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Does Willpower Really Get Used Up?

States of mind


Back in April I talked about this post on the New York Times blog, which seems to tell us that if we exert self-control in one area, it can cause us to have less self-control in other areas. Since then, I’ve come across a lot of information–studies, people’s stories of their experiences, my own experiences, books, and so on–that have helped me understand willpower a bit better. With this more informed perspective, I’d like to come back to the subject of self-control fatigue and ask: does willpower really get used up?

One goal at a time: focus, not fatigue
First, there’s one area where it’s become clear that not fatigue, but focus is the key. In the April post, I said “If we try to push in too many directions at once, we’ll rapidly become fatigued and usually lose our grip on all of the pieces. This is why, generally speaking, self-motivation works best when we work on one and only one kind of goal at a time.” Much information I’ve come across since writing that reinforces my conviction that as a rule, we have much better chances with new goals if we take on only one of them at a time–but because of focus instead of fatigue: if we try to take on two or more new goals at once, our attention is divided between them. This means less concentration on habits for each goal, less thinking about each goal, less recognizing of opportunities, less clarity, less mindfulness, and other kinds of limitations on how well we can really devote ourselves to our new goal. Since accomplishing a major goal usually means changing habits, and since habits are stubborn by definition, we usually need all the focus we can get when we take a new goal on.

Physiological energy and fatigue
The other aspect of self-control fatigue I talked about was physical energy: mentally exerting ourselves toward a goal takes a surprising amount of our available energy (and available blood sugar), which is what the Times blog post was focusing on regarding the study in question. Replenishing this energy with a little sugar fix (some lemonade) seemed to help. This particular point still stands, I would say: it’s harder to push for new goals when we’re tired, although it’s definitely still possible, especially if we’re well-prepared.

Is willpower a reservoir or a skill set?
But does this mean we use up willpower itself and need to regenerate it, or does it just mean that we use up our physical energy and have less of that to use in exerting our willpower? Just to share my current belief–this is nothing I’ve seen tested yet in any study, although that would certainly be of interest to me–I don’t think willpower really does get used up at all. What is willpower, after all? It’s often characterized as being like a reservoir or an electrical charge, something that we have a limited amount of and can use up. In reality, though, effectively exerting willpower isn’t really a matter of struggling against temptation and winning, at least not most of the time: instead, it’s a matter of learning and using the right skills to redirect ourselves. In other words, it requires learning and applying what we learn rather than brute force.

For instance, if I’m tempted to stay up late into the night to watch a movie I just received even though I know I need to be up early the next morning, it might be possible for me to dredge up a stern enough “No!” to force myself, resentfully, off to bed. But it’s definitely possible for me to ask myself questions like “Will I enjoy this movie just about as much if I watch it later?” and “Would it also be enjoyable right now to climb in bed and get some rest?” and “Will I be happier tomorrow morning if I watch this movie or if I hold off?” and “What if I just go get ready for bed, then see if I’m still as keen on watching the movie?”

All of these questions are strategies for looking at my situation in a different–and more complete–way, questions that can help me line up my actions with my long-term happiness instead of with whatever short-term pleasure offers itself–especially since, if I’m patient, I can often get some of the pleasure anyway without such a big cost.

But after that, I deserve to make bad choices!
A special situation that can make willpower seem like it’s getting “used up” is what schema therapy (of which more in future posts) calls the “entitlement schema,” the idea some of us often get that we deserve some pleasurable thing regardless of its effect on our long-term happiness. Having to exert willpower in one area can activate this schema, making it harder to exert willpower later. For instance, a person might think “I didn’t get to have that chocolate cake earlier, so now I deserve to eat this ice cream.” These kinds of statements sound like they make sense, but they really don’t when we examine them, because past good choices don’t make current bad choices any less bad. When I find myself running into problems like these, I try to remember to use idea repair to remind myself what’s really important.

An entitlement schema can make it seem like we’re using up willpower when all we may really be doing is having trouble reconciling ourselves to the good choices we’ve already made. This isn’t fatigue, just an attitude issue.

In the end, our mental resources are finite: we can only handle so much at once. But our mental resources also seem to often be much greater than we expect or give ourselves credit for, and even when it might seem for a moment like we’ve run out of willpower, if we search a little, we may find great untapped reserves ready to carry us forward–lemonade or no lemonade.

Photo by apesara

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Nothing to Do With Weight Loss: 17 Ways Exercise Promotes Willpower and Motivation


Mother and son doing pilates

I’m continuing to enjoy reading Dr. Daniel Kirschenbaum’s The 9 Truths About Weight Loss, which contains a lot of very pointed and useful information about diet, exercise, and getting fit. Interestingly, it also points out some of the side benefits of these subjects, and in one place particularly, Kirschenbaum lists 50 meaningful benefits exercise provides, most of which have nothing to do with weight loss, and some of which have a lot to do with self-motivation.

I was already aware of most of these benefits, but it had never occurred to me to list out all the ones I knew, and the effect of Kirschenbaum doing so was impressive. Taking his list for inspiration, I’d like to point out 17 benefits of exercise on mood, motivation, and willpower, many of them paraphrased from Kirschenbaum’s list.

Regular exercise …

1. can provide an uninterrupted opportunity to think
2. relieves stress, while helping to prevent future stress
3. stimulates release of endorphins, brain chemicals that promote feelings of happiness and well-being (this is sometimes known as “runner’s high”)
4. improves social opportunities–and the people you meet when you exercise tend to be happier, better-balanced, more reliable, and more proactive people than the general population due to the effects of regular exercise in their lives
5. improves self-esteem, self-image, and confidence
6. promotes self-awareness if done without distractions
7. fights depression, both temporary and chronic
8. reduces anxiety
9. improves sleep, making you better-rested and more focused
10. contibutes to greater energy and alertness
11. increases endurance for non-exercise activities, both physical (for instance, housework) and mental
12. helps reduce pain and weakness that might otherwise get in the way of other activities
13. improves our ability to relax quickly
14. promotes clear thinking
15. improves willpower through practice
16. makes it possible to get a larger perspective on other parts of our lives
17. provides a model for self-improvement in other areas

Of course, exercise is also nearly indispensable if you’re seeking weight loss and has many non-weight-loss-related health benefits, such as lowering blood pressure and triglycerides, improving cardiovascular health, preventing problems with posture as we age, extending lifespan, lessening back pain, improving digestion, improving cholesterol levels, preventing osteoperosis, and many others.

As long as I’m plugging exercise, I’ll also mention that not only does strenuous exercise get progressively easier and more pleasurable as you go from trying it out to doing it regularly, but it also doesn’t even have to be strenuous to provide good effects. For example, both in terms of mood and weight loss (two of exercise’s greatest benefits) walking alone, done very regularly and preferably for at least 30 minutes at a time, can yield enormous returns.

The most impressive benefits of exercise start when you exercise at least 3 times a week for 30 minutes or longer each time, and they increase dramatically if you exercise every day or close to it (for aerobic exercise: strength exercise seems to work best if you give that a resting day between days you work out).

Photo by Sean Dreilinger

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24 Ways to Stop Feeling Hungry

Strategies and goals

Midnight eating binge

While hunger evolved as a system for telling us when we need nourishment, in modern times our feelings of hunger can often get out of step with our actual bodily needs–especially for those of us who are trying to get more fit. When you’re getting enough nutrition but your body is still crying out for food, these techniques can help make hunger a non-issue. Each of these tactics is based on scientific research and/or experience of people who have lost and kept off substantial amounts of weight. Some may sound weak or unlikely, but try any that you haven’t tried already, since many are much more potent than they seem.

Remember that feelings of hunger are often temporary: if you can last a little while, often they will go away.

If you’re interested in finding out where hunger comes from, read this recent article.

Rethink the hunger
1. Remind yourself that if you have enough nourishment and are trying to lose weight, hunger is a good sign: it’s often an indication that your fat stores are going to be raided.
2. Visualize what the hunger will help you achieve.
3. Accept the hunger. Reconceive it as not painful, but healthy.
4. Enjoy toughing it out; take pleasure in being contrary. Tell the hunger, “Is that all you got? Come on, bring it!”
5. If your hunger is arising because you’re upset, use idea repair techniques to detect and fix the problem ideas.
6. Focus your attention on things other than food. Thinking about food will tend to make you more hungry.

Distract yourself
7. Start doing something really engrossing that will take up your attention.
8. Get into a conversation.

9. Eat something very healthy and low in calories, like celery; an apple; or very low-calorie, fiber-rich crackers. If you don’t have anything like that handy, go buy something that fits that description. (Do not pick up a bag of M&M’s while you’re out.)
10. Chew some gum (if you’re in a place where that wouldn’t be inappropriate). You won’t be able to eat (or much need to) while the gum lasts.
11. Drink tea or another no-calorie/very low-calorie drink (preferably with no cream, sugar, etc.).
12. Drink water. Every time you feel like taking a bite of something, take a swig of water instead. In addition to providing a substitute for eating, water also gives you a temporary feeling of fullness.

Create limits
13. Start an activity during which you can’t eat (e.g., working on your car, cleaning a bathroom).
14. Go to a place where you can’t eat (e.g., a library).
15. Physically remove any inappropriate foods: give them away, throw them out, or simply put them somewhere hard to get at.
16. Choose specific times during the day when you’ll eat, and make a rule that you won’t eat outside those times. While this may not work perfectly, if you get in the habit of short-circuiting food deliberations with the thought “Nope, not time to eat right now!” you can take your mind off food, which lessens the urge to eat.

Change your physiology (immediate techniques)
17. Resolve not to eat anything for just a short time (say, 10-20 minutes). This can work especially well if you’ve just eaten something, as it takes a little while for feelings of satiety to set in after you’ve eaten. Other kinds of emotional and physiological hunger triggers, too, are likely to go away after only a short time.
18. Get some very brief exercise: jumping jacks, dancing for a couple of songs, push-ups, crunches, a few minutes on an elliptical trainer or treadmill, etc. Research seems to show that even a little exercise can help fight feelings of hunger.
19. Go for a short walk: this supplies the benefits of exercise and distraction, tends to improve mood (due to both the exercise and the change of scene), and gets you physically away from the food … just don’t end your walk at a bakery.
20. Avoid sugary foods: eating foods with a high sugar content can cause your body to deploy extra insulin. The insulin cleans out all the sugars in your bloodstream, causing a temporary shortage that sends signals to your brain: “Dangerously low on sugar! Need Twinkies, stat!” This can create a vicious cycle and is probably one of the factors that encourages binges.
21. Eat something low in calories but high in protein, like nonfat yogurt or canned tuna. Protein appears to lessen feelings of hunger both in the short-term and throughout the day; for instance see this article.

Change your physiology (longer-term techniques)
22. Exercise on a daily basis: this can raise your metabolism, yet can actually help suppress hunger for up to 24 hours. Doing 30-60 minutes of vigorous exercise when you’re actually hungry will tend to suppress the hunger while you exercise in addition to giving you the metabolism boost. Exercising twice a day is ideal for helping to minimize hunger.
23. Eat in moderate amounts: avoid eating a lot at any one time. Doing this consistently over time when it has not been done in the past can help reduce stomach size (meaning the organ itself, not the fat over it). Binges tend to keep the stomach at a larger size.
24. Eat a diet full of fresh fruits and vegetables, protein, and fiber. Fiber helps you feel more full with fewer calories consumed, while protein helps minimize physiological hunger demands.

If you find yourself facing hunger often, link to or print this post and read it through when you’re feeling hungry. If you’re still hungry by the end of it and no solution jumps out at you, try something that’s new to you or that has worked for you before from what you’ve just read.

Image by Corrie Howell


Where Hunger Comes From

Strategies and goals

hungryHunger is a widely misunderstood feeling: we tend to think that it’s our stomachs that are mainly responsible for making us feel hungry; that hunger is a signal that something’s wrong in the body and needs to be fixed; that hunger is painful; and that hunger means the body needs food. All of these can be true in some situations, but all can also be misleading or false.

In this article and its follow-up (“24 Ways to Stop Feeling Hungry”), I’ll be focusing on causes of and solutions to hunger, for those readers interested in improving health and promoting fitness.

Where hunger starts
The thing we call “hunger” is actually a variety of interrelated sensations and physiological processes. These include:

  • The familiar signals from an empty stomach
  • Low blood sugar levels, which can cause sugar cravings. Ironically, these can be caused by eating sugary foods (see the follow-up article on anti-hunger techniques for more on this)
  • Physiology, especially the hormone leptin, which appears to have more to do with hunger than either stomach signals or blood sugar levels
  • Emotions: habits of using food to distract ourselves from negative emotions (including eating “comfort foods”) and other kinds of emotional eating can cause us to desire food even when there are no signals in our bodies calling for it
  • Circadian rhythms: Our bodies are accustomed to eating at specific times during the day. If we eat at a particular time consistently for even a short while, our bodies will start reminding us each day of that being “feeding time”
  • Social factors: In many situations, it’s polite to eat when other people are eating, for instance when meeting someone at a restaurant. Often we eat during these times even if we have no need for food
  • Habits and unexamined reactions, for example eating a piece of cake whenever someone puts cake out at the office, eating snacks at parties (even if it’s not expected socially, as it often is), or snacking whenever sitting down to watch TV or a movie

The evolution of hunger
It can help put hunger in perspective to realize that throughout the great majority of human development, almost all of our diet was made up of fresh plant foods, meat, fish, and poultry. The occasional honeycomb or small harvest of wild grain would provide an unusual burst of carbs, but staples of our diet in modern times, like bread (especially white bread), soda, candy, pastries, ice cream, and so on are so far out of the norm of what the first humans of our kind had available to eat, it’s hard to imagine what they would even think of them. Add to this the comparative ease with which most of us can get our hands on as much food as we want (or at least much more than we need), and it’s not entirely surprising that we have so many problems around the world with obesity: the foods we tend to eat are very different from what we evolved to eat.

What do you mean, “hunger isn’t painful”?
While we’re used to thinking of hunger as physically painful, it generally isn’t. We do tend to think negatively about hunger sensations, but only in extreme circumstances does hunger actually result in actual pain signals. Hunger’s usual feelings are more like mild physical discomfort, which can become a stronger psychological discomfort when we tell ourselves that we need some food. Yet when we reflect on the many causes of hunger, it immediately becomes clear that hunger is not a direct signal telling us our body needs nutrition.

Separating hunger from a decision to eat
In order for a person to change long-standing eating habits, it’s necessary to separate feelings of hunger from a decision to eat. Regardless of hunger, it’s essential to get regular nutrition with protein, fiber, water, vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, and even some fat. Provided we have the minimum amounts of those we need–which we can achieve without excessive calories by eating highly nutritious foods–any other food we eat is unlikely to help us and fairly likely to harm our goals, if we’re pursuing weight loss.

In changing eating habits, it helps to lay down some rules. Tracking everything you eat is an excellent one to adopt, for reasons explained in this article. Another might be to eat only at designated times, and not at all after a certain time in the evening. Rules can be more helpful here than simple guidelines or intentions (see How Making Rules Can Improve Willpower). Another helpful mindset change is to try to think of eating in terms of the question “What food does my body need?” instead of the question “What can I get away with eating?”.

The follow-up article to this one lists 24 ways to stop feeling hungry, based on research and the real-life experience of successful weight controllers.

Photo by Gilmoth

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How emotions work

States of mind


From Charles Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals

How exactly do emotions work? From a scientific point of view the answers to this question are still in the works, but research over the last couple of decades has given us a much clearer sense of how they emerge. In her 2005 book Deeper Than Reason: Emotion and its Role in Literature, Music, and Art, Jenefer Robinson digs deep into various theories of emotions and into the neurological and psychological findings that can help us figure this question out and offers a model for understanding the important pieces. Her basic model, added to research and analysis from other sources, is what drives this post. There’s a lot of research still to be done, though, so consider the information here to be more of a glimpse at the best insights we currently have about emotion instead of something complete and set in stone. Even taking it tentatively, though, Robinson’s model gives us some seriously useful information.

The gut reaction
Emotions start (Robinson argues) with a gut reaction to something: a face, a sound, an idea, a conclusion, or even some change within our bodies. She calls these reactions “non-cognitive appraisals,” whereas I think for our purposes here, “gut reaction” works just as well, but it’s helpful to realize from that term that these reactions themselves aren’t anything we think through: they happen in hardly any time at all, automatically. That doesn’t mean the whole process of having an emotion is automatic, though, as we’ll see.

The high road and the low road
There are two paths our brain can take to get us to a gut reaction, the high road and the low road. The high road is about what you’d expect: we see or hear (or taste or feel or smell or think or remember) something, we figure out what it means to us, and then we react emotionally. For instance, while driving toward our house we might see blue lights up ahead, realize that they are probably coming  from a police car, and begin to feel worried that something bad has happened.


The low road is a bit more surprising (unless you’ve read my post How to overcome specific fears and anxieties or another source with some of the same information): it still starts with some kind of sensory information, like a sight or sound, but in this case the amygdalae (a primitive part of the brain that we have on both the left and right side) flag it as something that has been associated with a powerful emotion or traumatic event in the past and sets off our gut emotional reaction before we even recognize what the thing is. For instance, if a person has been in an explosion caused by natural gas, the person may experience terror when smelling gas even before realizing that it’s a smell, or what the smell might be. Our brains seem to have evolved this trick of firing up emergency systems first and asking question later in order to help get us away from life-threatening situations as quickly as possible.

Even though the gut reaction is immediate and automatic, it can come down the high road as the result of thinking. For instance, I might spend hours going over my small business’s accounts before having the sudden realization that my accountant is stealing from me. As soon as I’ve had that realization, I’m likely to have a gut reaction (for instance of anger at the accountant, or fear of what will happen to my business, or happiness that I have found the reason for the cash flow problems, or even a combination) that’s automatic in the sense of reacting immediately to a thought that has been a long time coming.

Emotion is a process, not an unchanging state
But if we have that gut reaction, that doesn’t mean that we’re stuck in the corresponding emotion: instead, it seems to make the most sense to think about the emotion being a process that develops in several different ways at once, started by that gut reaction but subject to all kinds of changes. An emotion develops through:

  • Body chemistry:An emotion will spur a physiological reaction through chemicals like dopamine (associated with pleasure), adrenaline (associated with fear and anger), seratonin (associated with serenity), oxytocin (associated with feelings of love), cortisol (associated with stress), and so on. These chemicals have a lot to do with the physical feelings emotions create, like butterflies in the stomach or a thrill of delight, and they also tend to sustain whatever emotion we’re having.
  • Thinking (cognition): Once we start having an emotion, we tend to think about it and monitor our surroundings. For instance, we might see flashing blue lights and initially feel anxiety, thinking they’re from police cars, then round a corner and discover that they’re lights from a party a neighbor is having on their lawn.
  • Body language: It won’t be news to you that happiness can make you smile and depression can make you slump, but it’s more surprising to realize that smiling can make you happy and slumping can make you more depressed. Fascinatingly, our own expressions, posture, and maybe even tone of voice can stimulate the same body chemistry that the corresponding emotion would create. Smiling can make us feel happier, and sitting up straight can help us feel more alert and positive.
  • Being ready for action: Certain emotions tend to prime our bodies to be ready in certain ways: to focus our attention in a certain way or to be ready to move quickly. An example of this is flinching away at a sudden loud noise: our body is ready to act before we can even come up with a plan of how to act.

Different emotions at the same time?
These pieces of the emotional puzzle all go forward when we’re experiencing an emotion, and while they can work at the same time and in similar directions, they can also be out of synch or in conflict with each other. When that happens, they begin to influence each other, so that they tend to converge over time. For instance, if I am thinking something about something that makes me happy and my body is putting out oxytocin, but I decide to frown and turn my attention to things that upset me, the oxytocin will be cut off and replaced with other chemicals, my brain will conjure up memories of things that upset me, and my body will more and more begin to reflect the bad mood I’m creating.

It can be especially confusing to experience emotions that are out of synch. In the blue lights example, once I realize that it’s a party and not a crime scene, I may immediately feel intellectually better about the situation but still be feeling anxiety beneath that, because our thinking can change directions more quickly than our body chemistry. Fortunately, if we keep our thinking in the channel of the new emotion, our body chemistry will soon catch up.

Simple words for complex feelings
To make sense of emotions, we have a wide variety of labels for different ones, especially in English: terror, awe, euphoria, ennui, indignation, fury, and so on. When trying to reflect on how we’re feeling now or how we felt a while back, we tend to try to characterize our emotions to fit these available labels (although we also have emotion-charged memories that may give us more detail), and therefore tend to talk about emotions in a simpler way than we experience them. For instance, in the blue lights example, we might say “I was worried when I saw blue lights, but when I saw it was just a party, I was relieved.” This doesn’t capture that temporary conflict of thinking and body chemistry, nor the subtle details–perhaps the initial worry was mixed with indignation that a crime was happening in our neighborhood or guilt at something we ourselves had done; maybe the relief that the blue lights meant just a party was mixed at different times with irritation at the likely amount of noise, excitement that we might be invited to the party, and/or surprise that the neighbors thought blue lights were decorative. To put it another way, our emotions are not simple, exclusive states, but instead an evolving process that can include parallel and conflicting pieces that are hard to easily summarize in words. Fortunately, we have poets, artists, musicians, and others to help us communicate about emotions without resorting to simple summaries.

How idea repair can help drive emotion
A last note: in posts on idea repair, I’ve talked about thinking causing emotions. In light of this article, that idea may seem oversimplified, but to put things in perspective, idea repair is the process of thinking and directing attention that begins immediately after we have that initial gut reaction. Idea repair can’t directly affect the gut reaction (although over time it might train habits that will change initial reactions), but modifying our thinking is probably the most powerful single thing we can do to turn an emotion in a positive direction once an emotional process begins.

Police lights photo by Sven Cipido.


How Much Sleep Do You Need? 8 Hours Isn’t for Everyone



I’ve been particularly looking forward to the sleep chapter in John Medina’s book Brain Rules (one of my current reading books) because I was interested to know once and for all how much sleep I needed. Was 8 hours really the magic number? What were the consequences of averaging, say, 7 hours, or 6? What about naps? I was interested in knowing how sleep affects our brains so that I could begin to see how it might affect self-motivation.

The answers were very helpful in some ways and completely unhelpful in others. What are the findings about how much sleep we need? Research so far seems to say that there is no definite number, and sleep needed varies widely from person to person. Some people (who have a condition called “healthy insomnia”) only need 4 or 5 hours a night and don’t seem to suffer any ill effects. Kids going through puberty definitely need more, preferably in the morning. There also seem to be genes that determine whether someone is a morning person (a “lark”), a night owl, or (like most of us) a “hummingbird,” which is to say someone with a “normal” sleep schedule. Sleep needs and daily schedules change as a person ages, too.

Too little sleep has serious costs
But one very clear finding across the board is that not getting enough sleep actively sabotages the brain’s abilities. As Medina puts it, “Sleep loss hurts attention, executive function, immediate memory, working memory, mood, quantitative skills, logical reasoning ability, general math knowledge … manual dexterity … and even gross motor movements.” Also, interrupted sleep or inadequate sleep severely limits our ability to remember things we learned that day, increases stress, and causes effects that mimic accelerated aging. Not getting enough sleep even forces the body to crave sugar while reducing our ability to make good use of sugar when we get it, playing havoc with healthy eating.

Figuring out your own sleep needs
Most of us already knew that shorting ourselves on sleep was bad (though maybe we didn’t realize it was that bad). But how do we figure out how much sleep do we actually need to not condemn ourselves to tired, inattentive, grumpy days? The best answer I can give is that we probably already know. If you wake up feeling overtired, it’s probably no secret to you that you could use more sleep. Some of us treat sleep as expendable if something else important is going on, but since even small sleep shortages can have a major impact on performance, we may be more effective if we get the right amount of sleep even though that takes away from the waking hours in which we can actually get things done. If you find yourself adding in extra “down time” during the day because you’re tired, or making mistakes, being distracted, or having trouble getting things done because of a sleep debt, then the “bonus time” you’re getting by cutting out sleep–and possibly more time besides–may be getting used up by the problems caused by not getting enough sleep. In other words, shorting ourselves on sleep is both unpleasant and unproductive.

The need for naps is built into our genetic code
Pretty much everyone, it turns out, is programmed to need about a half-hour nap in the early afternoon, although some of us need it more than others. This isn’t just an artifact of not getting enough sleep at night: it’s a normal part of the sleep-wake cycle in human beings. Many of us won’t have the option of getting this extra sleep on a regular basis, but it may be worth experimenting with it when you do have the freedom to try and seeing if it doesn’t give you a lot more energy and attention. In one study, pilots who took a 26-minute afternoon step performed 34% better than pilots who didn’t. That’s a big improvement!

At the very least, it’s best not to schedule things that require a lot of attention in the early afternoon if you can help it.

Sleep and self-motivation
How does this affect self-motivation? Pretty profoundly, it turns out. Self-motivation requires knowing what you need to do, paying attention to your priorities, devoting a little time and focus to moving forward, being self-aware, and solving problems that come up with your process. All of those things are compromised when we short ourselves even an hour or two of sleep a night. So with enough sleep, self-motivation will tend to get noticeably easier.

I know you will have gotten the advice to “get plenty of sleep” time and time again, and if you aren’t currently getting enough, it might be because you are trying to get enough time in the day to accomplish everything that’s important to you. Only you can judge whether or not a little sleep-deprivation is worth being less intelligent and less capable while the sleep debt lasts. In the past, at least, I’ve often gone with a little sleep deprivation in the service of what sometimes seems like a good cause. Put in this light, though, I’m not sure I want to continue to make that kind of a bargain. I’m beginning to think of it this way: if I can accomplish everything I already accomplish without always getting enough sleep, how much better could I do if I were actually operating at full capacity? It’ll be worth finding out.


By the way, if noise interferes with your sleep, or if you just want a little more silence in your life, you might want to try any brand of soft, foam earplugs with rounded ends (above). I’ve found these very helpful, especially for sleeping when someone else has to get up early, during travel, working while someone’s watching a TV or listening to music nearby, concentrating while my neighbor is mowing the lawn, etc. I haven’t been as happy with plastic earplugs or with the kind that are made of harder foam and don’t have a rounded end. Fortunately, the earplugs don’t block out sound completely, so it’s still possible to hear (faintly) a phone ringing or an alarm going off even while wearing them.

Photo by tempophage


New Study Connects Exercise to Easier Weight Maintenance


A comment on this entry on the “My Life as a Fat Woman” blog pointed out a press release for a study just published in the American Journal of Physiology. What the study strongly suggests is that if a person loses weight, continued exercise will reduce appetite and help their body remember to burn fat first and carbohydrates later, warding off a weight rebound. This is above and beyond the direct calorie-burning benefits of exercise! If a person loses weight and then doesn’t exercise regularly, their body will be eager to replenish the fat supply, and weight will often rebound above the original level (which is unkind of it, if you ask me).

For the full details, read the press release here , or get the full article in all its technical and scientific glory.

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Can a Little Exercise Make Hunger Go Away?

Strategies and goals


I’ve been getting fitter over the past few years: these days I’m 42 pounds lighter and much stronger than I was at the beginning of 2006. I still have about 10-15 pounds to go, though, before I’m at the weight I think is ideal, so my weight loss is still in progress. After reading (and posting about) how useful rules can be recently, I decided to experimentally adopt a rule of only eating at designated times of the day. It has been working well, but–no big surprise–sometimes I’m hungry when it’s not time to eat. To distract myself from the hunger, from time to time I’ll try some quick exercise, usually push-ups or crunches. To my surprise, I noticed that I usually don’t feel hungry after just a few minutes of that kind of effort. It was an unexpected side benefit–but was it real? And if so, what was happening?

So I did a little research, and began coming across articles like “Influence of resistance and aerobic exercise on hunger, circulating levels of acylated ghrelin, and peptide YY in healthy males”  and “Exercise-induced suppression of acylated ghrelin in humans”  . Gleaning a little information from these without being a physiologist or an endocrinologist took some doing, but these and other sources suggest that physical exercise can actually reduce hunger, at least in the short term.

This sounds as though it’s in conflict with some of the research mentioned in the Time magazine article I recently complained about, where the author claimed that exercise isn’t particularly useful for weight loss–actually, though, this idea is compatible with that research. The research in the Time article talks mainly about people concluding that they can eat more food because they exercise or rewarding themselves after exercise with food, so that often the extra food adds more calories than the exercise takes away. These have to do with our thinking. The exercise and hunger research I’ve seen deals with the release of hormones like ghrelin and peptide YY, which are physiological triggers that regulate hunger.

RealAge has a tip here where they say that exercise can make you feel less hungry if you do a combination of aerobic and strength exercises, but they don’t cite their sources, so I don’t know where their information comes from, and in any case this seems to be a bit different from the research I’ve come across. That’s not to say I think it’s untrue: I just can’t back their claims up.

Just reflecting on my own experience, I wonder if this isn’t why I tend to feel hungry more often when I’m sitting down to do something than when I’m active. In any case, my experience so far is that exercise seems to be at least a temporarily effective way to ward off hunger some of the time as long as it’s not used to promote unhealthy eating practices.

I haven’t read all of the research on this subject, and it would be long hours of work to understand what I’d read if I had, so don’t take this as gospel. On the other hand, there seems to be meaningful scientific support for the idea that eating a few push-ups for a snack can be surprisingly … satisfying.

Photo by Teecycle Tim


Time Magazine Says Exercise Doesn’t Help People Lose Weight; They May Be a Little Confused

Strategies and goals

This week’s issue of Time Magazine includes an article called “Why Exercise Won’t Make You Thin,” which manages to be interesting, informative, and painfully misguided.

Stripping the article down to its main points, essentially author John Cloud says:

  1. Exercise often makes you hungrier
  2. If you eat more calories because you’re hungry from working out, you won’t lose weight
  3. Most people who exercise regularly to lose weight seem to be eating those extra calories, so
  4. Exercise doesn’t help you lose weight. <– Here’s where the error lies

The only problem described with exercise is that it makes a person hungry. Hunger in these cases is a sign that the body is going to burn some fat if you don’t eat some calories soon, so Cloud implies you should give up on the exercise. Wouldn’t it make more sense to just let the fat burn? Yes, this is hard, but if it weren’t, it wouldn’t require willpower, which is what this site is here to help you build.

Cloud also falls into the same two traps as a lot of people who have read about the research that suggests strongly that we have a limited ability to exert self-control. First, he fails to take into account the other research that draws a clear connection between using willpower and strengthening it. That is, he knows about the short-term exhaustion but not about the long-term strengthening.

The other point he misses is that it’s possible to make good choices (that is, use willpower) without using up any of our self-control reserves. Our limitations on self-control appear to have to do with struggling with ourselves, not with simply making good choices. Many of the strategies on this site point to ways we can use willpower without having to fight ourselves over it.

So sure, if you go work out and spend 300 calories, then go eat 500 calories as a “reward” (actually a penalty, if you think about the food’s impact on happiness overall), you won’t lose weight, and may in fact gain it. But it’s still true that weight loss is mainly a question of using more calories than you take in, which means that it’s essential to develop good eating habits and that exercise can help a lot as long as it doesn’t disrupt those habits.

The thing that bothers me most about this article is that I imagine people will read it and then give up, figuring there’s no way for them to win–but I hope I’m wrong. I hope people will read the article, ignore the confused claims about willpower giving out, and understand that to lose weight we just need to make sure we don’t binge on food after workouts. It’s not rocket science, surely. And it’s no surprise the key is self-motivation. Self-motivation turns out to be the key to a lot of things.


More tactics to aid willpower

Strategies and goals

There’s something in the blogosphere this week that is getting people to post about their strategies for making motivation easier. A post today at Capitalism Magazine came to my attention, in which writer Jean Moroney talks about her strategies for clearing the path to good choices.

Moroney starts the piece off by saying “I think willpower draws on a kind of reservoir of emotional energy. Because it is so important to be able to call on willpower when I need it, I do several things to conserve that energy by reducing how often I need willpower.”

Moroney’s tactics are interesting and worth sharing, but her idea that willpower needs to be conserved is only half right. From a physiological perspective, we do indeed have limited resources we can plow into changing habits on a daily basis: see my post “Self-Control Fatigue” for more on this.

But it’s true as well that we can improve our willpower across the board by exercising it regularly. In other words, if we avoid situations where we need to use willpower, we’re lowering the level of willpower we have available to apply to other problems in the future. There’s more on this in my article “How to Strengthen Willpower Through Practice” .

None of this undermines the value of Ms. Moroney’s resourceful ideas, but it does suggest that we’re best off when we strike a balance of making it easier to make good choices on the one hand and finding challenges for our willpower on the other.

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