The Science Behind Will Power – Session Notes from OAC Your Weight Matters (#YWM2013) Convention

This post is a summary of a session at the OAC “Your Weight Matters” Convention in 2013. The session was led by Dr. Sean G. Connolly, a psychologist in private practice who is studying the oft misinterpreted concept of will power. Dr. Connelly is based in San Antonio, TX for the past 30 years and for the past 10 has worked with weight-loss patients. He also works with many bariatric practices.

If I had a nickel for the number of times a post-op has told me they are struggling because they just don’t have will-power, I’d be rich!

And, trust me, I used to think this way too. That is, until attending the session of Dr. Sean G. Connolly at the Obesity Action Coalition “Your Weight Matters” Convention in San Antonio, TX in 2013.

In order to fully embrace what we’re about to talk about here, I’m going to need you to do something that I know it will be hard to do. You need to accept the fact that nobody is born with inherent willpower. Nobody is naturally better at resisting temptation than anyone else. Resistance is not default. Everyone has things they are tempted by. It isn’t always food. I once had a friend who never met a pair of Jimmy Choo’s she didn’t like (although she encountered many credit card bill collectors she couldn’t stand). So while you are accepting that, by default, none of us has willpower, let’s also accept that everyone has temptation in life and the the only difference between folks who you perceive to consistently resist temptation and the ones who don’t lies in their management of temptation, not by any special virtue with which they were born.

I’ll give you a minute to let that sink in.

Ok, ready? Let’s go!

First off…what is will power?

Dr. Connolly says we often think of will power in terms of something we have or don’t have. That’s the wrong way to go about it. Will power is a muscle of the brain which means that like any other muscle, you can:

  • Learn how to use it correctly and effectively
  • Strengthen it with exercise
  • But when you don’t exercise it, it loses its strength
He also cited research that indicates something else that’s very interesting. It’s so important I need to underline it. As humans, we have a finite amount of will power (finite = set amount). If you use it all up you have to build it up again to be able to use it.
Don’t believe me? Consider this. Ever notice that the checkout line at the grocery store is loaded with stuff you should not eat? That’s not by accident! Marketers know you’ve likely exercised a lot of will power in the store (with regards to things like the nutrition of your food choices, the price or quantity) and that by the time you make it to the checkout line some of your will power has been depleted. So when you are in that state you are more susceptible to making bad decisions.
Dr. Connolly also pointed out that will power is a function of the brain that can’t be separated from other functions. So that is to say that using will power takes away energy from other brain functions and vice-versa. This does not mean that will power is bad! It just means we should recognize that if our brains are engaged in other processes (dealing with extreme emotion, for example) our will power can be weakened.

Ok…so how exactly does one build up their will power?

 Dr. Connolly says to exercise your will power you can try something called “delayed gratification.” The concept is not so much about saying “no” as it is about saying “not right now.” He cited a study where two groups of children were given marshmallows. One group was told not to eat the marshmallows until the group leader came back and that if they did this, they’d get more marshmallows. The other group was simply told not to eat the marshmallows until the group leader came back.
C’mon…what do YOU think happened? Of course the kids who were promised more marshmallows delayed their gratification so that they could get more. This is powerful evidence that if there is a will, we can exercise will power!
So how do you delay gratification. He suggests starting with some small abstention like staying off social media for a short length of time or not practicing a habit for a day. These acts will help exercise your will power muscle.

So…what happens if my will power muscle gets tired?

 According to Dr. Connolly you are more prone to making bad decisions. But your will power being tired can be linked to many other things like:
  • Your body being tired – so get more rest!
  • Being under exceptional stress
  • Being depressed
  • Being presented with too many choices at once
His advice is to not put yourself in will power struggles when you are tired or feeling unusually stressed or depressed. It’s just a losing set-up. This is NOT to say that you give in to every whim you have. But this would not be the time to intentionally expose yourself to temptation either.

What other factors affect will power?

 Dr. Connolly cited other things that affect the will power. This is where my notes get a bit sketchy as my computer got wonky! The one thing I do have noted is that spirituality and beliefs can be a powerful will power catalyst. I can personally attest to that. Every year I do a Lent promise in observance of the season leading up to Easter. I find I am able to abstain from nearly anything (yes, even peanut butter one year!) for that forty days – even things I could not abstain from before.
But it doesn’t have to be religious beliefs only. Moral beliefs, any beliefs. One might say that a person who decides to become vegetarian after deciding they don’t believe in killing animals is practicing will power by nature of their beliefs. People who boycott companies that make products they like because the company has done things they do not like are practicing will power based on beliefs. Get the picture?

So what this all boils down to…

Will power is a muscle but also a tool. It can wear down and you may have to build it up but, as Dr. Connolly points out, one set back does NOT mean you’ve lost your will power! It’s something that is bound, by its nature, to have high points and low points. Therefore we’d do well to heed the following tips:
  • Again, don’t put yourself in the position of having to exercise will power when you are tired, stressed or depressed
  • If you know your will power will be tested, try using “If/then” visioning to help. That’s just a fancy way of saying something like “If I go to Aunt Martha’s and she offers me those cookies I’ve always loved, then I’ll pop a piece of gum and politely decline.” Like that.
  • Recognize that sometimes you’ll need to ask for help when your will power is low. That’s nothing to be ashamed of.
  • Be accountable! That helps you exercise will power when it’s hard to do so. Make S.M.A.R.T. goals (Specific, Measureable, Achievable, Realistic, Timely) and share them with friends. Then report back on how you did. It helps!

…now that you’re all educated, let’s do a challenge!

Since we now know we can exercise our will power muscle to make it stronger, I’d like to challenge you to exercise your will power muscle.
In the comments of this post, tell me one thing you will abstain from doing for a full day next week. You need only commit to abstaining one of the days of next week between Monday and Friday (August 26 – 30, 2013). Don’t overdo it! Remember, we’re exercising a muscle. Just like you wouldn’t lift too much weight at first, neither should we try to exercise drastic will power.
Anyhoo…leave your commitment to abstain in the comments. Then on Saturday (September 1) I’ll post asking you to be accountable and say how you did. I want you to pay particular attention to:
  • Was abstaining easy or hard?
  • How did your thought process/decision-making process change as a result of abstaining?
  • Did you have to make any trade-offs to make it work? If so, what were they?
  • If you ended up violating your abstention, what were the circumstances? Were you trying to exercise will power in another area of life?


  1. Georgegina Powell

    I don't have to think next monday I will abstain from any chex mix. as I have said before that is my goto snack and I know it isn't doing any good for me so I will commit to NO CHEX MIX next Monday 🙂

  2. I am going to try clean eating… I am going to abstain from processed carbs on Monday (and try for longer!)

  3. On Tuesday I will refrain from eating anything processed. If I didn't make it, I. Can't. Eat. It.

  4. HI'm going to refrain from using my cellphone for 1 WHOLE day. I've been struggling with the fact that my phone is a HUGE distraction for me in my life – mainly because of social media. I've been trying to work on "parking" it between 5:00p and 9:00p but have found it very difficult. A whole day without my phone should make that seem much easier…..RIGHT?

  5. On Tuesday I will abstain from snacking on anything that is not good for me. No processed foods. Just veggies for snacks.

  6. The Truth About Fat Chicks

    I will abstain from processed carbs/crackers/breads.

    I can do this for five days!

    Great post!!

  7. Mine is not food related, but it's just as hard (and I'm outing myself on this btw so be kind!). On Monday I am committing to abstaining from distracted driving. I'm awful about that. No texting, no checking Facebook – just me and NPR!!! I'm hoping this will stick too.

  8. Monday is my hardest day at work. Thus, on Monday, I will abstain from any and all chocolate treats (think mini-square, not like huge amounts). I will not use it as a coping mechanism!

  9. I think I will commit to abstain from being annoyed over little things. Lately I have been running low on patience.

  10. On Monday, I will create and write down my menu plan for the day and will abstain from snacking on anything that is not part of the plan (even when offered by a well-meaning spouse or when kids leave perfectly good food on their plates). I am going to try all week, but I am accountable right now for Monday.

  11. On Monday I will abstain from any type of salty, crunchy snack type foods, like crackers, chips, pretzels, popcorn,.

  12. This is such a great topic. And challenge! On Monday I will not use my cellphone all day long. This is a hard one for me because I am attached to it. My friend says it's permanently attached to my hand.

  13. Monday is and has always been my day off – I always schedule doctors appointments and family events on Mondays since it has been my day off regularly. I have two appointments on Monday with my surgeons office (4wk post op & nutritionist appt) however, my boss has me scheduled for the afternoon shift. I am committing to abstaining from COMPLAINING! I have been very frustrated with the last minute schedule change and it does me & my co-workers no good. I abstain from complain! (I will have to repeat this in my head ALL day Monday!!!)

  14. Okay, my biggest struggle is mindless eating. I will abstain from eating without good reason. Everything I put in my mouth I will pause, reflect on why I need it and react accordingly. Should be fun!

  15. Hard one, but I will abstain from negative thinking about my body. That will be VERY challenging for me to do! I have loads of negative tapes playing all day long. Phew. I will pick Wednesday since that is the day I have the least amount of distraction via work or appointments. I want to really work my will power muscles!

  16. I will exercise will power against processed foods (with the exception of protein shakes).

  17. I will abstain from watching YouTube for one day.

  18. The Flanders Family

    I will abstain from snacking on monday.
    This post is just what I needed, Thank You!

  19. Stephanie Youmans

    Tuesday I will not eat processed foods (except my protein shake in the morning) and no pasta/bread/potatoes.

  20. Tuesday, I will abstain from eating anything with any type of sugar in it

  21. Monday I will abstain from processed carbs.

  22. I will abstain from weighing myself everyday. I am a slight bit obsessed with the scale. I will not weigh myself for 5 days. Lets see if I can do it.

  23. Starting on Monday I will only eat what's good for me and leave for ones and for all, all the junk food. I will reclaim myself I again.

    • Akita while I admire your spirit the point is to make a small, one-day goal. We don't exercise our other muscles by lifting super heavy weights. Neither too should we try to do too much here. So try just abstains from junk food for a DAY. Anything beyond that is a bonus.

    • *akira… Darn auto-correct!

  24. On Wednesday, I'm going to abstain from Crystal Light. It's little, I know, but I've gotten so dependent on that, I've forgotten what water tastes like! So, on Wednesday, water only – NO crystal lite! 🙂

  25. On Monday, I will stay away from all processed type snack foods such as cookies, crackers, chips. etc.

  26. On Monday I will not eat anything after 7PM – This has been a really bad habit I have created for myself

  27. On Monday I will abstain from playing games on Facebook.

  28. Maureen Hirschfeld

    On Tuesday I will abstain from having the tv on, even as back ground noise during 'work hours' so that it doesn't distract me from being more productive/active around the house.

  29. On Tuesday I will abstain from snacking after midnight.

  30. Melissa Thompson

    Today I'm staying away from all snacks salty – chips, chex mix, pretzels, crackers, etc.

  31. On Tuesday I will abstain from anything made with processed flour. None of those little pretzel crackers I have gotten into a bad habit with!

  32. Georgegina Powell

    I haven't missed my chexmix yet but it may be harder tonight….that is when I really really want it….LOL

  33. Tomorrow I will abstain from snacking after dinner.

  34. I forgot to post last night! Today I will abstain from eating more than one snack after dinner. Night eating is my biggest issue.

    Brianna S.

  35. TheBariatricDiva

    Great post! Next tuesday I will abstain from television. I will take a walk, or read, or take a bath… But no mindless sitting in front of the tv for hours!

  36. Hey Diva! Glad you enjoyed the post. Just wanted to let you know for the purposes of the prize this challenge ends on August 30. But developing will power is a prize all on its own so I encourage you to DO IT!

  37. Today I will abstain from yelling at my kids.

  38. Tomorrow I plan on cutting out unplanned snacks after dinner. One is good but I find myself eating 2 or 4 more.

    Breardon01@Yahoo. Com

  39. Well, I pledged for Tuesday and that went right out the door as soon as I got up in the morning!! 🙁

    Wednesday AND Thursday were great!! 🙂

    Friday was good but not great.

    I have no real reason or insight as to why some days are better for me than others, but it's always been a pattern for me to blow the first day of some goal and the do well later. Getting the garbage out of the way first? I don't know.

  40. Have we found a winner for this challege

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