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Flex Your Self Control

Submitted by Amy Sercel MS RD CD

Edited By Marcia Bristow MS RDN CSSD CD

Whether you realize it or not, you exercise self control throughout the most of the day, every day.  You use willpower to get up in the morning when you’d rather sleep in, to act cheery at times when you might not feel very friendly, or to motivate yourself to work out.  You also use willpower to make over 200 food choices every day, especially when you’re deciding between a less-healthy but quick snack and something that will take longer to prepare but might be lower in calories.2 It just happens that you might not have an unlimited supply of willpower.  When you use it repeatedly, you might not have any left over to make a healthy choice later on.

Researchers believe that willpower is like a muscle – early on, you can use it easily, but after repeated use you’ll experience something called “willpower depletion” where your willpower runs out and it’s harder to resist temptations.2–4 When this happens, your desires feel more intense than usual and it can be more difficult to stop or hide your natural response to a stimulus.4 For example, if you spend all day using willpower to keep yourself on track at work, by the time you go to the grocery store you may crave a chocolate bar more strongly than usual, and you will find it more difficult to stop yourself from buying it.  Willpower depletion isn’t related to physical fatigue, but you do tend to have more willpower earlier in the day, and willpower depletion will occur more slowly if you’re in a good mood.3 In several studies, people who were put into a good mood through receiving a gift or through watching a pleasant film showed more willpower when faced with a complicated task than the people whose moods were neutral or unhappy.  It’s apparent that being in a good mood will help you maintain willpower over a longer period of time, but it’s not clear whether the good mood actually replenishes willpower, or whether it just gives you the extra energy you need to exert willpower even when your willpower reserves are low.5

Lots of studies have looked at the impact of willpower depletion on food choices.  In one study, people were brought into a room with a bowl of radishes and a plate of cookies on a table and asked to solve a puzzle.  Some people were offered the radishes, and others were offered the cookies.  When people were offered the cookies, they worked on the puzzle for about 19 minutes.  On the other hand, the people who were offered radishes and therefore had to use willpower to stop themselves from eating the cookies gave up on the puzzle after about 8 minutes.  In another study, people who were told to hide their emotions while watching a sad movie ate about twice as much ice cream as the people who were not trying to restrict their emotional response.3

Does this mean that we’re all doomed to make poor decisions after we’ve been using self-control to get through our day-to-day responsibilities?  Not necessarily.  For starters, people who are strongly motivated by an internal goal or an external reward are able to resist willpower depletion.2,3 This suggests that setting a meaningful health-related goal that you are driven to achieve will make it easier to stick to your original plan when you’re faced with a tempting, less healthy, alternative.

Lastly, your environment plays a huge role in your choices, even when your self-control is running low.  In one study, people who had their willpower depleted still made nutritious food choices when they believed the nutritious option was more popular than the calorie-dense option.6 For this reason, going grocery shopping with someone who is strongly motivated to choose nutritious foods may influence you to make similar choices.  Making your health-related choices earlier in the day when you have the most willpower, instead of in the evening after you’ve been using a lot of willpower, may also help you keep on track with your goals.4 Finally, keep a bowl of fruit out in your kitchen or office, and rearrange your cabinets so the less healthy items are at the back, so you will need less willpower to make a healthy choice.


  1.  Image Source: Brain Science Secrets to Increasing Leadership Willpower. Empower Bus. May 2014. http://www.empoweredbusiness.com/brain-science-secrets-to-increasing-leadership-willpower/. Accessed February 1, 2017.
  2.  Salmon SJ, Adriaanse MA, Fennis BM, De Vet E, De Ridder DTD. Depletion sensitivity predicts unhealthy snack purchases. Appetite. 2016;96:25-31. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2015.08.027.
  3.  Weir K. What You Need to Know about Willpower: The Psychological Science of Self-Control. The American Psychological Association; 2012. http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/willpower.aspx. Accessed January 26, 2017.
  4.  Baumeister RF. Self-regulation, ego depletion, and inhibition. Neuropsychologia. 2014;65:313-319. doi:10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2014.08.012.
  5.  Tice DM, Baumeister RF, Shmueli D, Muraven M. Restoring the self: Positive affect helps improve self-regulation following ego depletion. J Exp Soc Psychol. 2007;43(3):379-384. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2006.05.007.
  6.  Salmon SJ, Fennis BM, D T, Adriaanse MA, de Vet E. Health on impulse: When low self-control promotes healthy food choices. Health Psychol. 2014;33(2):103-109. doi:10.1037/a0031785.

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