The Care and Feeding of Willpower: Part II

The Care and Feeding of Willpower: Part II

The Care and Feeding of Willpower: Part II

Week 4 continues January’s theme of “keeping things simple.” In the “Making the Changes That Matter” project, we don’t fall prey to silver bullet thinking or get caught in the hype of exciting new diets. We’ve been on that roller coaster before.

Instead, this free, open-source weight loss project is all about incorporating simple, easy, commonsense strategies, one week at a time.

This week, we’re going to continue our discussion of willpower from last week’s post, and talk about specific game changers that will transform the way that your willpower is used throughout each day.

But first, let’s review…

Willpower as a Finite Resource

Last week, I described how many of us conceive of willpower as a muscle that needs to be strengthened, instead of as a cup that can be depleted.

It is essential that we re-frame this, because otherwise, we are just setting up each day for failure.

Willpower is limited. The more you use it, the more you drain it. Instead of exercising willpower, the goal is to save it.

Last week, we talked about preparation as a key strategy to preserve willpower.

To protect your willpower and conserve its stores throughout the day for when you need it most (the evening after a long and frustrating day at work, for example), it’s essential that you become proactive instead of reactive.

Using proactive strategies means that you prepare, plan, think ahead, and arm yourself for future situations.

Being reactive is not a strategy at all – it’s simply bumping through your day and making your best possible decision in each moment. However, now that you know that willpower is a cup instead of a muscle, you can see how being reactive and unprepared does not set you up for success, even if you have relatively smart eating skills, good intentions, and “like healthy food.”

Read last week’s post if you haven’t already, and it will provide you with specific proactive strategies that will help you reduce the amount of food choices that you have to make per day.

Three Key Shifts

This week, we’re going to focus on three areas of your life where you may be frustrated by your lack of self-control, and how you can tackle common overeating scenarios. These are your three strategies:

  1. Clean Up Your Kitchen 

Remember our theme, “keeping things simple”? This one is unbelievably simple – it almost sounds too easy. In the case of preserving willpower, “out of sight, out of mind” is an adage that works incredibly well.

Do an inventory of your kitchen’s organization. What is out on the counters? What is easy to reach in the pantries and cupboards? What is easy to see/reach in the refrigerator and freezer?

Take an evening to truly clean out your kitchen. Throw away anything that you know is a “trigger food” for binging for you (remember “hyperpalatability” from Week 1?). Then, take it to the next level, and re-organize your kitchen so that healthful foods like fruit and vegetables are out on the counter, and snacky foods like cereals and energy bars are put away on high shelves behind closed cabinet doors.

This is called “optimizing your eating environment,” and it’s a key strategy for sustainable weight loss and maintenance. It sounds too simple to work, but it will change your life.

There is also research that suggests that “cluttered kitchens are caloric kitchens.” If you want to kick up your organization a notch, step back and get the big picture of the non-food items in your kitchen. Has a corner of your countertop become a catch-all for mail? Are keys and newspapers strewn across the table or island? Does your dishwashing organizational scheme promote order, or chaos? Go a little Marie Kondo on your kitchen and ensure that it flows well, makes sense, and is pleasing to the eye.

2.  Analyze Your Work Environment

While you have less control over the shared space of your work environment than you have over your own home kitchen, you still have agency. Let’s talk about a few common willpower pitfalls that happen at the office:

A co-worker keeps a candy bowl on her desk. 

You always order a deluxe coffee creation (especially on stressful days). 

Bagels or donuts (or whatever) are always left out in the lounge.

It’s someone’s birthday! (or Christmas, or Thanksgiving, or whatever)

How do you deal with these common situations?

Let’s talk first about what actually depletes willpower – it’s not so much the presence of the temptation (although that is part of it)… it’s mostly the harrowing, back-and-forth “Will I, or won’t I?” thought process that leaves a 50/50 shot that you’ll stick with your goals.

If you can eliminate the thought process by having automatic routines, you will save yourself tons of mental and emotional energy, and thus willpower.

Let’s go through each of those situations individually, with that in mind.

A co-worker keeps a candy bowl on her desk. 

This is almost never “worth it,” calorically. The handful of mini Reese’s cups, for example, isn’t the same experience as sitting down for the flourless chocolate torte at your favorite restaurant. So it’s worth skipping entirely, by creating a personal rule of, “I don’t eat candy at the office.”

Thes kinds of personal rules help eliminate the 50/50, back-and-forth thinking. And please note: it’s “I don’t,” not, “I can’t.”

These personal rules are not a trigger that you should pull in every situation. They should only apply to the “not worth it” scenarios.

You always order a deluxe coffee creation (especially on stressful days). 

Replace this habit by always ordering (and learning to love) a less “hyperpalatable” beverage. For example, I used to love Starbuck’s frappuccino’s and other sugary blended drinks. Now, I have learned to truly love plain skim lattes (you can ask my husband – I seriously love them and spend way too much money on them). You can develop new tastes.

Here’s the key: you don’t need to switch to plain black coffee. There is middle ground.

Bagels or donuts (or whatever) are always left out in the lounge.

We can return to the “I don’t” instead of “I can’t” rule here. Again, is a dried-out bagel really worth your mental energy?

I also want to point out that in situations like this, you may have more agency over your work environment than you realize. Bagels and donuts left out all day for public consumption is not good for anyone at the office – it’s not just you. It’s just a default rut in which your office is stuck. You, with the help of a few likeminded colleagues, may be able to mobilize a healthier eating initiative so that this tradition dies. The empty carbs could be replaced by committee with a nicer coffee maker, a fruit/vegetable plate, or another weekly treat that is both nicer and healthier than a tray of stale bagels, but still easy and inexpensive for your office to sponsor.

It’s someone’s birthday (or Christmas, or Thanksgiving, or whatever)!

This one can be a gray area. I joke about being the “killjoy” healthy eater, but this one comes down to context and your own personality.

Is it easier for you to say “yes” to one slice of cake and to put it to rest, or to say “no” and leave it alone? Will the “yes” lead to snacking all day long, or will the “no” leave you feeling deprived and resentful?

You really have to know yourself here. When I used to work at a school, for example, I learned for myself that the “automatic no” as a personal rule was really the best option, because it was ALWAYS. SOMEONE’S. BIRTHDAY. Every day.

You will have to decide for yourself how you will approach this, based on your own personality and your unique work culture.

3. Watch out for familiar “trap” routines. 

For many people, these routines occur (1) immediately after work and (2) at night in front of the TV. What are your familiar “trap” routines, when your willpower is stretched to the limit on a near-daily basis?

The solution is to de-stabilize these routines, so that you can “unhook” yourself from the familiar behaviors. 

Experiment with shaking up your routine, and changing your post-work and nighttime patterns, when your willpower is at its most fragile. If your pattern is to go home and have a big snack, replace that with going to the gym, going for a walk, running errands, or reading at a coffee shop. If your pattern is to sit in front of the TV at night and binge-watch your favorite show, you may find that binge-watching is also accompanied by binge-eating. Replace that with shortening the amount of time you spend watching TV, and developing some other nighttime habits.

Recently, my husband and I decided that we weren’t happy with the amount of TV that we were watching at night, and we implemented a time limit (and therefore an episode limit). This small, small shift has been life-changing.

I mean, I meditate now! I eat less at night, I have better “sleep hygiene,” I’m done with screens earlier, I get more sleep, and I read more!

It’s incredible how much non-food routines can be connected to food – if you make one shift, you’ll be surprised at how any other changes roll in to take its place.

Week 4 Strategy Summary

To simplify it, Week 4 is all about optimizing your environments, both at home and at work, so that your routines support a healthy lifestyle, instead of taxing your willpower on a daily basis. Let’s avoid the stress of the many “Will I, or won’t I?” moments that can drag you down each day.

And remember, if you want to participate in the weekly strategies as a “lab participant” (for free!), e-mail me immediately to let me know you’re participating, follow the strategy of the week to the best of your ability, keep a daily journal, and answer the reflection questions via e-mail in the Monday blog post (below). That’s it!

Follow-Up Questions from Last Week

If you’ve already been participating, answer these three questions about last week via e-mail:

  • Did you plan weekly meals last week? How did you feel that this impacted your use of willpower?
  • What times of day do you get the hungriest? How can you re-organize your meals so that you are eating more at mealtimes but not relying on emergency snacks so much?
  • Have you been implementing the short daily journal? If not, what could you change about your approach so that keeping a brief “diary” each day becomes easy and manageable?

If you choose to participate, I so appreciate it!

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