You’ve set yourself a clear goal to reach your health goal in six months. You’ve know that the biggest road block is your appetite for sweets at work. You’re motivated, committed and maxed out on willpower.
Until the first busy afternoon at work when your stress levels are through the roof. You start fancying a thought of a sweet sweet chocolate goodness. You try not to think of that vending machine loaded with chocolate bars. Or that bowl of chocolates in the break room. But no matter how hard you try the chocolate goodness creeps back in your head until it become impossible to resist. So you give in and make the vending machine sing, but only today. Because tomorrow you’re stronger, more motivated, even more committed and full of willpower.
And then tomorrow afternoon rolls around and you repeat the same cycle. Same thing happens over and over again. Why is that and what to do about it? To find an answer we have to revisit a couple of studies from the past.

In the 80’s Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner was intrigued by a quote from Dostoyevsky’s Winter Notes on Summer Impressions: “Try to pose yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.” Wegner carried out a study and found that this was true – try to ignore a thought and the mind will obsess over it. There’s been similar studies since with more of a real life application. One which was by Jennifer Borton and Elizabeth Casey from Hamilton College in New York. They told a group of people to describe the most upsetting thing about themselves. They then told half of the group to suppress the thought for the next eleven days. The rest of the group continued their life as normal. The suppression group thought of the negative thing more during the experiment and rated themselves more anxious, more depressed and having lower self esteem.

Both studies show that ignoring and pushing a thought out of our heads won’t work for the human race. That’s why strict diets where certain foods labelled “bad” and out of limits are not the answer. Once you think something as a “forbidden fruit” it becomes so much harder to resist. Just ask Adam and Eve, they had the freedom to do whatever they wanted except eat that damn apple. They would’ve had bananas, pears, blueberries, oranges, avocados among other awesomeness to choose from. Yet, label apple “bad” and it became an obsession for them. So what odds do you have then? You might be able to fight the urge for a while but unless you have a mind made out of steel, reinforced concrete and barbwire it is unlikely that you will keep these thoughts out of your head. The snake will linger it’s way through…

Relying on willpower just doesn’t work. What can work is frequent reminders on the benefits that reaching your goal will bring. Not the negatives you would remove but the pure positive additions to your life. And don’t just imagine and talk but have an actual list in writing. Writing provides a more systematic and solution based approach compared to talking which can confuse the hell out of you. Place your list somewhere where you can see it, often. If you struggle with mindless eating at work, stick a post it note on the side of your computer screen. It serves as a constant reminder why you do what you do. Struggling with mindless eating while watching TV at home? Place the list on your fridge or hammer it on the cupboard door. Frequent reminder is the key.

As mentioned earlier, it’s also important to avoid diets where certain food items are out of limits. A better option is to think that you can eat whatever you want and you shouldn’t feel guilty about it. Having a mindset of ‘I won’t have any now but I can have a little bit later on’ will also go a long away. That way you are not denying yourself anything. Wherever possible it helps to not have foods at hand that you might have hard time resisting. That will save you from fighting the willpower fight in the first place. I admit it can be easy at home but a challenge at work. Unless you want to piss off a floor full of colleagues by jamming the vending machine.

It also helps to be mindful. Mindfulness is about stopping and spending a moment to think what is going on in your head. It’s to acknowledge your thoughts, to understand why you are thinking the way you are and to accept it. When you notice an urge to reach for that bowl of chocolates stop for a minute to see what’s going on. Maybe you’re stressed and anxious and that is your trigger for snacking. Take moment to acknowledge it and think why you feel the way you do and if there is anything you can do about it. If you can do something to ease the stress, do it. If there’s nothing you can do, stop stressing over it. Easier said than done but if you’ve tried all the other options already why not give this a go.

Richard Wiseman – 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot