In addition to just about everything else in life, weight loss requires willpower.

What is Willpower?

Willpower is essentially the ability to choose delayed gratification over instant gratification.

Choosing less reward now for a greater reward later.

(Love this quote)

For example, if you were to choose to get a grilled chicken salad for dinner instead of the fatty cut of steak with a loaded baked potato and gravy because you want to lose weight.

In this case, maybe steak and potatoes is one of your favorite meals and you’re really tempted to have it for dinner. The enjoyment you would get out of eating the steak and potatoes is the instant gratification.

But instead, since you’re trying to lose weight, you get the grilled chicken salad instead. Even if you like steak and potatoes with gravy more than grilled chicken salads.

That’s choosing delayed over instant gratification.

Losing weight is more important to you than eating steak and potatoes, and you made a decision that supports that.

However, that’s not always the case.

We don’t always act according to our priorities

There are times when we choose instant gratification over delayed gratification.

Maybe when it came time to order you caved in and got the steak and potatoes instead of the grilled chicken salad.

In that case, you failed to exercise your willpower.

Think of your willpower like a muscle.

When you make a decision to choose instant gratification over delayed gratification, you’re flexing your willpower muscle.

But just like any other muscle in your body, when you use it over and over again, it gets tired and fatigued.

So when you make too many decisions that require willpower in a short period of time, your “willpower muscle” gets tired.

So maybe the reason you caved in and got the steak is because you had a really long day at work.

First of all, you had to get up out of bed in the morning and go to work — that requires willpower.

Instant gratification — stay in your warm cozy bed and go back to sleep.

Delayed gratification — go to work and earn your paycheck.

Then when you got there, you found out one of your co-workers didn’t do their part of the project and your boss wants you to pick up the slack.

Instant gratification — scream at your co-worker and tell them to do the project themselves.

Delayed gratification — do the extra work to save the project to keep the peace at work, and potentially prove to your boss that you deserve a raise.

Then after you finally get out of work, you stick to your plans of going to the gym.

Instant gratification — skip the gym to go home and watch TV and eat an early dinner.

Delayed gratification — go to the gym to do your workout so you can lose weight and live a healthier & happier lifestyle.

Each of those times when you chose delayed gratification over delayed gratification, you had to flex your willpower muscle.

Not to mention all the little decisions you had to use your willpower to make throughout the day as well — like continuing to walk straight past the vending machine even though that snickers bar was calling you name.

So surely after flexing your willpower muscle all day, it’s going to be tired by the time the waitress asks for your order at dinner.

And when your muscle is tired, it’s weaker and harder to flex — making it harder to abstain from the steak and potatoes in favor of your long term weight loss goals.

The more you workout a muscle, the stronger it gets

If you workout your chest muscles by doing push-ups multiple times per week, your chest muscles are going to get stronger and you’re going to be able to do more push-ups as time goes on and you keep training.

You provide the stimulus to your muscles, and your muscles adapt by becoming bigger and stronger.

Your willpower muscle functions much the same way.

If you continually flex your willpower muscle more and more each day, it’s going to get stronger and stronger.

If you’re used to choosing the grilled chicken salad over the steak and potatoes, it won’t seem as hard when you have to make that decision for the 17th time — or the 87th.

Remove the stimulation, lose the adaptation

The flip side of this, if you stop using your willpower muscle to make decisions in favor of delayed gratification, your willpower muscle will begin to lose strength.

So maybe that one night at dinner after you’ve had a long day you end up choosing the steak and potatoes instead of the salad — no worries, once isn’t going to kill you.

Then next time you’re out to dinner you’re looking at the menu and you remember how good that steak and loaded potato dinner was last time, and you end up getting it again — and the time after that as well.

When you stop flexing your willpower muscle to choose delayed gratification over instant gratification, your willpower muscle loses strength.

This essentially happens the same way your other muscles work.

If you do push-ups every morning for a month, but then stop doing them for a month, you’ll lose strength.

Without a doubt, you’ll be able to do more push-ups at the end of the month you’ve been training than you would be able to after taking a month off.

Or maybe push-ups aren’t your thing and you like to run instead.

If you run 5x per week and eventually build up to 10 miles in one run, then take 3 months off and try to do it again, you probably won’t be able to.

When you stop training, you lose the strength. When you remove the stimulation (running/decision making) you lose the adaptation (ability to run long distances/willpower strength).

An object in motion stays in motion

If you regularly use your willpower muscle, that is, if you get in the habit of exercising your willpower and self control, you’ll find it easier and easier to do so.

In other words, choosing delayed gratification over instant gratification will become more and more natural.

The key is to use your willpower muscle consistently enough that you build up momentum and strength, but not so much that you burn it out.

For example, you want to exercise regularly so that it becomes a natural habit.

But you don’t want to exercise every single day for 4 hours at a time — doing so would likely result in burning yourself out and potentially giving up exercise altogether.

Don’t have that all or nothing mentality.

Just because you can’t exercise for 4 hours every single day doesn’t mean you’re a failure and you should give up.

If you can only handle 3 days per week for 30 minutes at a time, then start there!

You’ll be much better off in the long term if you establish a habit you can stick to rather than trying to bite off more than you can chew and burning yourself out.

I think we can all take a lesson from Bruce Lee:

“Don’t fear the man who has practiced 1,000 kicks once, fear the man who practiced one kick 1,000 times.”

Exercise a your willpower muscle a reasonable amount on a consistent basis — don’t just try to work it out a lot all at once.

More isn’t always better.

What do you think is more effective for become stronger at the bench press — Doing 1,000 reps in one workout? Or doing 10 reps each workout for 100 workouts? (Hint: it’s not the first one).

So if you want to lose weight, start small and manageable rather than big and overwhelming.

Don’t try to eliminate all carbs from your diet all at once. Maybe start by having a half of bagel for breakfast instead of a whole one. Try just having a few less pretzels with your lunch than normal.

Take it slow by making changes you can sustain long term.

Give your willpower muscle a healthy amount of regular exercise — don’t try to give it too much work all at once.

If there’s one thing we learned from stories of random animals that race each other, it’s that slow and steady wins the race.

Originally published at on January 2, 2017.

Originally published at