I admit to a certain amount of rationalization when it comes to healthy habits. When I finish a tough exercise class, I almost feel like I “deserve” a sugary coffee drink. Maybe I don’t consciously decide that I’ve earned it because of my workout, but I don’t feel too guilty drinking my mocha with whipped cream! It’s like my brain has decided that I’ve met my goal for the day and any decisions after that are considered less carefully, or rationalized to allow me to indulge.
I’m not alone in this type of thinking, it’s how the brain works when willpower is needed to achieve a long-term goal. Let me explain. When I decide to exercise, I am working toward my long-term goal of staying healthy and strong. The planning and decision-making areas of my brain are working hard to keep me on track at the expense of more immediate goals, such as indulging my sweet tooth. But after I work out, these parts of the brain can rest because I’ve done something to satisfy my goal. Then areas of the brain involved in more immediate gratification are allowed their say, and suddenly my desire for a creamy chocolate mocha may be even stronger because I started by doing something virtuous!
So how can any of us achieve our long-term goals and avoid all the delicious mochas in our way? The key lies back in the brain, in that long-term planning area. We have to prevent it from tuning out and turning off when we’ve made a step in the right direction. The best way to do this is to stay focused on our final desired outcome. For example, instead of starting my day with the goal of getting to exercise class, it helps to think of my work-out as one step toward my ultimate goal of staying healthy and strong. When class is over, I can feel good about what I’ve accomplished and still recognize that reaching my goal requires more steps and more good choices. My true reason for working out reminds me that a calorie-laden mocha is not in line with these goals and my willpower stays strong.
If you are also struggling with frustrating willpower lapses, try thinking about goals in a different way. Instead of focusing on the steps along your path, keep your ultimate destination in mind at all times. Frequently remind yourself of it, and picture yourself achieving it. Remember this when you face challenging decisions, it will activate the rational part of the brain that, in my case, wants me to keep moving past the coffee shop and forward toward health and strength.