Willpower and Setting Goals

Coaching is a truly effective way to recognize what behaviors and attitudes are working for you and which ones are not. Is your exercise plan realistic for your busy lifestyle? Do you sabotage your desire to eat fresh healthy foods by stocking the pantry with processed junk for the kids? A careful inventory of your lifestyle is designed to boosts your self-awareness around good and bad habits. Once boosted, you move on to making a plan of action with your coach. What do you want to change and how can you change it? This step is all about goal setting. Here is what the authors of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength have to say about using what we know of our self-control to set and achieve reasonable goals.

Don’t Set Conflicting Goals

How many of us want to be the best we can at our job, parenting and as a devoted spouse or partner? That’s three big goals right there. It’s no surprise that juggling the demands of a job, children and a relationship will leave you exhausted, frustrated, and feeling inadequate at all three.

The result of conflicting goals is worry. We spend our energy scrambling to cope with the demands and so “replace action with rumination.” Our physical and mental health may suffer because we are stuck in a cycle of negative rather than positive emotions. Fewer goals mean a better success rate, but who want to hear that! Keep reading; there are a few things you can do to keep that worry in check.

Short Term vs. Long Term Goals

Concentrate on short-term objectives in lieu of long-term goals. Research has found that meeting short-term goals builds confidence and self-efficacy, and improves learning and performance. Setting long-term goals has the same result as setting no goals at all. So though you may want to lose 50 pounds, you’re better off starting small. The path to the larger goal is filled with many incremental and therefore attainable milestones.

Reduce Mental Nagging


Executive coach David Allen’s book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity describes an elaborate but effective filing system that allows you to prioritize and organize every last task and commitment. His philosophy is based on the Zeigarnik effect. “Uncompleted tasks and unmet goals tend to pop into one’s mind. Once the task is completed and the goal reached, however, this stream of reminders coms to a stop.” In essence the process of making a plan–not necessarily completing the task—frees the mind from niggling worry.

Managing the worry caused by conflicting goals and the stress of the infinite to do list involves making a plan. It’s not necessary to complete the job right now, but once you have an action plan in place, the mind can calm and focus on the task at hand.

More on Willpower

Check out two previous blog posts on the book Willpowerhow willpower works and the connection between willpower and glucose. There are more to come, so please follow the blog (button on the left) to be notified about future posts.


Morning Glory Muffins

Morning Glory Muffins

Makes 12 muffins

These delicious, moist muffins make a hearty snack or a quick breakfast. There are no eggs or milk so these qualify as vegan muffins, but you certainly don’t have to be vegan to enjoy them. I use a coffee grinder or a mini food processor to chop the walnuts and carrots so that kids don’t even know they are there.

The only difficult thing about this recipe is remembering to buy extra bananas so that you can let a big bunch of them to get brown and extra sweet! Try buying bananas often, allowing them to ripen and then peeling and freezing them. You’ll always have a stockpile for muffins and smoothies. Enjoy!


1 ½ cups whole-wheat flourVegan Morning Glory Muffins
½ cup wheat germ
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon
5-6 overripe bananas
¼ cup rice milk (can substitute almond or soy milk)
6 tbsp canola oil
1 tsp vanilla
½ cup walnuts, chopped or ground fine
½ cup carrots, finely chopped
½ cup raisins


Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix flour, wheat germ, baking powder and baking soda, salt and cinnamon in a large bowl. In another bowl mash bananas, add rice milk, oil, and vanilla. Combine well. Add dry ingredients to wet and combine without over stirring. Fold in nuts, carrots and raisins. Use muffin cups or non-stick spray with muffin tin. Fill cups 2/3 full. Bake for 30 minutes.

Download a PDF of this recipe.

Willpower and Glucose

Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength contains so much useful information that I’m exploring the key points of this book in separate blog entries. In my first post on it, I described how self-control or willpower is likened to a muscle that can be exhausted. The more you use it throughout the day, the less strength you have.

So how does the body replenish willpower? According to Baumeister and Tierney, the answer is glucose. When we digest food, our bodies produce glucose molecules that enter the bloodstream providing energy to the cells of our muscles, brains and various body systems. No glucose, no energy, no willpower

This phenomenon is born out again and again in research. For example, scientists in Finland studied convicts being released from prison. The researchers were able to predict –with 80% accuracy– which convicts would go on to commit violent crimes simply by monitoring their blood sugar. Other studies found that persons with hypoglycemia seem to have a harder time concentrating and controlling negative emotions. Diabetics can have more problems with impulsivity, alcohol abuse, anxiety and depression than non-diabetics. In all cases, self-control is more elusive when glucose levels are low.


So where does the body get the necessary glucose? Fruits, starchy and sugary foods top the list. Think about what you crave when you blood sugar takes a dip… Sweet drinks, sugary snacks, and often chocolate come to mind because they provide a quick hit of glucose.

Women might appreciate knowing that Willpower also gave context to the cravings and weight gain associated with PMS.  Following ovulation, a woman’s reproductive system uses extra energy (glucose), leaving less available for the rest of her body. To counteract the shortage, sugar can seem pretty irresistible at this time of the month. However, healthy low-glycemic foods like nuts, veggies, and fish also provide what’s needed and have been shown to alleviate PMS symptoms.

An interesting bit of advice from the authors to parents is that if your child is sick when it’s time to take the SAT, they will almost certainly be better off taking it the next time it’s offered. The self-control needed to sit for hours solving math problems and choosing vocabulary definitions just isn’t there when a virus is sapping your glucose.

Finally, sleep is also vital to healthy glucose levels and resulting willpower. When we are sleep deprived, our body’s ability to process glucose is impaired. We all know how overwhelming upcoming decisions and tasks can feel at the end of the day or in the middle of the night. Remember it will all feel infinitely more doable in the morning. More rest, more glucose, more willpower, less stress.

Soda, Popcorn and Mindful Eating

New York mayor, Michael Bloomberg’s lost his fight to ban oversized sugary sodas sold in New York City. The judge called the soda ban “arbitrary and capricious,” while advocates defended themselves saying they are trying to “reset the default.” Ironically, the Big Gulp® was never threatened since it’s purveyor, 7-11, is under state control. Bloomberg Soda Numbers

Do you still consider movie theater popcorn a reasonably healthy snack or even a meal substitute? Think again. A large bucket–without the buttery topping–has anywhere from 400 to 1,200 calories, one to three days’ worth of saturated fat, and up to 1,500 milligrams of sodium.

There’s no doubt that portions sizes in America are inflated. Add to that our tendency to multi task—think eating lunch while checking email–and maybe the obesity epidemic isn’t so hard to understand. Many of us just keep going until the plate is clean or the bag is empty.

How do we reverse this dangerous trend? How can we eat more mindfully? Here are some tips:

  • Chew your food at least 20 times per bite.
  • Have a “no technology” rule at meals (that includes TV).
  • Practice the Japanese philosophy of Hara Hachi Bu – eat until you are 80% full.
  • When eating in a group, be the last to begin.
  • When eating out, share a meal. If that’s not an option, put half of your order in a to-go box right away and enjoy it the next day for lunch.
  • Eat off of smaller plates and bowls.
  • Know your food weaknesses, and keep those items out of sight in the pantry.

Stay informed and try these strategies to increase your mindfulness around eating.



Wansink, B. (2010) Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think. Bantam.

Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength

Social psychologist Roy Baumeister and The New York Times science writer, John Tierney are the coauthors of the bestseller Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength (2011). Together they have crafted a remarkable collection of research findings on how humans control (or don’t) their thoughts, impulses and actions. Their conclusions are surprising, often debunking popular beliefs. What the reader comes away with is an appreciation for the biology behind our everyday mental struggles and some realistic strategies to work within our innate limits. I found so much valuable information–with numerous implications for each of us–that I’ve decided to devote several separate blog entries to the book.

To start, the authors report that more than one million people surveyed about their own character strengths most often rank “self-control” at the bottom of the list. Yet psychologists also know that self-control is vital for personal success. So why is it so elusive and can and how do we strengthen it?

Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength

If we wake up well rested and manage to have a decent breakfast, we each begin the day with a healthy amount of willpower at our disposal. However, an inevitable decline occurs as we make decisions and control our impulses throughout the course of a normal day. Baumeister and Tierney use the term ego-depletion to describe the effect of using up our self-control. Most of us are left with a diminished capacity to regulate ourselves toward the end of the day. (Think skipping your afternoon workout, yelling at your children, or the late-night snack.) Willpower should be thought of as a muscle that can be fatigued.

This is just a short summary of what humans are up against as we try to harness our willpower. If you’ve already decided this as a losing battle, it’s not! The book goes on to apply these findings to dieting, goal setting, self-esteem, and I’ll explore all of these and more in upcoming blog posts. In the meantime, the authors suggest focusing your efforts on one project at a time. You’re only setting yourself up for failure by taking on too much or dividing up your resources among many goals. New Year’s resolutions are a good example. Stick with one reasonable goal, and you’re much better equipped to meet the challenge.

Stay tuned for more on Willpower!



Baumeister, R. F. and J. Tierney (2011) Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. New York. Penguin Books.