We want what we can’t have. The saying that is usually reserved to describe the trials of love or yearning for objects and aspirations out of reach, but in this case, I’m referring to food of course. A familiar inner voice appears in your head convincing you to give into temptation as you fixate a longing gaze and a watering mouth on a certain food item you know you should refrain from, that you try desperately to stifle and silence. It seems like a cruel joke how the appeal and desire emerges ever more strongly, accompanied with a heightened sense of attention and awareness, when restraining one-self. Lately, fueled by frustration from struggling with non-vegan food cravings, the inner workings of self-control and the implications of having a lack of personal discipline have been heavy on my mind, striking my curiosity. It’s the ultimate test of willpower at play that all of us grapple with in various aspects of our lives on a daily basis.
What I learned is willpower has, in fact, recently been discovered to be more than a mere metaphor. Scientists describe willpower as being a form of energy in the brain, similar to a muscle. Willpower can be strengthened with practice and use, however, it also progressively gets fatigued and decreases with use throughout the day. Whether it’s resisting food, decision-making, or completing a dreaded task, exercising self-control in different areas of your life ends up drawing from and draining the same source of mental energy. The key is in conserving your willpower for matters of importance, since you only have a finite amount of it each day. Simply putting food you’re resisting near to you, in your sight, aides in depleting your willpower. Whereas putting it across the room from you or not having it in your presence at all, makes restraint far easier because you are not actively resisting the temptation. A study even concluded that workers in an office ate a significant more amount of candy when it was placed on a desk inside a clear, glass bowl versus a non-transparent bowl. Proving the out-of-sight-out-of-mind technique to be an effective strategy.
These findings came as no surprise to me, whose battle to follow a vegan diet while still in New Hampshire, came to be an impossible feat for me. Surrounded by non-vegan food not only at home and gatherings with friends, but also at the restaurant where I worked, I was constantly being challenged. Even after watching those horrid videos of farm animals being cruelly abused and slaughtered, I was hopelessly only able to uphold a vegan diet for a meager day or so, until I gave in and let all of my old habits and diet come rearing back in. Utterly discouraged, I concluded my goal to go vegan could not realistically be reached until my impending move to Hawaii. Where I’d be removed from my routines, the lure of my refrigerator, my mother’s cooking, the quantities of rich food available at the restaurant I worked for, and all the other surrounding influences and temptations that seemingly held me hostage. I’d be able to start from square one moving to Hawaii with the most extreme and ideal out-of-sight-out-of-mind set up available to me.
I then had about a four month long postponement period before Hawaii and a vegan lifestyle that awaited me. I must admit, for a large portion of those four months, I was gravitating towards meat and dairy with a lust and desire like it was my last day to live. The guilt and shame associated with consuming meat and dairy was palpable, but in my head, what consistently prevailed was an overwhelming feeling of limited time. The dominating argument that I won’t be able to have this food/drink item once I follow veganism, so I need to enjoy it while I still can. It’s a mindset difficult to describe, which strikes a certain feeling of scarcity, finality, and fear producing a powerful desire that makes you want to cling to your old diet even more tightly. For the duration of the postponement of my transition to veganism, before my move, I focused on the traditional aspects and familiarities of meat and dairy, which I had consumed all my life. The notion that it is “normal” to eat these things, instead of reminding myself of the animal it originated from and pushing the new information and the unpleasant things I had watched to the back of my mind. Before my move, I only managed to cut down on my meat consumption slightly, while my dairy intake, I believe, increased to make up for my self-imposed meat limitations. I was feeling weak and defeated for my embarrassing, pathetic display of self-control and seemingly nonexistent willpower.
Exhausting your willpower is a process researchers call “ego depletion”, in which everything, positive and negative, feels more intensely to you because your brain has lost some ability to regulate emotions. Thus, you respond more strongly to everything while cravings, frustrations, and desires build. In the short term, willpower is a limited resource where your mounting restraint and discipline overtax valuable space in your brain, making it that much more difficult to resist other temptation later on in your day. Fortunately, not all hope is lost for the ones, like myself, to put the “power” back into our “willpower”. Improvements can be made by frequent and consistent exercises in self-control. Observant religious people are a good example of this, often scoring higher in self-discipline than others, perhaps with personal religious practices involving willpower. One study found that students who were asked to pay attention to their posture for a week, performed better on other willpower tasks (not pertaining to posture) than students who had not been actively exercising control all week.
Therefore, all these areas in your life that require some form of mental effort, will help build up and strengthen that mental muscle of self-control within you. The more you practice willpower and put it to the test, the more successful you will be in resisting temptation in the future.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I will be beginning my day with the ultimate willpower exercise of passing the pastry counter, full of non-vegan delicacies at my regular coffee shop, with a new motivation that will hopefully extinguish my lingering urges to jump across the counter and devour each and every one of those buttery pastries. Best of luck in your willpower pursuits!