Willpower Ain’t It


Mark’s Daily Apple – Precommitment

Consider how Odysseus handled the ultimate temptation in Greek mythology. As legend had it, any man who sailed past the island of Anthemoessa would be drawn toward and broken upon the rocks lining its shores by the irresistible song of the Sirens who resided there. No man could resist, and so Odysseus plugged his men’s ears with beeswax and tied himself to the mast with strict orders that no matter what he said and how much he pleaded, he was not to be untied. He didn’t want to be shipwrecked, but he also didn’t want to miss out on hearing the song. Binding himself to the mast before the call rang out was a basic form of what behavioral psychologists call precommitment.

Mark had me at Odysseus.

I’m a product of a classical liberal arts education. That means, for those who aren’t familiar with such things, my education was grounded in foundational classical literature. The Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer were two of the first books I read in college, and they were used to teach big lessons (as they were intended to) about the nature of the universe and the big questions of life.

So, I love this Homeric example above as applied to fitness and nutrition. Willpower is something we hear about constantly. Our culture is swamped with accusatory, negative messages and finger pointing. The obesity epidemic, drug abuse, alcoholism, and even the Greek Debt Crisis are about a lack of willpower and self-control.


Modern life is a lot, a whole lot, more complex to navigate than it was even 20 years ago. Don’t even talk about how much more complex the world we live in is than it was 100 years ago, but our perspective is still oriented towards a world that really does not exist any longer. Food, as just one example – one of the most basic essential components of life – is vastly different than it was 100 years ago, and even pretty massively different than it was 20 or 30 years ago. The level of stress in modern, urban or suburban society is much higher than it used to be. Work is nothing like it was. And yet we insist on evaluating ourselves and our reactions to this modern world with standards set by our grandparents.

Let me just give you an example from my own, relatively short (so far), lifetime. When I began my professional working life in 1990 – 25 years ago – the only food in the workplace was a sad little vending machine (that no one touched) in the break room and a refrigerator packed with leftovers and sandwiches people had brought from home for their lunches. You could tell the difference between the bosses and the worker bees because the bosses went out for lunch.

Sure, some of us drones would hit the local Chinese restaurant or sandwich shop together every so often, but day to day eating relied on what we’d brought from home that day.

Going out to eat was too expensive and too time-consuming, and the choices available to us were very limited (and not all that appealing).

A daily fixture of modern office life – meetings with trays of bagels or other snacks – were unheard of. Catered meetings meant important clients were coming in or the executives were going to be living and working in a meeting room all day.

For part of my career I managed campus security services, which meant I was often sent to security seminars and training classes to understand how to best keep our workplaces safe and secure.

One of the first big lessons I learned about theft and other criminal/antisocial behavior is both are about opportunity and access.

The same is true for your fitness and nutrition. If there is no tray of bagels, you won’t eat a bagel. No spread of dozens of delicious pastries and you won’t eat a pastry. If the thing isn’t available you will not eat it 100% of the time.

The reality though is that temptations to eat poorly or be sedentary are everywhere now. There are trays of bagels and donuts and pastries. Even enlightened employers who encourage fitness and health in the workplace stock their kitchens with energy bars and granola and other items that seem healthy but really aren’t. Even if your workplace isn’t carting in the food daily there is a Starbucks on nearly every corner, chock full of sugary treats. In just the past few years we have gone from a nation of people who could only get online and waste time if we were home, sitting at your computers to a mobile connected country where nearly everyone is online via their smartphones all the time.

The temptation to eat poorly and sit on your ass is ubiquitous.

So, why won’t willpower help you? For the same reason you cannot do infinite work with your body. Willpower is a muscle. In some people it is a more well-developed muscle than it is in others, but in everyone it is a muscle that gets exhausted by repetitive use, and with the level of temptation surrounding us today even the strongest willpower decathlete gets worn down rapidly.

Like Mark Sisson says in the article linked above, the trick is to save that muscle for when you really need it and not rely on it as your only tool. The story of Odysseus is the perfect analogy. He saved himself and his crew from the Sirens because he took steps to protect them and himself from the temptation. Instead of just trying to gut his way through the rocky shores he anticipated the problem and prevented it.

For health and fitness you don’t have to go to heroic ends. A little bit of planning goes a long way. Sit down once a week and plan your meals ahead of time. Then go shopping and get what you’ll need to execute on the plan. If you struggle with sticking to a workout schedule find an accountability partner or group to keep you in line. Can’t contain your spending habits? Take your credit cards and freeze them in a glass of water in your freezer.

The main thing you have to do is recognize and admit your weakness. Stop feeling bad because your willpower flags on you. That muscle can only pull so much weight.

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