Friday, January 28, 2011

Willpower is overrated

A lot of times when a person begins a weight loss program (whether it's through a company like Weight Watchers, or one of their own devising), their first thought is about how to handle difficult situations.  The answer?  Usually "willpower."

When people compliment me on my progress, one of the most common comments I hear is, "You have such amazing willpower!"  The truth is, my willpower isn't any better than it was before I started the MNP program.  The trick hasn't been using brute force to compel myself to do (or not do) certain actions.  My success has been much more due to recognizing how my drives come about, where they come from, and addressing them in a way that doesn't involve food.

One of the things they spent a lot of time on in the beginning of the MNP program is instilling two ideas:  1)   understanding behavior chains, and 2) "It's not about saying no to food, it's about saying yes to yourself in non-caloric ways."  The two ideas work together like two highly skilled dancers improvising a tango.

Behavior chains are exactly what they sound like: a series of behaviors that has the potential to lead to a place I don't want to go.  Becoming aware of those behavior chains is the first step in preventing myself from doing something I don't really want to.  Recognizing those behavior chains in action is the next step - after all, I can't stop something if I don't notice it while it's happening.  The third step in dealing with a behavior chain is choosing alternative actions that lead to a different result than the path I might ordinarily take.

Here's an example: If I don't get enough sleep, I tend to get hungry pretty early and pretty consistently throughout the day. Then if you add on something crappy on top of it (like if I were to get in a fight with my hubby, or get a speeding ticket or something), I'm more likely to want to eat. If you take those two things and then put me in the kitchen, it's difficult to say no to food but still possible. If you take those two things, with me in the kitchen holding open the fridge door and staring inside, it becomes even harder. If there's something tempting in the fridge that's staring back at me, it becomes harder still.  If that tempting thing is in my hand, it's near impossible. If that tempting thing is on a fork and on its way to my mouth, I'm done for. It's like trying to stop a freight train going 200 miles an hour in 2 seconds. It just doesn't happen without a miracle.

See how the chain works?  The further the chain is from the beginning, the harder it is to stop.  Each step creates inertia to move towards the next step in the habit.  Stop myself at the beginning, however, and it's much easier to make a different choice than I might otherwise.  And if I can match the choice with the actual need at the moment, the new choices are even more effective in keeping me from eating.

So how could my example scenario be different?

  • If I don't get enough sleep, I'm pretty hungry and tired.  The best solution at this point would be to recognize that I'm tired (and probably hungry because I'm tired) and to take a nap.  Remember my "patience" post?  If I took a nap, that would most likely put me in a better mindset to deal with whatever else the day would bring.
  • But let's say for some reason I can't take a nap.  If I then get into a fight with my hubby or a speeding ticket, I need to check in with myself and see how I'm feeling.  Am I angry? Frustrated? Upset? Do I need to talk to a friend about how I'm feeling?  Do I need a hug from someone?  Do I need to take a walk or do something physical to work out the aggression?  Or maybe writing in my journal would help with giving me a place to dump all of my unhappy emotions.  If I did even one of these things to take care of my needs, I would again be in a better mindset to handle the rest of the day.
  • For the sake of argument, though, let's say that I couldn't take a nap, and I didn't deal with my unhappiness from the negative event.  Now I'm pretty vulnerable, and I'm starting to move into willpower territory.  You'll notice it doesn't take a lot to get to that point.  If I'm aware that I'm vulnerable and I'm in the kitchen, walking into another room would probably be the best solution, just to keep me from doing something I didn't want to do.  The best thing at this point (after walking out of the kitchen) would be to check in with myself and backtrack to address the needs I ignored earlier.
The closer I get to the food in my mouth, the more willpower is required to stop myself because there's part of me that's already decided that the best way to take care of myself is to eat.  My intellectual, intelligent, compassionate self understands that's not what I want or need to do in the long run, but the upset, unhappy, unattended to screaming kid inside of me is now throwing a fit, telling the rest of me that the only way to fix the problem is to eat whatever it is I had my sights set on.

So when you see me moving away from the room with the food at a party, or taking a step outside to get a breath of fresh air in the middle of a food-related event, you'll know - I'm not using my willpower, I'm paying attention to my behavior chains and giving myself what I need.  Of course, you're welcome to give me a compliment on my willpower if you'd like!  Just don't forget that there's a lot more to it than simply willpower.


  1. Very good insights--chain reaction--who would've thought?

  2. Holy crap girl! It's like you jumped into my head and said what I needed to hear today...

  3. Sylvia - I wish I could take credit for the ideas. Alas, they were thought up by someone long before me. The good part is applying those ideas to my life, and having it finally start to make some sense!

  4. Heather - I'm glad to hear that this was helpful for you! I'd love to hear more about how you were impacted, if you're willing to share. :-D

  5. This is very helpful, Erin.... I heard similar things before, but it is completely different to hear them from someone who has actually done them, someone I actually know... and with very good examples. Thank you so much! And yes, I still want to compliment your will-power, and your strenght! Claudia