Willpower – it can be elusive.

Did you ever set an intention to eat nourishing foods all day long then completely lose it late in the day? Or intend to go the gym after work and it just didn’t happen? Did you ever find that your capacity to handle the challenges your children throw your way is significantly less after a stressful day at work?

You’re not alone. Willpower — to do whatever it is we intend to do to create what we want to create in our lives — seems to be in short supply as the day goes on.

The bad news is that the tank of willpower you are using right now is finite, but there’s good news! It’s a renewable resource. When you take measures to rest your brain and replenish its energy, you’ll have more willpower available to tackle the decisions of life.

The part of your brain willpower comes from is your prefrontal cortex (PFC). This is the executive functioning center of your brain responsible for understanding, memorizing, recalling, inhibiting and deciding.

Let’s say you start the day with 100 units of power in your PFC that you can use how you wish. But every time you use some of those units, you have less left over for the next time you need to use it. So every time you expend mental energy understanding something, your capacity dips. Every time you expend mental energy inhibiting yourself from eating fries, your capacity to say no later in the day dips. Every time you spend time waffling over decisions, your capacity dips. And so on.

Decisions get harder as the day goes on. If you start the day with 100 units, then you decide what to wear you might lose 2 points, then decide what to eat for breakfast — and which plate to serve it on — and lose 3, then call your mother on the way to work to see how she is and have to bite your tongue to NOT say you’re tired of hearing about how wonderful or awful your brother is, and you lose 5 units b because inhibiting that impulse was draining. I’m just making up numbers here, but do you get the idea?

Okay, so now it’s later in the day. Enter the munchies. Your brain is tired, and those chocolate chip cookies that barely scratched the surface of your attention at 10am and 12pm are now taking up the entire inner vision of your mind. You’ve got nothing left to fight off the urge with, and you cave.

But there’s good news! Here are some strategies you can use to enhance and replenish your willpower stores:

Eat well. Your brain needs fuel. Your PFC is the first part of your brain to suffer when you skip a meal. When glucose levels dive, your PFC doesn’t get the energy it needs to operate well.

Rest your PFC to restore its power. Don’t expect it to work at peak capacity all day long without breaks of some sort — go for a walk, take a nap, relax, draw, color. You’ll be able to restore your reasoning capacity by not thinking so hard for awhile.

Plan ahead in as many ways as you can for as many things as you can. The less decisions you have to make on the fly (what to eat, when to exercise, what to wear, etc.), the more you save your capacity for the important decisions. If you decide the night before, after a good meal, what you’re going to eat and wear the next day, you avoid taxing your fresh morning brain with unnecessary decisions. (Researchers from Cornell University discovered we make over 200 decisions in a day about food alone! Imagine how many others we make! Can you reduce the ones you need to make on the fly?)

Create rituals (also known as habits or routines) that your brain can memorize by doing them over and over. When something becomes automatic, a different part of your brain runs the program so it doesn’t tax the PFC.

Do what matters most first. Don’t save the big decisions until late in the day when your PFC is likely to be tired.

In a study of judges hearing thousands of parole cases over a 10 month period, researchers tracked the likelihood of someone being given parole. The first cases the judges heard in the day (when their brains were fresh) were about 65% likely to receive parole. By the time the judges broke for a late morning snack, the parolee’s chances were down to almost zero. After the break, the parolee’s chances went back up to around 65 percent, then dipped down before the next break as the judge’s brains tired again. For a judge, it takes a lot of brain power to determine whether it’s a good idea to give someone parole, and they generally had 6 minutes to make the decision. As their brain stores got depleted, the easiest decision for a tired brain was a decision for no real change, leaving the prisoner in jail.

I find that fascinating! Do you?

To tell your brain the information in this blog post matters so it’s more likely to store the information, consider reflecting on these two things:

  • What’s your biggest takeaway?
  • Which of the strategies will you try and when?