Nacho Mama's Take on Willpower
What to Learn about Willpower through My Love of Cheese
No amount of hugs could match the therapeutic powers of cheese. Looking back, I can scarcely recall a time in my life when cheese wasn’t an emotional solace—whether celebrating at family gatherings (think vats of queso dip), re-hashing college parties with girlfriends (gaaahhhd, those were the best), or workin’ on my night cheese (a la Liz Lemon) after a grueling day at the office. Most of the time, I knew mangling the manchego wasn’t the best idea, but I told myself it was a fun or well-deserved reward.
Sadly, my hankering for havarti would eventually become my mortal enemy.
You see, a few years ago, I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease and learned that dairy (particularly cow dairy) was no longer my friend. I coated this cracker of consternation with a gluttonous glob of guilt about how cheese may have contributed to my disease. More importantly, I wondered how I’d get through life without my beloved burrata.
Wanna know how much I love cheese? I love cheese so much that I’ve:
Stocked up with a month-long quotient of queso fresco to quench my quesadilla craving (classic early 20s idiocy)
Powered through scrambled eggs that were undercooked because the pepper jack was too plentiful
Bulldozed blocks of beemster with no knife (think biting into an apple)
Simply put: I’m a chump for cheese. But the prospect of side effects from autoimmunity proved a worthy adversary for my asiago adoration.
You can understand my provolone predicament. Perhaps you’ve experienced a similar challenge. Because, you see, an evil force lurks among us: we’ve been taught to think about willpower all wrong.
Follow along as I share what I’ve learned about how willpower really works through my dependence on drunken goat cheese (which seems to be the answer for many of life's challenges).
Move Over Mozzarella: The Problem with Ego Depletion
For decades, psychological researchers have advanced the idea that we have a finite supply of willpower and once we run out of this mental energy, we’re more likely to lose self-control. They call this phenomenon of waning self-control “ego depletion.”
Aha! Finally…the foundation for feeding my feta fetish.
Except that it’s likely wrong.
According to Stanford researchers, the theory of ego depletion isn’t real. Worse yet: when we think about willpower as a limited resource, we’re more likely to lose control and act against our best interests.
Talk about a punch to the gouda-filled gut.
Easy Cheese: Willpower is a Limited Resource Only if You Think It Is
For 30 years, prevailing wisdom has said we’re drained by hard work. But it turns out this so-called common sense is just another “correlation does not equal causation” issue. The researchers behind the ego depletion theory jumped to the wrong conclusions.
I’ve written before about growth mindsets and we can again look to Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck for a more accurate view of why we feel depleted (from a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences). The short of it is this: thinking we’re spent makes us feel worse, while rewarding ourselves with an indulgence makes us feel better. In Dweck’s study, ego depletion was observed only in test subjects who believed willpower was a limited resource; ego depletion was not observed in participants who did not see willpower as finite. Ego depletion, it seems, may be yet another example of how beliefs drive behavior.
Holy self-defeating thoughts!
If Dweck and company are correct, then it’s downright harmful to advance the theory of willpower as a finite resource. For real. No need to give people a reason to quit (i.e., the ego-depletion hypothesis) when they could otherwise persist to accomplish their goals.
You Can FonDO It: The Case for the Power of Will
Look, I get it: ego depletion/lack of willpower seems like a neat and tidy way to justify why we sometimes do stuff we know isn’t ideal, like ordering a pot of queso fundido as dinner for one (just me?).
But there isn’t some secret stash of willpower that eludes us.
So what’s the answer?
Acceptance. I mean this in the most practical of terms, folks. Can we all just cut ourselves some slack and realize that we are distractible and fragile?
While we’re at it, let’s consider the possibility that our waning energies and wandering minds are actually trying to tell us something.
Pass the pecorino…this is about to get good.
Recent social neuroscience research suggests willpower acts like an emotion. Just as we don’t “run out” of joy, sadness, or anger, willpower emerges and fades based on what we’re experiencing and how we feel. And here’s the great news: if we think of mental energy as an emotion, we can manage it accordingly.
Choosing to “surf” our negative feelings (knowing they are only temporary) is a much healthier, more useful approach. This is because feelings serve a role beyond inspiring the latest Netflix binge or, in my case, ricotta rager. Feelings are information—they’re our bodies’ way of conveying what our conscious minds miss. This means that our chronic lack of mental energy, or willpower, is really telling. So let’s give it a listen.
To date, most of the research has looked at willpower as some sort of precious unicorn power that helps us fight the good fight against temptation or in support of doing the very things we don’t want to do. But what if we adjust our perspective? What if we reframe willpower as an emotion? And what if we interpret our lack of willpower—much like we do our emotions—as supportive tools for decision making? This approach could be incredibly insightful about where to invest our time…and give us freedom to turn the damn page on what’s no longer serving us, in favor of exploring new options.
In the wise words of behavioral design expert, Nir Eyal, “Instead of focusing on willpower, we should look to the power of will.”
Cutting the String (cheese): My New Relationship with Cheese
Learning dairy makes my body attack its thyroid gland seems like crappy but motivating information. And, yet, I’d spent the following 2+ years thinking about, longing for, and occasionally binging on cheese. Besides banishing the belly bloat, I wanted to move beyond my seeming willpower woes. And I wanted to understand why I was unable to permanently say goodbye to the grana padano.
And then, like a flowing fontina fondue, I pored over the latest research surrounding willpower. Much like what the new research shows, I was laser-focused and energized when researching this topic. There was no need to “expend” willpower because I was genuinely curious about my continuous crème fraiche compulsion. (Beyond knowing the addictive effects of casein, of course.) I’m sure you can relate…and probably already know this intuitively.
In contrast, consider the PowerPoint presentations we suffer through at work. Total drag, right? I mean, sure, we can slog through them for a while, lack of interest be damned. But if we suppress our feelings about how crappy they are and ignore the clear signs of disinterest, we’ll fail to get better about being in tune with identifying when a project just isn’t right or, more importantly, is actually life-giving. Meanwhile, the jarlsberg is just (bet you pronounced it “yust”...hehehe) around the corner to comfort us from PowerPoint ennui.
So what’s the takeaway here? It’s okay—even healthy—to admit that we give up on tasks that don’t engage us. As Nir Eyal says, "Just as we should seek joy indirectly by engaging in enjoyable pursuits, we can receive the benefits of willpower indirectly, by removing the need to expend it in the first place." And when we do pay attention to our willpower, much like we do our emotions, then we can channel its benefits appropriately.
Back to the burrata…
For the past year, I’ve gone long stretches of time without eating cheese and the more I did it, the easier it became. Aside from a recent family gathering (baby shower = happy = gorging on gorgonzola…just kidding, I despise gorgonzola), limiting my cheese intake had almost become a non-issue in 2017. (Pro tip: Saying “I don’t eat cheese” is more effective than saying “I can’t eat cheese.”) In fact, I’m now emboldened to pursue three months of dairy-free living this summer as an experiment in feeling better. I’ll report back about my progress in parting with the parmesan.
These days, in lieu of noshing on Neufchatel, I’m more discerning about how to capitalize on the generative strength of willpower. And I’ve seen it play out in several areas of my life, which is just so dang fun and liberating and energizing. It feels good to know the cheese wheels don’t have to come off the cart of life. Fond as I am of fromage, my new perspective on harnessing the power of will feels a lot better (for my entire mind-body) than chowing down on the cheddar.