Sunday, October 28, 2012

It's not about willpower.

People often ask me for advice about losing weight. Or, they don't ask me, but they say things that desperately make me want to give it to them. Like today.

So instead of dropping my unsolicited advice on some poor hapless soul on the internet who never even asked for it, I decided to drop it on you. And here it is:

Folks, it's not about willpower! It's about setting up your life so good choices are easier and more automatic than bad choices. If you set up your life so bad choices are in your face 24/7, you will eventually give in to them. Every damn time.

Don't believe me? How many times have all of us lived this scenario:
Oh those ______ look so good. I want one!
No, I can't have one. I need to lose weight/maintain my weight (or I've been eating too much junk lately or sugar/lactose/gluten makes me feel bad or whatever my reason is to want to avoid that food) so I'm not going to eat it. I will not have one. I will not. I will not! I WILL NOT!!
But they look so good! One bite won't hurt me. I should have one.
Yes one bite will hurt me. I will not give in! I AM STRONG!
(Repeat as necessary until...)
Arghhhhh. I had one (or two or three or the whole box/bag). What is wrong with me?! I am SO WEAK!!! Why can't I have willpower like ______???
So, what is wrong with you (us)? Why can't you/we resist that ________ (Halloween candy, cake, chips, whatever it is that calls to you)? Like our friend the Weight Management Super Hero seems to be able to.

Absolutely nothing is wrong with you. The problem is that you think the answer to controlling what you eat is exercising willpower and that you just don't have any or at least not enough of it.

But that's not the answer. The thing is, you do have willpower. We all do. But willpower is not like love. There is no infinite supply and using it doesn't return it back to us ten-fold.

Some people will tell you that willpower is a muscle and, if you use it too much, it gets tired and sore and fails you. In strength training there is a concept of "lifting to failure" where you lift a heavy weight until you can't lift it any more. So people say willpower is like that. If you use it to do some heavy lifting, it will fail.

The problem I have with that analogy is that, while lifting to failure will cause temporary muscle fatigue, in the long run it builds up muscle and you get stronger. So, if the analogy holds, the more we use our willpower, the stronger it should become over time even if it fails us in the moment. But willpower doesn't work like that as far as I can tell (and scientists tell me).

The other problem with this analogy is that you can lift lightly but spread out over a long period of time and never experience muscle failure at all. For example, you can swing a kettle bell 5-10 times every time you think of it across the course of a day and, at the end of the day, you will have swung that bell 200-300 times but not have your muscles be anywhere as tired as if you had done 200-300 swings in an hour.

But you can chip away at your willpower using it to resist little things over and over all day until it does fail you at the slightest smallest thing.

That is why I think that willpower is more like the health points in your favorite video game. The more you use them, the less you have. If you use them all up and you get hit by a game enemy, you die. But, unlike a glass of milk, health points do regenerate. So, if you stop using them, they come back. They don't come back stronger and bigger over time like your muscles do. But they do regenerate at least.

So, if you think of your Willpower as Points in the "Video Game of Life" that can be used to Resist Things, you need to do what you do in a video game -- use strategy to spend those points wisely.

And, first off, that means not wasting your Willower Points on every little thing that comes into your life. Either because you have some idea that tempting yourself and winning is morally superior to not tempting yourself to begin with or because you just don't have a plan for how to deal with problem foods and situations.

For example, if you have a bucket of Halloween candy sitting on the island in your kitchen (or, in my case, a stand full of cake pops that look like eyeballs) and you pass by it 20x in a day, eventually you are going to put your hand into the bucket, and eventually you'll take a piece out, and eventually you'll put it in your mouth. And chew. And swallow.

But, if that same Halloween candy bucket is sitting in your pantry or some other place that you only go to 5x a day, there is a good chance you won't use your willpower up on it. You'll dip into your willpower still. But only 5x a day, not 20x and there's a chance it will regenerate in between and you won't be using it faster than it regenerates.

Okay, so I won't buy 10 bags of Halloween candy starting a month before Halloween and keep it on the countertop where I pass by every couple of minutes. Thanks for sharing that "wisdom" that I never would have thought of myself. (Or, if I didn't think of it, hasn't been told to me in every dieting program I ever participated in ever.)

Yeah, the Halloween candy thing is rather obvious. But the principle applies to everything:

If it's something that requires willpower to not do, make sure you aren't tempted to do it all the time. Save your willpower for the stuff you can't avoid.

Here are some strategies for how to avoid using willpower that have worked particularly well for me:

#1 - "Out of sight/Out of mind." Seeing food triggers us to want it. That is a scientific fact that's been demonstrated again and again. When we see food that we think is delicious, it triggers a response in our brain that makes us want it and sometimes even makes us feel hungry. So stop looking at it!  (Or smelling it. Or talking about it. Or writing about it -- like I am right now and suddenly I am hungry even though I just ate.)

#2 - "Change the way you think" about those foods and situations so that maybe they don't require willpower any more. I mean no one I know needs willpower to avoid eating too much liver and onions. Or cooked spinach. So think about certain foods that trigger you and do you actually really want them.

For example: donuts. I have discovered over time that donuts are not really something that I find magically delicious. I had been conditioned to think of them as a treat and once in a while I'll perversely get in the mood for donuts, but most of the time they no longer require willpower to resist because I remind myself of what it's like to eat them and how the experience never matches up to my vision of it. I've done that enough -- reminding myself of the reality of donuts vs. my vision of them -- that now I don't really even have to. I see donuts in the break room and have not a single urge to eat them most of the time.

But, if I did have an urge to eat them, I sure wouldn't be structuring my routes through the building so I went by the break room 10x a day!

#3 - "Make rules." If you have rules for when you are or are not allowed to eat something, you can avoid using your willpower in the "I'm not going to eat it; I've just eaten it" dance. For example, if you are allowed to eat 1 piece of fun size candy a week, then you don't use your willpower for that first piece in the week because you don't have to fight with yourself over it. It's allowed.

#4 - "Develop Good Habits." One habit that I have developed over the years is to always bring my lunch to work. I pack healthy snacks and a healthy lunch and then, when there is food in the break room that I didn't plan to eat but now it's there so I want it, I have other alternatives. I also am less likely to be cruising the snack machines at 3:00 pm hungry as all get out being tempted by the M&Ms and Snickers since I've already got a tasty, but healthy afternoon snack.

#5 - "Avoid being massively hungry." It's another scientific fact that we made worse choices when we are very hungry than when we are not. Something about being starving either lessens our willpower or causes us to use more if it than that same situation does if we were in it and not hungry.

How does all this work in real life? Here's an example:

I like Luna Protein bars. Having one a day fits into my nutritional goals quite well and I find them filling and mentally satisfying (because they are like a candy bar but with less calories and more protein). But I also went through a period where I couldn't just eat one a day even though having 4-5 a day causes all sorts of issues I wanted to avoid including weight gain and flatulence (from the sugar).

I tried many things to keep myself to one a day and not four (or more). First I tried willpower. And, of course, it  didn't work. I mean it worked sometimes. But I was probably seeing Luna Bars in my pantry ten times a day and it didn't work ten times.

So then I got smart and tried what I normally do -- arrange my life so I'm not constantly tempted by the things.

First, I tried "out of sight/out of mind." To that goal, I tried not buying them at all, but I ate too much of other things instead. I tried buying less, but I just ran out sooner. I tried keeping just a few in the snack pantry, but the rest in the "extra" cabinet -- the one above the fridge that I need a step stool to reach and has stuff like extra catsup and eight boxes of protein hot chocolate from the buy 10, get 2 free sale. But almost every time I opened the snack drawer, I still ate one.

Then, in an act of desperation, I tried buying massive quantities and giving myself total permission to eat them. Cognitive Behavioralist recommend this technique for getting a food to stop being a trigger food and it's worked for me in the past. It sort of worked this time. I did eat them all in a few days (5-6 bars a day) and I did get slightly sick of them. (I was a little nauseous by the time I ate the last couple of ones.)

So this helped me change how I thought about them. Now, when I think of a Luna Protein bar instead of thinking of them as the healthy alternative to a Snickers bar, I sometimes get a slight sick feeling in my stomach. But unfortunately not always.

Then I made a rule. I can have one during the day. I can have one at night but if, and only if, I have the calories left over and I've already had my protein hot chocolate and am still hungry. Again, that helped.

Finally, I went whole hog on the "out of sight/out of mind" thing and I put all the bars in the "extras" cabinet. That last one did the trick.

But I still sometimes find myself wanting them too much and that's when having some rules help and the memory of what it's like to eat so many you feel a bit sick. And, if that doesn't work, there's always willpower. But now I'm only use willpower once every couple of days instead of five to ten times a day. This works much better for me.

The rest of my willpower I save for situations I have less control over or that sometimes blindside me. Such as parties with goodies I can't anticipate. I still use these strategies -- I have party rules and I will try not to hang out by the food table and I try not to arrive totally starving. But I definitely find myself using willpower at parties.

Another biggie is getting a random email at work that there is some sort of snack in the break room (Oh Coffee Cake. How I love thee! You reminds me of my childhood. The good parts like Dad coming home from a business trip a day early with some Entenmann's coffee cake and not the bad parts like those yellow peddle pushers I wasn't allowed to throw out because they still fit and we didn't have money to replace them with pants that didn't make me look like a fat banana.) These emails always trigger me even when the snack is something I don't particularly like. So they do take willpower.

But because my life is mostly set up to avoid having to use my willpower constantly, I haven't wasted it on the little things so I usually have enough to cover these unexpected temptations.

Which is not to say that I don't sometime use up all my willpower and lose that round of the game. But, like a video game where you start out with three lives and can even earn more, I just start over and try another willpower saving strategy.

And so far I haven't gotten:

GAME OVER

So I guess that means I'm winning. Yeah!
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