It’s Monday. You’ve decided you’re going to finally lose those extra pounds. Starting today, you’re going to eat better. You make a yummy salad and bring it to work for lunch. You vow to cut down on sweets and exercise for an hour three times a week.
Then you stop in the grocery store, and they are giving out free doughnuts to the customers. You had oatmeal for breakfast and aren’t hungry, but you grab a chocolate glazed one and wolf it down while walking to the cash register.
At lunch, your coworkers order some pizza, and you decide to join them. You put your salad in the fridge and think, “I’ll eat it tomorrow.” And you’re too tired to stop at the gym at the end of the day. So much for good intentions!
Probably everyone who has ever tried to lose weight has had an experience like the example above. Since the first humans evolved in Africa, people have acted against their better judgment.
We’ve been doing it for so long that the ancient Greeks coined a name for it: akrasia.
It’s when you choose to do something even though you know you “should” be doing something else. Even when you think you really want to be doing something else.
Aristotle described two different kinds of akrasia. The first one is motivated by impetuosity or the passion of the moment. This can cause a lapse in reason that causes someone to make a choice different from what they know is the better course. Like when you say something in anger that you immediately regret.
Aristotle described second kind of akrasia as weakness of will. Many of my weight loss clients start out telling me they are weak-willed, but I discourage such thinking. It is just an excuse and when we believe that, we subconsciously look for ways to prove ourselves right. Plus, it isn’t true. We are all strong-willed when we put our minds to it.
Years ago, a psychologist conducted what was known as the Marshmallow Test which demonstrated that a person’s ability to delay gratification correlated more to success and a higher quality of life than other factors like IQ or personality tests.
But unfortunately for humans generally, that’s not how our brains prefer to work.
You see, we have a preference for immediate benefits over future benefit, especially when that future benefit takes a while to attain. Like losing weight.
That’s exactly what is happening in the example above of the person who decided to eat less sugar, then ate a doughnut. Eating the doughnut gives us the immediate taste pleasure and the little sugar rush, both of which are very short-lived. Choosing not to eat the doughnut so we can be slimmer and healthier requires us to put the best interests of our future self ahead of our current impulses.
But deep down, we really do care about making good choices. So how do we do it? How do we get our “should” self to win out over our “want” self?
- Create an immediate reward for making the long-term choice. Emotions create habits, so whenever you make a choice for your future benefit over immediate gratification, create some good emotions around it. Celebrate it! Say to yourself (or out loud if you like), “Hooray! I did it!” or something like that. Really feel the accomplishment of making a good choice. Give yourself a pat on the back.
You can also give yourself small non-food rewards for consistently making the same good choice so that you form a new positive habit. For example, let’s say you commit to eat sitting down every time you eat for a week so that you can enjoy your food more and be aware of what you’re consuming. Each time you sit down to eat, congratulate yourself. “Yay for me! Way to go!” Then after sticking with it for a week, buy yourself a little gift that you promised yourself ahead of time. By the end of that week, eating sitting down may become natural for you.
- Create accountability. There are several ways to do this. One is to proclaim publicly that you are going to do something. Let’s say your goal is to go for a half-hour walk four times this week. Post it on social media or tell your spouse or friend that you are going to do that and ask them to check in with you about your progress. Or commit to paying them $10 for each time that you don’t take your walk.
Even better, have a walking buddy. Find a friend to take those walks with you. That way, if you feel the inclination to blow it off, your choice is affecting someone else.
- Make it easier to make good choices. Want to get in the habit of eating more vegetables? Do some food preparation in advance on your day off. Make a couple of salads that you can grab from the fridge, or a pot of soup that you can eat for a few days. Keep some hummus and sugar snap peas in the refrigerator for a quick snack or lunch. You are more likely to make a good choice when it’s easy to do so.
Another way to make it easier to make good choices is to have the choice be as painless as possible. Want to start doing some yoga every morning? Roll out your mat the night before in a place where you can’t miss it. Then decide you’ll do 5 minutes of yoga right after your morning shower. Connecting the new yoga practice to something you already do every day will help you remember, too. You can keep adding to the amount of time you practice.
- Visualize yourself making the right choice. Let’s say you’ve decided that you don’t want to overeat at the party you’re attending this weekend. Sit down in a quiet place, close your eyes, and picture yourself at the party enjoying talking with people and intentionally choosing what to eat instead of mindlessly overeating. You can actually train your brain using visualization, just as if you have the actual experience.
You can take this a step further by visualizing your slimmer self and thinking that you would rather forgo immediate and fleeting pleasure in exchange for the long-term joy of being in a healthier, leaner body.
Rather than using the excuse of being weak-willed, try some of these approaches so you can experience the true joy of achieving your health and weight loss goals.
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I would probably be someone’s best walking buddy because I walk almost every day and do 15,000 steps. It’s my favorite time of the day and it relieves lots of stress.