Many thanks to longtime reader Annette for the link to this article, and for pointing out its correlation to dieting. Although the article itself addresses the question of why it is so difficult to escape poverty, it discusses in detail the psychology of self-control, including some interesting studies. In a nutshell, writes author Jamie Holmes, "Willpower seems to be a depletable resource". She quotes a researcher from Case Western University, Roy Baumeister, who found that "After you exert self-control in any sphere at all, like resisting dessert, you have less self-control at the next task." Additionally, the researchers found that any decision requiring a tradeoff (such as skipping bread so you can have dessert) also wears down our willpower for future decisions.
The article suggests that the poor must constantly make difficult decisions, resulting in mental fatigue and actually reducing willpower and the ability to make good decisions. Every decision is more consequential to the poor, because it costs them more in terms of money and resources.
It's easy to see how this applies to those of us struggling with weight and health. We have to make dozens of decisions every day about what and how much to eat, and anyone who does this for any length of time, even successfully, realizes that it does indeed get very tiring.
The question is, how can we circumvent the mental fatigue and reduction in the potency of our willpower, especially since we know we're going to face these decisions every single day?
Annette suggested, and I think she's right, that the food plan is one way to go about it. I've been a big fan of Dr. Beck's food plan idea from day one, and I think it has significant advantages over the traditional food log. Here's the difference: a food log or journal is simply a record of what you've eaten on a particular day. It is supposed to help by keeping you accountable. I have never liked them because they seem to me to have a punitive nature --- you MUST report what you ate, you pig! --- and because they seem to me to take control/ownership away from you. They are reactionary instead of being pro-active.
A food plan, on the other hand, gives you a roadmap which YOU create. You can choose what foods to eat, when, and how much. You are in control. And all you have to do is write it every day and follow your plan. It takes the last-minute decision making out of the picture, because you have ALREADY made a decision about what to eat, and you have ALREADY made a decision to follow that plan. You may have to remind yourself, firmly, that you have made this decision, but it's kind of like arguing with a little kid. This is what we said we'd do, and we are going to do it. This is how we do things.
Another way to bolster that willpower is through constant reminders about what your goals are and why you want to reach them --- such as the lists of reasons why you want to lose weight and your written responses to the excuses your brain comes up with. It's really important to keep these things at hand and use them to reinforce your decision to be healthier as often as it takes. And it will take many, many repetitions.
I know that these things work. They're how I've lost weight in the past. The trick for me seems to be coming up with new, creative delivery systems, because even the best reminders can lose their power after a while. You've got to make it as easy on yourself as possible to have success by planning, by reminding, by keeping your tools at hand, and by taking yourself out of trigger situations. And you just have to repeat as necessary. No one's going to have a one hundred percent success rate; it's not about that. It's about keeping at it. Every moment is a new opportunity.
And now, if you'll excuse me ... I have to write my food and exercise plan for tomorrow. I did well today -- stayed on plan despite frozen yogurt temptation, and did my cardio. Tomorrow's workout includes the dreaded Abs Ripper but I will just crunch away, imagining that the sweat is fat cells melting off my body! Or as someone once told me, "That's not sweat, that's your fat cells crying!" And I will make them howl!