The Willpower Gap

The struggle is real during the holidays to resist that last piece of pie or those treats your coworker brought in. Susan Peirce Thompson, Ph.D., a brain and cognitive scientist specialized in the psychology of eating, weighs in with some advice.

“Willpower isn’t a dimension of personality or character; it’s simply a cognitive function available to us in limited doses.” Research shows that we have as little as 15 minutes of willpower at our disposal at any given time before it runs dry. “It’s no surprise then that when there are temptations everywhere, we cave! This is called the ‘Willpower Gap.’”

There are ways to expand willpower to better manage holiday eating. The key is to be aware of the Willpower Gap and plan accordingly, so you don’t fall into it.

“The brain’s willpower capacity is limited, but steps like planning ahead, reducing stress, and eating regular meals will help overcome the Willpower Gap,” says Dr. Peirce.


PLAN AHEAD Don’t force decisions when you’re tired, hungry, or overwhelmed by the crowd. Decide in advance what and when to eat everyday, so you won’t have to make food choices when your willpower is depleted.

EAT REGULAR MEALS When regular meals become part of the routine, it eases the burden off willpower. Eating three meals a day at regular times—breakfast, lunch, and dinner—makes eating the right foods automatic and leaves you less likely to cheat in between.

REDUCE STRESS Stress and regulating emotions tax your willpower. Wherever possible, modify or avoid stressors. If they can’t be avoided, just being aware that you may feel depleted can prevent your falling into the Willpower Gap.

GET ENOUGH SLEEP Make sure to get enough sleep each night. It is a powerful willpower replenisher.

PRACTICE GRATITUDE Research shows that something as simple as expressing gratitude can replenish willpower. Gratitude also helps shift the focus from what you want to what you have.

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