How Being Tired and Hangry Tests our Willpower

May 1, 2020

I planned to crush my To Do list. I eagerly anticipated crossing things off – feeling productive and increasingly accomplished with every line drawn.

And, you know what happened? I slept like poo and woke up feeling off. Ever have those days?

I tried to rebound, going through my morning routine:

Tea ✔️

Scripture, prayer ✔️

Yoga + strength training ✔️

Reflect and write ✔️

Still off… ok, just start small.

I tried, but I couldn’t focus. My mind was all over the place. I breathed deeply. Meditated. Grounded myself.


I tried pumping myself up. Blasting music and encouraging myself.

Nada… my mind was foggy and my to do list items required clarity and focus and a healthy dose of willpower.

Welcome back to the Willpower Challenge series in which I’m sharing what I’m learning from the Willpower Instinct and experiencing as I tackle my own willpower challenge – stretching. 

Week 2 Recap


  1. One of the best predictors of willpower is heart rate variability (HRV).
  2. HRV is regulated by the autonomic nervous system. When you are under stress, the sympathetic nervous system takes over. Heart rate goes up, and variability goes down. When you are relaxed, the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, resulting in a decrease in heart rate and increase in variability. 
  3. Studies show that people with a higher HRV are more resilient and better at ignoring distractions, delaying gratification, and managing stress.
  4. We can optimize our HRV by slowing down our respiration, exercising, and mediating. 

My Take

Deep Breathing

Personally, this is one of the most powerful and effective ways to boost willpower. When I didn’t want to stretch, especially in the morning, I paused, closed my eyes, and took 3-4 deep breaths. Then, I reminded myself why I set this challenge in the first place. The combination of deep breathing, returning to my “why”, and self-talk was extremely effective.

My Tool: 4-3-2-1

4 When you need a willpower boost, close your eyes and count down from 4 to 1

3 – Take 3 deep breaths. 

2 – Remind yourself 2 benefits of demonstrating willpower in that moment.

1 – Say one word of encouragement to yourself.

Now – do take action!


I workout daily religiously. That is one non-negotiable in my life because I know how much better I feel after working out. My mind is clearer. I am more energized. And, to be honest, I’m just plain nicer. Additionally, exercise increases my desire to do work in other areas of my life. 

Your turn

Even if you are someone who doesn’t like to exercise, find a way to engage in some form of movement daily. Go for a five minute walk every two hours. Do two minutes of jumping jacks and squats at your desk periodically. Or, end your evening with a post-dinner walk. DO IT! 


I have a love-hate relationship with meditation. One day, it’s transformational; the next, it feels like a total waste of time. Frequently, my monkey mind is all over the place. There’s no peace or miraculous awakening.

Of course, that’s not realistic nor the purpose. I meditate for the long-term benefit of slowing down, training my mind to refocus, and giving myself permission to just be. I mediate because when I consistently meditate I am more in touch with my thoughts and feelings and act more intentionally. 


If you feel like mediating is a waste of time because you are not “good” at it, reframe your beliefs about mediating. While you may clear your mind, more often than not your mind will chatter. The “worse you are at mediating” the better! Training your brain to keep refocusing is a tremendous skill with benefits stretching beyond willpower.

This week, we explore the effects of sleep and hunger on willpower. 

To push or to pull back? 

After pulling out all the stops to get on track and tackle my To Do list, I realized that pushing was not what I needed at that moment. Instead, I needed to give myself permission to tackle less “energetically expensive” tasks.

Willpower is not just a mental battle; it’s a physical one that depletes our energy reserves every time we express it. Like a marathon runner needs frequent feeding to finish the race strong, we need to refuel after we exert self-control. 

The brain carefully monitors our available energy, reserving resources in case of emergency. When it detects a drop in energy, it gives up on expensive cognitive tasks such as resisting temptation, maintaining focus, and controlling emotions. 

So, what can you do to ensure you have the energy necessary for willpower? 

Simple: Sleep and eat

Sleep Supports Willpower

Sleep deprivation impacts willpower in two-ways – by reducing your capacity to express willpower and lowering the energy needed for willpower. One review published in Frontiers of Human Neuroscience found that sleep deprivation leads individuals to more readily give into their impulses and take greater risks. 

The reason for such lapses in willpower and judgment is that sleep deprivation affects the prefrontal cortex. If you recall in week 2 of this series, we discussed that willpower is governed by three areas of the prefrontal cortex. When our ability to engage our prefrontal diminishes, our impulsive brain takes over. 

Now, of course, unless you’ve been living under a rock, you have heard that nearly everyone needs more sleep – you and me included. And yet, we don’t. Why?

The answer is not as simple as “we’re too busy.” That’s a convenient excuse. Yes, we are all busy; however, we choose to put on our plate what we prioritize. Too busy to get to bed at a reasonable time? What are you doing? 


Surfing social media?

Talking to friends?

Watching Netflix?

How you spend your time is a reflection of what is most important to you.

Thus, getting more sleep is a product of prioritizing getting more sleep. Once you identify what you are prioritizing, which is likely not sleep, a new willpower challenge presents itself. If, for instance, you are prioritizing surfing social media, then you must stop surfing and start sleeping. This is a willpower challenge for many. It’s overriding your habits and system to do something that is good for you but will likely feel very uncomfortable at the time. Nevertheless, it is necessary if you wish to consistently show up at your best and achieve your goals. 

Your turn

Consider the following questions:

What are your prioritizing over sleep? 

When you are tired, do you choose to go to bed? If not, what keeps you from sleeping? What thoughts, emotions, or feelings do you have at that time? 

How can you get more sleep tonight?

Fuel for Willpower

I admit – I am not a pretty person when I am hangry. I’m a fragile flower that becomes irritable and unreasonable. My petals droop and the color rushes out of me. GIVE ME FOOD! I know I am not alone, and now I know why. 

When we are hungry, our blood glucose levels (also referred to as blood sugar levels) decrease, resulting in changes in mood, inability to focus, and poor self-control. A study by Personality and Social Psychology Review found that”self-control failures are more likely when glucose is low or cannot be mobilized effectively to the brain.”

So, does this mean if I eat I will have more willpower, Kate?

Yes and no. 

Yes, eating helps a starving brain focus and demonstrate willpower; however, it needs the right fuel. Sipping on diet soda or eating a sugary treat may actually cause diet-induced impulsivity. These sugar spikes can interfere with the body’s and brain’s ability to use sugar. Instead, focusing on food to fuel you for the long-term, such as healthy fats (i.e., avocado and nuts) and lean proteins.

Your turn

Consider these questions:

Are you prone to feeling hangry? What thoughts, feelings, or emotions do you experience when you get hungry? 

How does hunger affect your willpower? 

What can you do to avoid the negative effects hunger may have on your willpower?

That’s it for today! Sleep well, eat well, live well. 

How do you feel when you’re hangry and tired? How does it impact your willpower? Comment below.

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