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Two Ways to Increase Willpower: The Easy Way and The Hard Way

Posted Jan 01 2011 12:00am

I have a feeling you will end up picking the Hard Way. I don’t know why, but I have found that most people just do.  Before I explain each way to increase your willpower, I want you to think about an area in which your willpower is weak.  Think of a food that when you have it in the house you always find yourself eating too much of it.  Maybe it’s the box of Oreos.  You say you’ll have just one, but then you eat 2, then 3, and then you stop counting.  The box of 24 you said would last 2 weeks lasts 2 days. Yikes, here comes the remorse.  Make a list of all the foods that are regularly stocked in your house that seem to have this effect on you and you believe are sabotaging your diet.

.  This approach actually does not increase willpower but instead nearly removes it from the equation entirely, which is why I call it the Easy Wayit’s much less work.  Let me explain by first telling you about an experiment.  Scientists took mice that were genetically identical and randomly assigned them into two types of cages.  In one cage, the trappings were typical, including nutritionally-balanced, low calorie mouse chow, an exercise wheel, and a water bottle.  The other cages were very different.  They were filled with junk food.  High sugar cereals, cookies, chips, and other high-sugar, high-fat snacks were stacked in a large mountain that filled the cage.  The water bottle was filled with sugar water.  There were no exercise wheels in these cages, the scientists just plopped the mice on top of a mound of junk food.  The scientists then observed the mice for several days and weeks, recording their behavior, food intake, and weight.  In the typical cages, the mice spent some of their time eating, some of their time on the wheel, some of their time drinking, and some of their time resting.  They consumed an amount of food that maintained their weight over the study period. However, in the junk food cage, the mice spent the majority of their time eating and sleeping, but very little time doing anything else.  Their weight doubled over the study period.  Why?  Were they lazy, slovenly pigs, with no sense of personal responsibility?  Were the mice in the typical cages just pillars of integrity, personal strength, and willpower?  Of course not.   In both sets of cages, the environment was completely driving the behavior of the mice.  If the mouse was surrounded by tasty, high-fat, high-sugar foods, they overate.  They are mammals, and as mammals, we have evolved to have an affinity towards consuming tasty, high calorie foods when we get the chance and to conserve energy.  The mice with lower calorie food had no problem moderating their intake, only eating when hungry.  The environment did not tap that biological drive to overconsume.  Also very interesting is that when given the opportunity to be physically active, the mice did so.

The point of the experiment is that environment dictates behavior.  If you want to change your behavior, change your environment and you may completely eliminate the need for willpower.  Consider the environment in which you spend most of your time.  Home?  Work?  School?   Which “cage” does it look like?  To remove the need for willpower, you must eliminate foods that you overconsume, the high-calorie, highly tasty foods from the list you made from above.  Willpower is the struggle to resist temptation, but in the absence of temptation, there is no struggle.  You are free.   The next step is to stock your environment with healthy foods for which there is never a struggle to resist overeating.   This approach requires full commitment.   All unhealthy tempting foods must be removed from the home, not just some of them.  Unhealthy tempting foods will always win out over the healthier options so creating a “mixed” cage of healthy and unhealthy will not result in a different outcome than the junk food cage.

This is not a perfect solution to ridding your diet of willpower because you likely spend some smaller amount of time in environments that you have little or no control over, such as restaurants, grocery stores, and other people’s homes.  The task in these cases is to avoid the places that create the most struggle and to make a plan in advance for those that cannot be avoided.  For example, consider grocery shopping directly after a meal and avoiding the cookie aisle entirely.  Also, it would be important to avoid the restaurant that you reliably overeat at, but instead going to a restaurant that you have no trouble making healthy choices.  The goal is not to completely eliminate all unhealthy, tempting foods from your diet forever, but simply to never reside with these foods.  They should not be stocked in places where you spend time.  If you really feel like having Oreos, then the plan would be to go out for a single serving package to be eaten at that moment.

The mouse experiment had similar implications for exercise.  Your home should have ample opportunities to be physically active, because as the experiment showed, if opportunities are present, our tendency is to use them.  One caveat to this is that our homes are full of sedentary activity options (TVs, computers, etc), which will reduce your likelihood to choose exercise.  Consider this:  is the fancy TV in front of the couch or the exercise bike?  Reconstruct your home environment so that it invites exercise as much or even more than it invites sitting on a couch.

The bottom line is that our society has become food plentiful which strongly taxes our biological drives.  The purpose of this approach is to defend against this by rearranging your own environment to encourage you to make healthy choices almost all of the time.

.  Often my patients will say that the Easy Way is actually more difficult because family members bring foods into the household that create temptation and this is out of their control.  In that case, I recommend a negotiation with that family member because even if they are lean and active, an unhealthy food is still an unhealthy food.  A number of my patients would argue that their children should not be deprived of these unhealthy foods, but I see no justification for feeding children unhealthy food regardless of their weight and activity level.  But, if all else fails, the Hard Way may be the way to go.

The Hard Way approach will strengthen your willpower just like a muscle, but takes a fair degree of effort.  It is not necessary to rid your environment of the tempting foods, in fact it is important that you keep them in your home.  However, you must be sure to also stock your home with healthy foods, essentially creating the mixed “cage” that includes both healthy and unhealthy options.   Your objective is to keep these foods in your home on a regular basis, allowing the family members to eat them as they wish, but resisting eating them yourself for 6 months.  Why have these foods if you can’t eat them after all?  For practice.   A recent study by Katrijn Houben and Anita Jansen, a pair of appetite researchers out of Maastrict University in the Netherlands, showed that you can strengthen your willpower (the scientific name of which is “inhibitory control”) by practicing.  They found that chocolate lovers ate less chocolate after a period of time in which they exercised total restraint, compared to those who only restrained some of the time and those who did not restrain at all.  By successfully resisting the temptation for 6 months, you will find that your ability to moderate your intake of that food will greatly increase.  Essentially you are “breaking the habit.”  Initially, you are likely to experience an increase in desire and craving, however, over time it will gradually diminish.  What if I slip up before I get to 6 months?  Every time that you slip up and eat the food, you must restart the 6-month clock. In the Netherland study, restraining only was no more effective than never restraining at all, so the 6-month period of abstinence must be 100% abstinence.  If in your attempts to resist these foods, you slip up 3 times before ever reaching 6 months, I strongly urge you to consider the Easy Way and just remove the foods from the home.  The danger of getting caught in a cycle where you have frequent slip-ups is that you may actually intensify your craving and desire for that food.  In attempting this exercise, it is also important that you select your foods broadly.  For example, if pizza is one of your foods on the list, then it must be pizza, take-out, frozen, homemade, etc.  If cookies are on your list, it must be all cookie varieties.  You risk reinforcing the habit by consuming similar foods even if they are slightly healthier variations.

Increasing your willpower is obviously not easy, but the good news is that with a little effort it can be done.  You can release yourself from the hold that certain foods seem to have on you and reclaim control.  I challenge you to try one of these approaches. If you do, let me know how it’s going…

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