Willpower And The Art Of Snack Avoidance

A man with no willpower

Delaying Gratification

Imagine, if you will, a room full of four-year-old children. And before these children you place three trays of biscuits, sweet treats and pretzels. And then you make them an offer albeit it one they definitely can refuse – They can take a small snack now or wait for a short time and eat double the amount. What would you do? Or what would the four year old you, do?

One psychologist, Walter Mischel, did just this and some surprising results came up both at the time and many, many years later.

After repeating the test over and over again, most kids delayed the gratification. Even at the age of just four they seemed to show significant self-control and were able to delay for a greater reward. When I first became aware of this research I was amazed having always thought that adults had bad enough willpower and that children must of course be even worse. Apparently not!

Yet we adults have much greater knowledge than our children, far more wisdom and years of extensive experience to draw upon and still find delaying gratification very difficult. Why is this? And what would be the benefits of learning or re-learning this skill?

At Waetugo we are always looking for ways of using psychology to improve our relationship with food and to improve our chances of losing weight and maintaining those losses, so getting back that will-power we had at the age of four could be very useful but, their may be even greater benefits.

Walter Mischel followed up on his study thirteen years later when all the children originally involved were in high school and he found a startling correlation between his original results and where the young participants were now; the kids who had struggled to wait were far more likely to have behavioural issues, struggle with stress and have difficulty maintaining relationships as well as scoring much lower on Sat tests. So early willpower seems to have far more value than just keeping us slim and trim.

The Willpower Trick

So what can we do to boost our wills? Turns out willpower per se had very little to do with it and a simple behavioural trick made all the difference. Mischel called this trick ‘Strategic Allocation of Attention’.

Reviewing the many experiments conducted on the four year olds he saw that the more successful ones actively filled their time with a task such as singing a song or tying their laces, effectively distracting themselves from the object of their desire. Of course when they eventually receive their reward they get a huge sense of achievement and register a success and would have undoubtedly enjoyed a boost to their self-esteem.

Psychologist, Howard Rachlin, advises that we can improve further on this method of distraction by recognising that we will be better off in the long run if we are prepared to adapt to situations rather than simply rising to the challenge as it occurs. It appears that if we can make this one small cognitive step we actually begin to work with our future self to create the best possible future.

A possible and very human issue comes to play when we want to address immediate gratification in terms of our long-term goal. People are very good at looking at ways to subvert the difficulty if we can justify it in some way. The dieter may look at the calorie content of the snack and decide to reduce the next meal by the same number of calories. This way bad habits lie! Instant gratification can actually numb or blunt the dopamine response making us seek greater and bigger rewards. Exactly what happens in addiction! It also gives us a sense of failure and a missed opportunity to send out a strong message to ourselves – I am committed to this goal.

Setting a goal for greater willpower and discipline

In a previous article we looked at Plus 4s for filling voids in the day where snacking can become a temptation. In this we identified that a significant reason for becoming and staying overweight is the propensity to turn to food when we find a space in our day. Please take a look at this article. In a nutshell Plus 4s gives us four general groups of activities that we can turn to when we find a teasing space in the day.

Take a moment now to identify some ‘gap fillers’ that aren’t food. Some of my favourites are linked to different times of the day or week as well as addressing various locations. Here’s a few distractions that give us the ‘willpower’ advantage:

‏Evenings

  • Reading – keep a book on the arm of the comfy chair where snacking thoughts bite
  • Gardening – my trusty Felco secateurs are never put away but always left by the back kitchen door
  • Catching up on social media

Weekdays

  • Coffee break – This is the time I might catch up with the news. Having avoided it all morning I’m now quite keen to catch up
  • After work but before evening meal – Eat meal earlier leaving no gap and rely on evening strategies to take me through

Weekends

  • Watch a football match or listen to a commentary on the radio
  • DIY task in the house or garden
  • Reading – as above
  • Do something with my family
  • Walk the dog (also works in the evenings). The dog lead and necessary accessories for cleaning up after him are always kept handy

Additional Hint

The snack monster is calling and you decide to ignore him / her. You reach for a book or a crossword puzzle and dive in. It’s a great start. But if you want to improve your chances of success set a target. You might go for a period of time or a number of pages to read before you will review the situation. So if you answer crossword clues for twenty minutes not only have you just won a small but important battle (and we don’t mean with 5 across), you are now twenty minutes closer to your regular mealtime making the snacking issue a smaller one. Now choose another target and continue or do a different small distracting activity. This continues until you get busy with something that will fully occupy you or dinner is served.

Using skills and tools to build willpower

Building discipline With Waetugo

It’s time to practice and let yourself know that you can take control of the snacking urge and send out that strong message to yourself. Go to your own Waetugo journal and identify a few potential pitfall moments and the diversions that will be best for you. Use the comments section below to tell others what are your best ideas and you might just well help someone else or see something that can help you.

And as usual – all the very best.

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