Willpower Has Its Limits: How to Make Exercise an Obvious Decision

overflow“Stop making excuses!” If you struggle with your weight, then you have probably received this advice from a well-meaning friend or fitness author. Such short-sighted advice is anything but helpful, because changing your habits isn’t so simple. Most people don’t have the luxury of being able to make fitness their top priority. How could they when they have bills to pay, mouths to feed, and work to do? It’s easier for a personal trainer who works in a gym to squeeze in a workout than it is for a married office worker with children.

Willpower isn’t an infinite resource. It’s a muscle that can get fatigued just like any other. If you spend your morning reviewing flashcards for a test, then you might end up so exhausted that exercising is the last thing you want to do. If you encounter angry customers at work, then you might not feel like going to the gym afterward.

You don’t get a separate bucket of willpower for every role you perform. Parent, spouse, student, employee, business owner, it doesn’t matter. You must manage all of your competing responsibilities with a single bucket of willpower. In addition, facing difficulties in one role could have a detrimental impact on your ability to perform in another.

This all illustrates that our various life roles are deeply interconnected. Work-related stress doesn’t typically stay in the office. Instead, it follows you home and could even spark a fight if you’re not careful. Relationship problems don’t typically stay under your roof. Instead, they invade your consciousness and make it more difficult to deal with your other responsibilities.

What does this have to do with healthy living? Just as a stressful day might cause relationship problems, everyday struggles can cause a loss in enthusiasm for eating well and getting time for exercise. There is no easy solution for this conundrum but there are ways to improve your chances of success.  The strategy most likely to help is to simplify everything about your “hard” decisions.  For example, if you want to make exercise a consistent habit, then it is essential to eliminate as many decisions related to exercise as possible.

To demonstrate, let’s imagine the decision-making process of a person who is getting ready to go to the gym:

Step 1: They convince themselves that going to the gym is worth their time and effort.

Step 2: They decide what to wear and get dressed.

Step 3: They get in the car and drive to the gym.

Step 4: They choose which equipment to use.

Step 5: They complete their workout.

Who knew going to the gym could be so complicated? Rather than working through each step, do some long-term planning to remove short-term decisions. That is, try to automate the process as much as possible. For example, if your schedule is built around working out at the same time every day and you have a set program to follow, that greatly reduces the first step. If you have workout gear all ready to go (you could combine several matching outfits in a single drawer at the beginning of the week) then that simplifies step 2. If you can drive directly to the gym after work, it removes the need to make another decision to drive there once you are home. You get the idea: create a simple strategy once that eliminates the need to make decisions day after day. When developing your strategy, be mindful of your common obstacles and simply ask yourself, “What steps can I take to make exercise an obvious decision?” You are limited by nothing but your imagination.

About the Author Daniel Wallen is the CEO (Chief Empowerment Officer) of the Wallen Way. He is a personal trainer, Lifehack contributor, and author of, “The Busy Woman’s Guide to Getting Fit, Fierce, and Fabulous

8 thoughts on “Willpower Has Its Limits: How to Make Exercise an Obvious Decision”

  1. Great article. Simplifying steps really works. I recently had my first child and needed to reorgranize my schedule. The key is to take some time to set up the schedule in advance. I also find it helpful to periodically analyze my schedule to see if I can improve it in any way. I have done a pretty good job with everything else within my schedule – just not there yet with exercising. I have a constructed plan. Now I just need to execute!

  2. I am having cervical disc surgery on 3 levels January 27th and I am unable to exercise at the moment due to pain. I am sure that after the surgery I will have to do certain strengthening exercises and hopefully will be able to be more active that I am now. I am a very busy person and spend 2 hours a day driving to and from work and get up early every morning. I also have a second job cleaning church every weekend. I find it very hard to find time to exercise. Hopefully this will help get me motivated and find time that I need to be successful.

    1. Hi Barbara, we’re just checking in and hope everything has gone well. Make sure you always take it slow (at the recommendation of your doctor) any time you return to activity after surgery.

  3. Just concentrating on breathing, staying relaxed and focussed only on the work at hand, and feeling good about accomplishing the goal. That keeps me satisfied and comfortable

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