Is More Self-Control Really What You Need?


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When we have trouble sticking to a diet or following through with what we say we want to do, we’re quick to blame a lack of self-control. But is more of that really what you need?

This article will address some misconceptions about self-control and dieting and help you assess what you actually need to do in order to follow through on your goals.

It’s Not Your Lack of Self-Control

Self-control (or willpower, which I’ll use interchangeably here) probably isn’t the reason you have a hard time turning down a cupcake when someone drops them off at work.

If not self-control, then what?!

Why is it so hard to turn down treats – even when you know they’re not helping your reach your weight loss goals?

You’re in the habit of not tuning down sweets, so it’s easier to just do what you’ve always done: indulge in whatever is in front of you.

Habits, or routines, are sequences of actions regularly followed. Your existing routines – and environment – may be working against you, but it’s never too late to change those things to work for you.

The right framework will increase your chances of following through with what you need to do to reach your goals. This includes your mindset, environment, social system, and, yup, habits.

There are several questions you should ask yourself to help figure out how to address what appears to be your lack of self-control.

When do you typically find yourself indulging in things you told yourself you wouldn’t or not doing things you said you would?

Is it a case of being really strict in during the week and then losing composure over the weekend?

Being “good” all day and then snacking in the evenings/night time?

Is it only an issue when you’re out with friends?

Depending on your answers, you may need to change one or many of the things below:

Changing Your Mindset

Meaningless tasks do not activate willpower or self-control.

Remind yourself WHY your goals are important to you and, therefore why it’s important for you to react to a situation in a certain way. Why do you want to handle this situation differently than you have in the past? What will it help you accomplish? Why is that thing important?

Really find the emotional root of why you want to change. Not just “saying no to this cupcake will help me lose weight,” but “losing weight will help me get off expensive medications that I don’t want to continue to rely on and will make me healthier to spend time with my kids as they grow up.”

Figure out the real reason your goals are important. I have my Gone For Good weight loss coaching clients go a step further by writing it down, and keep it somewhere handy (like your wallet or a desk drawer) as a reminder in moments of potential weakness.

Altering Your Environment

Your are influenced more by your environment than you probably realize. Every single day, you face obstacles on your path to a healthier lifestyle and that a key component in changing your behavior is clearing yourself a path by changing your situation.

It’s a lot easier to say no to temptations when you don’t come face-to-face with them (or, less frequently, if you do.)

How can you alter your environment and/or routines so that you are confronted with these temptations less often? Apply this approach to whatever aspects of your environment pose the biggest obstacle. If you regularly stop for fast food, despite saying you’re not going to, what changes to can you make to avoid this pattern?

A few ideas to get your creative juices flowing:

  • Bring a cooler or lunch bag so that you don’t need to go into the break room when you’re hungry and more likely to be tempted.
  • Minimize the number of times you’re faced with temptations by finding alternate routes that avoid the problematic area.
  • Enlist the help of coworkers by telling them you’ll pay them (or a hated charity) a certain amount of money if they catch you eating something you said you wouldn’t.
  • Bring your own, healthier version of a treat so you don’t feel like you’re missing out.
  • Stop buying trigger foods that you know you’ll have trouble eating with control.
  • Keep unavoidable temptations (such as those that another family member insists on having in the house) out of sight and, ideally, out of reach.

Enlisting Social Support

As mentioned above, coworkers and friends can help you stay on the straight-and-narrow. Whether or not they want to make the same changes, if they support you, they’ll be more than happy to give you a gentle ribbing about staying away from the dessert table or making sure you follow through with your goals.

The behavior of people around us is highly influential. Use this to your advantage, rather than detriment by surrounding yourself with positive people who implement the behaviors that you strive for, value the same healthy actions that you do, and will support your efforts to improve.

If this doesn’t sound like the people in your life, there are a couple things you can do:

  1. Sit down and have an honest conversation about why your goals are so important and how much it would mean to you – and exactly what it would look like – to have their support.
  2. Seek out people who already live in the way you’re striving to do. Maybe this means joining a new gym and – gasp – actually interacting with people you meet there. Or joining a hiking Meetup or healthy recipe group. Step outside your comfort zone if your current social circle isn’t aligned with who you want to be.
  3. Hire my as your weight loss coach to guide, help support, and hold you accountable every step of the way.

While not a replacement for in-person support, my Facebook group Live Diet-Free is a place for like-minded women to support one another as they work toward their goals. I’d love to have you!

Be Prepared

If desserts-in-the-breakroom are a common occurrence around the office, you need to stop turning a blind eye to that fact. Start figuring out what you can do to actually address the problem head-on, rather than just hoping it’ll go away on its own and stop being an issue.

Being prepared could mean having enough food with you at work so that you’re not hungry when you are faced with a treat, making it easier to turn down.

It could also mean anticipating issues and having a contingency plan for them. Meal prepping food in advance could stop you from binging after the kids go to bed because don’t have the energy to cook.

If you’re someone who is very strict and on-point all day and then loses control at night, or very strict Monday-Friday but a disaster over the weekend, it could be that you’re being too strict!

That time spent restricting and denying yourself may actually be causing you to lose all control and go overboard. If that’s the case, sometimes a little preemptive indulging can prevent a bigger binge later. You can find more on this topic here

Similarly, some people do better with moderation than others and some are better with a black-or-white type of situation. If, whenever you give yourself an inch, you take a mile, it might be in your best interest to completely abstain from certain trigger foods for a while. But, if swearing off something completely just makes you want it more, probably moderation is a better idea

Take an honest look at what situations keep popping up “unexpectedly” and derailing you and come up with strategies to thwart them. This may take some trial and error but it’s worth the effort to break these habits.

Acknowledge Emotional Eating

If you use food as a reward or turn to a tub of ice cream to deal with a stressful day, it would serve you to address the root of your emotional eating. Figure out non-food ways to deal with your emotions such as:

  • Calling a friend to vent about your day
  • Journaling
  • Taking some time for a bath or watching TV without guilt
  • Walking to get some fresh air after dinner instead of heading right for the couch with a bag of chips
  • Curling up with some tea and a book
  • Meditating
  • Laughing (at a comedian, your kids, your spouse – whatever works)
  • Crying it out
  • Making an evening activity date with a friend (low-key workout, walk and chat, etc.)
  • Doing sex (alone or with a partner(s), I’m not here to judge)

Be Realistic

As you’ve seen, what may appear to be a lack of self-control is likely to be something else entirely. Since it’s not as cut-and-dry as just “do better,” you need to be realistic with what you expect from yourself and how quickly.

Understand that progress is going to be gradual and you’re not going to immediately overcome every obstacle the first time you try.

The important thing is that you work on honing your awareness of what’s going on and strategizing for ways to improve.



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