The ad that used to challenge "Bet you can't eat just one" had your number: That first potato chip inevitably leads to a near-empty bag. It only takes the aroma of cookies baking for your determination to eat fewer sweets to become as soggy as a dunked biscotti. And your resolve to walk three mornings a week was a goner the first time it rained and the urge to snuggle in bed for another half-hour was too powerful to resist. You know what to do to lose weight and be healthy; you just seem to lack the willpower to do it. However, research reveals that you can train and strengthen your willpower much as you would your muscles. But should you even try? In some circles, willpower has become almost a dirty word. For example, TV shrink Phil McGraw, Ph.D. (aka Dr. Phil) has flatly stated that willpower is a myth and will not help you change anything.
According to weight-loss expert Howard J. Rankin, Ph.D., a consulting clinical psychologist at the Hilton Head Institute in Hilton Head, S.C., and the author of The TOPS Way to Weight Loss(Hay House, 2004), however, you can learn to resist temptation. But doing so requires meeting it head-on.
At first, that might seem counterintuitive. "Most people think that the only way of dealing with [temptation] is by avoiding it, but that simply reinforces their powerlessness," Rankin says. "Self-control and self-discipline are the most important things we need to live an effective life."
Lack of willpower (or "self-control strength," as researchers call it) is implicated in a number of personal and societal problems, agrees Megan Oaten, a doctoral candidate in psychology at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, who is conducting cutting-edge studies on self-control. "If you think about the overconsumption of unhealthy foods, lack of exercise, gambling and drugs, then self-control could be one of the most important medicines for our time," she says. "It's very positive, and it's available to everyone."
Practice makes perfect
Ah, you say, but you already know you just don't have much willpower. According to Oaten, there are individual differences in our capacity for self-control, and you may indeed have been born with less potential in this area. But Oaten's studies have shown that practice levels the playing field. "While we find initial differences in people's self-control abilities, once they start exercising it the benefits apply equally to all," she says. If you picture self-control as functioning like a muscle, she adds, "we have a short- and long-term effect from exercising it."
In the short term, your willpower can "hurt" much like your muscles do the first time you subject them to a good workout. This is especially true if you overdo it. Imagine going to the gym for the first time and trying to do a step class, a Spinning class, a Pilates class and a strength-training workout all on the same day! You might be so sore and tired that you'd never go back. That's what you are doing to your willpower when you make New Year's resolutions to eat less fat and more fiber, exercise regularly, cut out alcohol, get more sleep, be on time for appointments and write in your journal daily. "With the best intentions, you can overload your self-control strength, and it can't possibly cope with all those demands," Oaten says. "In that case we can predict a failure."
However, if you start out sensibly, taking on one task at a time, pushing through the initial discomfort, improving your performance and sticking with it no matter what, just as a muscle strengthens, so will your willpower. "That's the long-term effect," Oaten says.
The willpower workout
Rankin, who did seminal studies on self-control at the University of London in the 1970s, has devised tried-and-tested exercises that you do sequentially to power up your willpower. "This technique does not require you to do any- thing you haven't done already," he says. For example, you occasionally resist dessert; you just don't do it often enough to make a difference, or with the awareness that each time you do it you are strengthening your willpower. The following exercises can help you systematically and mindfully deal with food-related temptations.
Step 1: Visualize yourself resisting temptation.
One proven method used by athletes, actors and musicians is visualization. "Visualization is practice," Rankin says. That's because you use the same neural pathways to imagine an activity as you do when you actually engage in it. A basketball player, for example, can "practice" making free throws without being on the court. Similarly, by means of visualization you can practice resisting temptation without having food anywhere near you, so there is no risk of giving in to it. "If you can't imagine yourself doing something," Rankin says, "the chance of your actually doing it is pretty remote."
Visualization exercise Find a quiet place, close your eyes and take some deep belly breaths to relax. Now picture yourself successfully resisting the food that regularly entices you. Say your downfall is noshing on ice cream while watching television. Imagine that it's 9:15 p.m., you're engrossed in Desperate Housewives, and you become distracted by the carton of Rocky Road in the freezer. See yourself going to the freezer, taking it out, then putting it back without having any. Imagine the whole scenario in detail: The more vivid it is, the more successful it's likely to be. Always conclude with a positive outcome. Practice until you're able to do this, then move on to Step 2.
Step 2: Have close encounters.
The key here is to be around foods that tempt you without responding in your usual way. In other words, face temptation but don't yield to it. "Temptation is out there," Rankin says, "and it's empowering to know you can deal with it rather than feeling you're always walking a tightrope."
Rankin illustrates this concept with a former patient, an obese woman who lived in New York City. She would go into her favorite bakery a couple of times a day, and each time she'd eat a croissant or two and a muffin. "So we did the visualization, then went to the bakery, looked in the window and left," Rankin says. The woman then practiced this by herself a few times. Next, they went together into the bakery, with all its tempting aromas. "We looked at the stuff, then left," he says. Last, the woman practiced doing that herself, gradually working up to the point that she could sit in the bakery for 15-20 minutes and just have coffee. "She wrote to me a year or so later and said she had lost 100 pounds," Rankin says. "This was the pivotal technique that made her feel she had some control."
Close-encounter exercise Try the same procedure with any food that customarily is your downfall. Enlist the help of a supportive friend, as in the example above. When you can successfully be alone around a "binge food" without falling prey, go on to Step 3.
Step 3: Take a taste test.
This exercise involves eating a small amount of your favorite food, then stopping. Why subject yourself to that kind of temptation? Many people claim they can occasionally indulge in something without getting out of control, Rankin explains. "You need to know if you really can do that or if you are deluding yourself." There may be some foods that you should avoid completely. If, in fact, you can't ever "eat just one," then use the first two steps to train yourself not to eat that first one at all. On the other hand, it's extremely encouraging to discover that you can stop after a couple of spoonfuls of chocolate mousse.
Taste-test exercise Try having a bite of cake at a birthday party or just one of your co-worker's cookies. Take advantage of whatever opportunities arise. "It's up to any one person on any one day to tackle what they feel they can manage," Rankin says. "Don't give up because what you could do yesterday was not possible today. The important point is to successfully do it enough times to strengthen your willpower by flexing it."
Experiencing good results with food can give you confidence to try the technique with other behaviors, like quitting smoking or starting to exercise. As Rankin says, "Whenever you successfully resist temptation, you are developing self-control."