Willpower and Discipline: Failed Solutions

In the list of solutions to losing body fat, improving health and creating a better relationship with food, I've come to find that ideas such as willpower and discipline are solutions that are destined to fail.

The instances in life where TRUE willpower or discipline alone are the reason for someone's success are rare.  And in those cases I find that those two tenets only work short term.  Maybe they get you over the hump but don't cut it long-term. Perhaps the interpretation of willpower or discipline have been changed or misinterpreted, I don't know.  But what I do know is I've had almost every single nutrition client try to will their way to a better body and fall short every time.

You're mistaking habitual for discipline

Let me give you an example.  My grandfather was in the Navy and served during the Korean War. He told my brother and me often about how being in basic training and serving in the Navy required strict standards for many practices.  The bed had to be made perfectly and tucked spring-tight.  He had to shave every single day.  His clothes needed to be ironed. He had to get up at dawn and start his day.  Now for most late teen or early twenty-something men, I cannot imagine them simply hearing those demands and, completely on their own, developing the willpower to begin and discipline to see those things through on a daily basis.  

Instead, you need a drill instructor or other authority figure to keep the discipline, constantly check to make sure you are shaved, showered, ironed and ready to go. They'd need to constantly scrutinize your work and impose THEIR will of how things should be done over and over again until you do them whether someone checks or not.

But when you've reached a level in life (like my grandfather) where you continue those practices, they are now habitual.  My grandfather made the perfect bed, ironed the perfect clothes, got up at the ass crack of dawn, shaved every single day and kept a short haircut until the day he died, well after he needed to do any of those things.  It wasn't discipline and it certainly wasn't willpower because those processes were so ingrained in him they took no additional effort.  That, ladies and gentlemen, is what we call a habit.

You're mistaking structure for willpower

A single force of will takes a lot of effort.  Have you ever tried to say no to a piece of birthday cake on your OWN birthday?  I have.  And let me tell you, the willpower to do that comes not from a healthy place but a disordered eating relationship with food.  How much you have to change and alter your own mindset and emotions negatively to continually force your will upon a decision is drastic. That's why trying to use willpower to go to the gym or eat healthy is almost impossible.  You aren't meant to do habitual things through willpower; in fact if it's habitual there should be no willpower.  We are not organisms designed to operate daily functions based on the power of will.  You don't need to will yourself to get hungry, become sexually aroused, seek shelter, sleep or seek out a community.  But you do have to exert an enormous force of will to deny yourself those things and if you do, it certainly creates unhealthy relationships with those basic needs.

To coalesce with habit, you build structure.  You structure your life so you can develop habits that, once instilled, take no thought or effort.  They just are. Think of how you need to map out the fastest way to get home from work when you find a new job.  That is creating structure.  Then you follow that route every day until you don't even need to think about it.  That's habit.  If I asked you how to get from work to home it might take a few minutes to explain to me what your brain already has mapped out.  I am sure we've all experienced a little time loss on a long drive and you realize without even consciously thinking about it, you were still following the right routes.

I've had multiple women come to me to help get "in shape" for their wedding, willing to do literally anything for 4 weeks before so they look the way they want in pictures.  In this case, their willpower is enough because the stakes, in their own mind, are high enough.  But the stakes in life are rarely that high and in every instance, the people who were willing to starve themselves for the benefit of one single day crash and burn immediately after. This is the mental and emotional equivalent of living with a gun to your head.  Sure, it'll drive you to do some extreme things out of the sheer will to survive but you simply cannot live and operate normally under that kind of pressure. 

The world is stronger than your willpower

This isn't a personal attack against you, dear reader! But think of how an environment shapes who you become.  A goldfish will grow to the scale of the environment it is raised in.  Small tank? Small fish.  Big lake? Big fish.  You adapt to everything around you...sunlight, heat exposure, environmental toxins, how you think and even the people you surround yourself with.  You become adapted to best fit your environment, that's how we survive.

Now think of the current envirionment we live in.  We spend more time than ever sitting, looking at screens, driving instead of walking and are inundated with fast food, highly palatable calories, products that make every aspect of our lives easier.  Our entire ecosystem is being pushed away from having to do physical work for anything.  The concept of exercise was ridiculous to many people in our grandparents generation and earlier because so much of their lives were already spent exerting physical energy.

When I was younger I spent two family vacations (not sure why we needed to go TWICE) to Amish Country.  Aside from milking some cows and being shocked by an electric fence for cows, one thing that stuck with me was the absolute calorie-bomb their daily meals were.  Gravy, fatty meat, tons of carbs, butter, cream...you name it.  But in an environment where you don't get the chance to eat often AND you are working 12-14 hour physical days, you absolutely require seeking out highly calorie dense and palatable foods to sustain that activity.  The idea of just oatmeal and some berries or a protein shake is kind of absurd when your day is milking cows, bailing hay, chopping wood, moving cattle, mending fences and building new chicken coops.

Coming from a time (remember this is not more than a few generations ago) when there were no grocery stores, you had to grow our own food and do all the physical labor yourself, the easier to obtain, more dense and more palatable a calorie was, the better.  I think it is so absurd to think that our ancestors wouldn't have crushed a pizza if they could get their hands on it.  Who on earth would turn down 3,000 easy calories over the other option of stalking, hunting, killing, field dressing and dragging back to camp any sort of wildlife.  Maybe some nuts or berries, you know, if they weren't poisonous.

We are THE most adaptable creature on the planet and our insanely adaptable digestive system and brain are calorie-hungry bastards. We can eat plants, animals and even crap we invent like hydrogenated fats and turn them into energy.  We are so insanely adaptable that of course we would take the opportunity to eat fast food, junk food and near-plastic franken-foods if meant expending our energy elsewhere.  My dog throws up if I simply switch brands of dog food.  I can be Keto, Zone, Paleo, Carnivore diet, snake diet, high-carb, low-fat, vegan, vegetarian, intermittent fasting or pretty much whatever the heck I want and still function preeeeetty normally.  How's that for adaptability?  That's being a human.

So when this insanely adaptable organism, the human, creates a new environment for itself it will WANT to adapt to it.  And our new environment basically pushes us towards obesity because we no longer have to work for our food and worry about predators.  Something like Ketosis is a metabolic backup, a failsafe system.  A way of tapping into fat stores and using an alternative fuel when we can't get enough carbohydrates or protein.  It's also a very metabolically inflexible state to be in which is why your body so readily kicks you out of it when you eat some carbs.  But we have the luxury now, because starvation is not a threat, of using that ketogenic state as a "diet to get abs".  How lucky are we?

Your environment is everything

When someone tries to tell you that "all it takes is dedication, brother" like some old-school Macho Man Randy Savage inspiration, just know that it might be well-intentioned but complete bullshit.  I even believe that most people who THINK they have really strong willpower actually have excellent structure and habits but their ego mistakes those things for willpower and/or discipline. It takes willpower to make yourself throw up to lose weight....I tried it in middle school and just couldn't do it.  I wanted to because I thought it would help but I simply did not have the will to follow through.  But overcoming the gag reflex, hiding your disease and repeating that cycle takes some will.  Some 25 year old who has never been overweight who goes to the gym 5 times per week with his buddies and has enough sense to eat decently isn't this master of discipline, he's just got some good habits and structure.  And if girls are noticing his muscles, then he's practically elated to do those things. It's completely different and I am tired of listening to people pretend one is the other.

This is not to take away anything from someone who has seen success - in any form.  Whether it's some willpower, discipline, structure or a habit.  But for people who need real, life-changing intervention your environment absolutely needs to be modified, no question.  And from there habits need to be built so it simply becomes a lifestyle.

If your environment doesn't change at all, I can't see your habits changing much either, at least not without way more time or an insurmountable effort.  I read a story recently about how people come to the animal shelter to adopt, but often don't leave with an animal because they all seem so wild and excited, uncontrollable.  So now some shelters are allowing people to take the dog out for a walk or even away from the shelter for the day to see how they behave.  Lo and behold, the dogs are often times completelt different. The environment of the shelter is one of enourmous stress.  Lots of animals, a completely different set-up than a home, cold and uncomfortable concrete, loneliness, abandonment, fear, anxiety and then BAM a person comes in looking at all the dogs and they go wild because it is a completely artificial environment and they want to Get. The. Hell. Out. Of. There. 

Can you imagine trying to interact normally with a dog in that environment?  How about teaching that dog to sit, roll over, lay down or something else?  It would be impossible. You trying to change your nutrition while your environment is screaming for you to go another way is basically impossible too.

When you drive past 6 fast food places on your way to work, sit at or near a desk with candy in a bowl, surround yourself with people who eat poorly, watch commercials that promote junk food, shop for items only based on cost and not nutrition and then stock your home up with low quality and highly palatable food, doesn't it make sense that change would be hard?

Something practical

Start by changing things in your environment under your control.  Mute commercials that advertise food, move something on your desk so you don't see the candy bowl or simply ditch the candy bowl, take a different route to work if possible so you don't pass fast food, start shopping based on nutrition and whole food, get rid of trigger foods in your house, surround yourself with friends who have similar goals as you, hire a coach, join a Facebook group.  And for the love of God, pack your own lunch!  One of the reasons I believe so many people are successful with weight loss on Strong Kitchen meals is because our meal is a mini controlled environment.  It's all been prepped, cooked, measured, weighed, packed and labeled.  There is no outside negative influence that is affecting the meal within the container. It means being able to avoid going out to eat for lunch or trying to make a decent selection from take-out of the vending machine. it's really a microcosm of what your relationship with food should be on the whole, condensed down to one container.

Assess all the parts of your life where you struggle. Then assess what aspects of those you have the power to change.  Then work on that structure.  Do that long enough and you'll develop habits that no longer take conscious thought or effort.

Lastly, you absolutely, no questions asked and non-negotiable need to give yourself more than a month.  You need to give yourself 3 months minumum and likely a year is more realistic.  You only think you can go from dad-bod to instagram-bod in 4 weeks because an ad told you so.  Listen.....in no other aspect of life can you go from the bottom to the top unless you start doing some illegal shit.  In the last two weeks of blog posts I discussed the internal changes that happen when someone is obese long-term.  That is like turning a tanker ship (and my reference has nothing to do with someone's size). What I mean is a tanker is so large, like decades of eating a certain way, that to turn it around takes enormous consistency and time.  Choosing diet soda over regular soda is like a speed boat. Ziiiiip!  One turn on the dime and you are headed in the opposite direction, easy.  But changing your habits and environment is like that tanker ship. One little turn of the helm does almost nothing.  You need to make the turn, stay with it for a long time, follow through and trust the process. 

But the piece almost no one thinks about is that when you've finally turned it around, you have all that momentum going in YOUR FAVOR.  If your tanker ship made a 180 over the course of a year and you've built these incredible habits and new environment, then having some birthday cake is like a small nudge back in the old direction.  But it's so small that it would now take a huge amount of consistent poor eating to turn it back to the old way. 

So if you are making these positive changes and have a week or two where nothing good seems to happen, just remember, there might be some internal process (like inside the ship) that is working in your favor....you just might not be able to see it.  But holding the course and staying consistent will see those real changes over time.  I think these short periods of time are where most people give up and steer the ship back into the old direction.  Again this come back to you following the structure you've built and then just waiting it out - something humans don't seem to like to do!

Hopefully this article helped shed some light on the fact that if you've been struggling with willpower or discipline, it's probably a practice in futility. The good news is that you can make progress in a much more rewarding and sustainable way.  You do have to be willing to make environmental changes, which can be hard.  But once your environment has shifted, the difficulty of building those habits is actually quite easy.  The process really just becomes time-based.  

Environment + Habits + Time = Success