For three years I worked in fundraising and communications at a private secondary school. It was, in many ways, one of my favorite jobs. We had a strong and important mission, I enjoyed the ability to initiate and steer projects, and we were a truly supportive and dedicated group of colleagues.
That said, every day was a nutrition minefield. The faculty/staff lounge was consistently full of one treat or another, the excellent chef who ran our meal program offered mouthwatering cookies with lunch, and there seemed to be an unwritten rule that every office desk was required to host a candy bowl. I would take walks around campus just to graze on the various sugar offerings.
A year or so in, I decided that I needed to make a change. At first, I just set a resolution to eat less sugar at work. It slowed me down a bit, but didn’t do much to change my behavior and before I knew it I was back to eating as much as I wanted. So I decided to get serious with myself. I bought a bag of my favorite candy and I put it on my desk where I would have to look at it dozens of times a day. And every day I would tell myself, as many times as I needed to, that I was not eating that - or any other candy - at work.
Something about forcing myself to choose over and over again to follow my commitment to myself made the difference, and I maintained my new habit for months. And then it was December and I was happy to let it go and enjoy the seasonal indulgences.
In his book Indistractable, Nir Eyal examines the research on willpower and comes to a surprising conclusion - our willpower is as strong as we believe it is. If you believe that willpower is a limited resource, then using it up leaves you vulnerable to your habits. But if you believe that willpower is something you can grow, you will do better when faced with temptation.
I had inadvertently stumbled over this mental effect in my effort to change my habits. By treating willpower like a muscle I could strengthen, and giving myself many opportunities to exercise that muscle, I was finally able to meet my health goal. Beyond that, I felt strong. I knew absolutely without question that I could face temptation repeatedly and continue to be faithful to my commitment to myself. Looking at the candy every day had become a powerful reminder of how in control I could be.
Our beliefs about ourselves matter. Particularly as we strive to identify and reach longer-term goals, how we think about ourself and our capacity matters. Habit can be tricky to overcome, but believing that it’s within our control is an important first step. There’s no reason to believe in anything but your own willpower and strength.