those cookies or donuts are in your face and if that’s your weakness you’re going to be tempted.

Your First Line of Defense: Glucose.

Doug Lyle, PhD in psychology, who lectures on health, said that “the will in willpower is glucose.” What does he mean by that? He means that when you’re hungry, you can’t have willpower. You can’t talk yourself into being good if you’re hungry and tasty junk food is in front of you.

You’ve got to prepare your first line of defense by being fed and having a good supply of glucose to your cells from healthy sources.

If you’ve had your smoothie, if you’ve had something healthy to eat, then when the same junk food is in front of you you’re not going to feel as tempted because you just ate and you feel pretty good.

If you’re really hungry, it’s going to be difficult to resist. If you don’t have any other foods with you, that’s also going to be a problem. Stay fueled by healthy foods. Make sure they’re available.

Have an alternative

The alternative might be that you bring your own lunch to work. That way, when you feel tempted, you have something else.

My friend Shelli Stein says that everybody should keep a “hangry bag” in their car. A hangry bag is filled with healthy goodies that make sure you don’t binge on junk food or foods you shouldn’t eat.

Your hangry bag can contain healthy bars. For example, water, ginger chews (which can help nausea if you’re stuck in traffic), and so on.

When I travel, I always bring a hangry bag. I know that on an airplane my options will be limited, so I always bring more snacks than I think I’ll need.

If you can’t carry things like fresh fruit where you’re going (like on a plane), you can dice it up in advance and those are accepted by the agricultural department when entering countries that prohibit fresh fruits and vegetables.

Bring convenient foods –  foods that aren’t going to get squished (like apples).

Prepare a compromise

Perhaps you don’t refuse the temptation completely.

If I’m in a hotel and there’s an espresso machine, and I really would love to have an espresso, I make the decaf espresso or I request the hotel to bring me decaf capsules.

I’ve found that this compromise works as long as I don’t do it too often. Some people may avoid alcohol most of the time, but if they’re in a situation where having a drink might be appropriate, knowing what kind of drink they’re going to order is important.

Prepare in advance. You don’t want to be caught by surprise. You want to have a strategy laid out in advance.

Take a piece of paper and list the situations where you’re most likely to cheat or fall to temptation. What do you do in those situations? What are those situations?

Temptation doesn’t have to be food-related. For example, I know that when I stay home and I’m exercising on a regular basis, avoiding temptation is easy. However, as soon as I start traveling I find it very difficult to maintain an exercise routine.

I know from experience that trying to maintain the same level of activity when I’m traveling is not going to work. Instead, I do some push-ups and a few basic exercises in my room to at least stay in shape. It doesn’t take a lot of time and I know this is something I can do.

Sometimes we ask too much of ourselves and we end up failing. So, by anticipating the situations and events where we’re likely to be faced with a problem, we can prepare in advance for those problems.

Establish rules

Nobody can establish rules for you.

One rule that you might follow, for example (and I’ve heard some health writers talk about), is to not eat the food at work. That goes for all the doughnuts and pastries that are brought in by coworkers. If you just simply have that rule, people will get used to it.

You can have other rules as well. Of course, some people have the rule to never drink. Some people have the rule to never eat any cooked foods. There are all kinds of rules you can set for yourself. I could have the rule to not drink any coffee except for decaf occasionally. You could have a rule to never skip a day of exercise as long as your minimum is something that’s totally achievable, like doing a few push-ups or going on a twenty minute walk.

Having some rules helps you avoid getting caught by surprise, because you know how you’re going to react. You decide your reaction in advance instead of being caught in the moment.

I suggest having rules for what you will and will not order at a restaurant. A long time ago, I created the rule to never order anything fried. Although it may be difficult to skip the fried calamari or sweet potato fries, I just realized that this kind of food wasn’t good for me and I made it a rule: never order anything fried.

Now, because it’s a habit, I don’t think about it anymore when I go to a restaurant and look at the menu; I mentally skip anything that’s fried.

Another possible rule: if there’s an interesting salad option, order that. You have to be creative. You have to come up with your own rules and strategies.

It’s all about preparation. To avoid temptation, not a lot of willpower is required. Instead planning is required, being fed is required. That’s what makes it work; not a mental game that you think you’re going to be stronger than the food, or the situation that’s in front of you.

What are your thoughts? 

Frederic Patenaude

Frederic Patenaude has been an important influence in the raw food and natural health movement since he started writing and publishing in 1998, first by being the editor of Just Eat an Apple magazine. He is the author of over 20 books, including The Raw Secrets, the Sunfood Cuisine and Raw Food Controversies. Since 2013 he’s been the Editor-in-Chief of Renegade Health.

Frederic loves to relentlessly debunk nutritional myths. He advocates a low-fat, plant-based diet and has had over 10 years of experience with raw vegan diets. He lives in Montreal, Canada.


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  1. Deane Alban says:

    I completely agree that forming new habits is a better way to change than trying to rely on willpower alone. Willpower is a resource that gets used up and we’ve all experienced how powerful habits can be — when trying to break a bad one!

  2. Larkspur says:


    I have to say that when I shop at the supermarket (UK) my list once a fortnight is virtually the same- All very healthy! -fruit, vegetables, protein, frozen fruit for when I run out of fresh etc.

    But, when I’m travelling especially flying, its airline veggie meal, alcohol ad lib coffee etc. Same when dining out with friends – or passing a chip [French fries but larger] shop . its chips and veggie samosas! to eat on the train going home!

    All balances out and I feel healthy but spontaneous ‘in the moment’ at other times. – Secret is:- being comfortable in one’s own skin!

  3. Marie-Aude says:

    Those are excellent points Frederic! When work with private clients that’s what I try to establish for them and have them undrstand. Our will power can never be the “doer” it always s fails . We have to use are creativity and set ourselves up for success if we want to make dietery long term changes. It can never be left to our willpower.
    Thanks for the articles they are great!

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