This article originally appeared in “Chicago Tribune.”
It’s that time of year when many of us put beer and barbecues behind us, pull out our fall clothes and are struck with new motivation to get in shape. We get excited because summer shandy is less likely to sabotage our efforts, yet we have a few months before pumpkin pie makes an appearance. Maybe we even psych ourselves up to cut out sugar or give up bread or swap out cereal for morning smoothies full of greens.
The fitness industry knows this. Just as in January, you’ll probably notice social media is saturated with promos for cleanses, challenges, detoxes and fixes this time of year. And after you pay your $19.99 a month to get started, it all comes down to willpower.
Willpower receives the utmost respect in the fitness world. Willpower is making good on your New Year’s resolutions, getting to the gym when your alarm goes off and turning down cake at a friend’s birthday celebration. Willpower is what we all want, right?
But willpower can be a jerk.
I’m actually really good at willpower. The times in my life that I’ve let willpower take over, I’ve done an awesome job. From Atkins, to calorie counting to mileage tracking to paleo, I’ve been quite successful with willpower on my side. So successful that I didn’t realize how trapped I was at the time.
As soon as I’d commit to a set of rules, I was afraid that if I broke one, I’d fall completely off the wagon. If I ate one bite of bread at a restaurant, I might revert back to eating sandwiches every day. If I skipped a run more than two days in a row, my legs might get slow and sluggish. So I held on tight to my willpower and refused to look anywhere but straight ahead.
Friends of mine have had more intense experiences with willpower. What started as “clean” eating for one friend devolved into disordered eating and ultimately anorexia. I’ve witnessed runner friends’ training programs morph into exercise addiction and overuse injuries.
But if not willpower, then what?
Willpower was the only way I thought I could be successful until I discovered mindfulness. Where willpower is black-or-white, yes-or-no, rule-based living, mindfulness is about finding balance and moderation. It’s much harder to be mindful than it is to follow a set of rules. But it’s much freer, too.
Willpower is turning down your grandma’s cookies because you “don’t eat sugar.” Mindfulness is eating one cookie and savoring it while you enjoy a bonding moment with your grandma.
Willpower is waking up at 5 a.m. to run when you were up all night with a sick kid. Mindfulness is deciding you need sleep more than a workout and staying in bed.
Willpower is easy to teach, package and sell. Eat this. Don’t eat that. Done. Mindfulness is challenging and personal. It requires you to be in tune with your needs, desires and intuition.
Willpower is punishable. If your willpower fails, you feel like a failure. Mindfulness is forgiving. You don’t expect perfection, so there is no such thing as “falling off the wagon.”
Willpower is the stuff disordered eating and exercise addiction are made of. Mindfulness is the stuff healthy, sustainable habits are made of.
Willpower is sheep-like. Mindfulness is human.
If you’ve only ever succeeded with willpower, letting go of it can be a scary thing. And I’m not suggesting that you abandon all self-discipline and give into every desire. But if you find that you’re living life by jumping from one “challenge” or diet to another, I promise there is a better way.