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Willpower is Like Physical Exercise: Too Much and You Use Up Your Reserves

Exerting willpower uses up mental energy powered by glucose in the bloodstream. In that sense, it is like a physical activity that causes you to deplete your reserves. In order to succeed at your goal of giving up alcohol, drugs, unhealthy foods, or cigarettes, you need to minimize temptation so that you are judicious in the way use up your willpower, according to a new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

University of Chicago Professor Wilhelm Hofmann found that one important strategy in conserving your willpower is to avoid crisis and temptation. For example, professional addiction specialists educate their patients enrolled in rehabilitation programs about "triggers." A trigger is any place, person, or thing that triggers the re-use of substance. Even a certain song can trigger a memory of a barroom scene, and thus initiate a craving for an alcoholic drink. Dr. Hofmann's idea is to avoid triggers or any temptation by removing them as much as possible from your environment.

Another strategy to use your willpower in the most effective way is to accept the fact that you will have an occasional relapse into the behaviors you have been trying to avoid. When you have one too many drinks or desserts or when you light up that forbidden cigarette, you should not enter into "counter-regulatory" eating, smoking or drug abuse. Counter-regulatory means you allow yourself to sabotage your past efforts because you relapsed. You tell yourself that everything you have done in the past is in vain because you have fallen off the wagon, and so now you might as well keep drugging, drinking, eating, smoking or whatever without any brakes whatsoever.

Dr. Hofmann's work as well as studies done at the University of Florida have concluded that using too much willpower will eventually leads to "ego depletion," a form of mental fatigue that makes it impossible to continue your efforts. This often occurs once the entire process has become joyless and grim. In order to avoid this, one science-tested strategy is to reward yourself with new sources of pleasure. For example, if you are giving up cigarettes, allow yourself to spend the money you would have spent on smoking on something else you enjoy. This way, you will not feel as bad about forgoing the pleasures of smoking because you have created a new source of enjoyment in your life.

Posted on February 11th, 2012
Posted in Recovery

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