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One More Time—Forget Self-control and Will Power to Change Eating Habits

If I could wave my fairy godmother wand to abolish certain thoughts, I’d eradicate those having to do with self-control and will power. Science is telling us repeatedly these days that they don’t work long-term to change eating or exercise habits. Please let this concept go so that you can learn what does help to establish better ongoing self-care.

One research-based article is “Why willpower is overrated” by Brian Resnick (Vox,

4/25/18, https://getpocket.com/explore/item/why-willpower-is-overrated-2029766008,  

accessed 11/28/18). It describes a 2011 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that says, paradoxically, that participants “who most readily agreed to survey statements like ‘I am good at resisting temptations’ reported fewer temptations throughout the study period. To put it more simply: The people who said they excelled at self-control were hardly using it at all.” A study of students in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science concluded that, “It was the students who experienced fewer temptations overall who were more successful when the researchers checked back in at the end of the semester. What’s more, the people who exercised more effortful self-control also reported feeling more depleted. So not only were they not meeting their goals, they were also exhausted from trying.”

But, how can that be? Short of magic, what the heck were people doing if not using self-control and will power to sustain healthy habits? Here’s the answer and there’s no magic to it. These people “actually enjoy the activities some of us resist—like eating healthy, studying, or exercising. Their goals are “want-to” not “have to” (How many times have you heard me nagging about ditching your “shoulds”?) Also, they build their lives around habits involving taking good care of themselves. Says Brian Galla who did the Science study, these people have the skill of “structuring their lives in a way to avoid having to make a self-control decision in the first place.” This sounds exactly right.

Here are some other keys to success. People with healthy habits think of behaviors differently than their unsuccessful counterparts. They put a different frame around the picture by focusing on what they like rather than dislike about exercise (feeling proud when they’re done or the energy they have). There is also some temperament involved, including the trait of “high conscientiousness” (though I’m not sure how researchers establish such a link, as it’s not on display in newborns). And, finally, wealthy people have it easier because poorer people “are more likely to focus on immediate rewards than long-term rewards, because when you’re poor, the future is less certain.” I’d also add that wealth increases options for pleasure and reward.

Consider what you learned from this blog on what makes for successfully changing and establishing habits. Do what it says work and stop doing what doesn’t. That’s the first habit to change.







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