Willpower and Pretzels: Why The Weight Loss Diet Is Dead For The Netflix Generation
A while back I asked some of my friends and subscribers what they would be looking for in a weight loss program. I’d created several courses, worked one-to-one with hundreds of clients and written a book on weight loss.
One answer that came back surprised me with its brevity, but summed things up for a lot of people:
“No willpower required.”
Mischel and Pretzels
Some of the most fascinating work on “willpower” comes from Walter Mischel and his colleagues. Now, he would be the first to point out that willpower is very vague term. So let’s look at the main component of this phenomenon:
Willpower is not fixed, as the word or concept suggests. It is something that can be developed over time.
A fascinating study by Walter Mischel gives some significant clues about what willpower is and how to develop it.
In his fascinating paper (Delay of Gratification in Children), he discusses “future oriented self-control”, which is a useful frame to consider instead of just willpower.
“Willpower” often has negative associations because:
- Most people have a sense that it is fixed, not changeable
- It leaves out the process of developing reliance and strategies that can be developed at any time
- It has connotations of past failure, and so is generally unhelpful in efforts to change
Predicting the Future
Mischel reveals that we can accurately predict how children will grow up a decade later, in terms of social adjustment, and academic performance, based on their ability to wait and have impulse control.
The famous marshmallow studies that Daniel Goldman discusses at length in his excellent book, Emotional Intelligence, make fascinating reading.
“Oblivious to reason and reality”
Mischel looks backs at the hundred years of psychology and reflects that it was widely perceived writing psychology that we are somewhat hard-wired to be impulsive and cannot change this. This would have been the traditional nature side of the debate.
He expresses is this way:
The “infant…is impulse driven…oblivious to reason and reality”.
In other words, you can’t change.
He goes on to say that the difference that makes a difference is
managing at least sometimes to forgo more immediate gratifications to take account of anticipated outcomes.
Differences in delay behaviour significantly predict patterns of competence and coping assessed more than decade later.
9 Reasons why delaying gratification will improve almost any area of your life (including weight loss)
There is no doubt that some of “future orient self-control” (“willpower”) is genetic. For example, we know now that some people have different levels of gut hormones that signal when they are full (“satiety”). Because this is naturally lower in some people than others, they may take longer to feel full. So the strategies in this article are absolutely crucial for their long-term success and wellbeing.
However, a significantly component of how that plays out is early environment and influence. Mischel’s studies indicate that this “is susceptible to a variety of social influences, including the choice behaviour and attitudes that other people display”.
He also ascertained that
children who tend to prefer delayed rewards also tend to be more intelligent [and] have greater social responsibility.
What has this got to do with effective long-term weight loss?
Delaying gratification for weight loss might not sound sexy. But you are about to discover is that you can apply it your life to make you healthier, smarter, and at the end of the day – possibly sexier!
Here’s why…when they looked at the children who were able to delay gratification for a variety of treats, they found that over 10 years’ later, they were “more able to cope with frustration and resist temptation.”
More than a decade later, the children who had learned delayed gratification had at least 9 distinct benefits. As well as managing stress, compared to the group, who were unable to delay gratification, over 10 years’ later they were also more able to:
- Demonstrate verbally fluency
- Express ideas with clarity
- Respond to reason
- Be more attentive
- Concentrate better
- Plan effectively
- Think ahead
- Be both competent and skilful
- Be self-assured
It also follows that if you learn the skill of delaying gratification, then you can reasonably expect these benefits, even if you start later in life
Stop for a minute and think about that.
If you’re like a lot of the clients I see, you might be thinking “I wish I’d done this years ago. I’m too old. I’ve failed so many times…”
Back in 2012, I’d become busy as a dad and I had put on extra weight. It was somewhat frustrating and I had become incredibly busy. My friends will tell you I am hearty eater. I love cooking. I enjoy eating!
Around that time, a friend mentioned “intermittent fasting” where you have 2 days a week where you reduce the calories that you eat. He recommended I go watch a documentary by Michael Mosley, and I remember going to BBC iPlayer and streaming it…As I watched, I turned to my wife and said, “I know I can do this.”
There are a whole set of things you do need to have in place to make fasting work, by the way, including seeing your doctor first. But the essence is that you exercise self-discipline for 2 days a week, rather than 7. It’s not for everyone, but it appealed to my sense of simplicity. In other words, I eat the same foods in a small quantity 2 days a week, and then I can forget about it the rest of the time. I call this strategy “being conscious enough to put it on automatic”.
Within a short period of time, I:
- Lost weight
- Had a slimmer waistband
- Lower cholesterol
Even better, I found that I was more productive and more resilient to setbacks. I actually found myself saying, “Well, if I can choose when to eat, and delay gratification (healthfully), then what else can I exercise self-discipline in?”
This ties back perfectly to Mischel’s work. In fact, he emphasises that, although you might have self-discipline or willpower in one area of your life, then it is common to have other areas of your life where you lack that ability. In other words, you can have a great deal for “willpower” at work, but none for weight loss. The good thing is that we now know this is a learnable skill that provides all the sorts of long-term benefits we need, such a better way to deal with stress and more confidence.
As a coach, I’ve noticed that if a client feels like they are lacking self-control in any area of life, then as long as we find some area where they feel can get a modicum of control, then that can quickly generalise to other areas. People need real world strategies that will allow them to “copy with frustration and resist temptation”.
The good news is that these are skills that can be developed.
How can you delay gratification?
One core skill is to develop a strong and specific mindset. That’s where weight loss hypnotherapy, NLP and coaching can be very helpful.
The first finding from Mischel’s study is that attention is core to your success. You might have heard people talking about focusing on what you want as you eat (one of my hypnosis recordings was developed to achieve exactly that – develop this skill quickly and easily).
According to Mischel:
When distracting (“fun”) thoughts were suggested, children waited for more than 10 minutes, whether or not the rewards were exposed.
The way that children most effectively implemented this and resisted temptation was to create “diversions”. They would put their hands over their eyes, talk to themselves, sing, play games with their hands and feet. In fact anything they needed to keep themselves distracted.
This ties in with what a lot of my clients do they when they get bored. The core is deal with the emotions ultimately, but it is so important to find ways to distract yourself especially if you are dieting, making a change or doing the 5:2 fasting diet.
For example, the two days when was fasting, I would be busy at work. I would write on those days, schedule extra projects in. Because I didn’t eat the allowed 600 calories to the evening, I drink tea or coffee, but I have extra time and extra energy to do things. So I would write books, articles. I would do projects in the office. I would contact clients. I would schedule extra bookings. I would stay busy, I would drink water, lots of it, and the day passed.
When I slowed down at 10 PM, then sure I would notice the odd hunger pang.
But the strategy of distraction is powerful.
Fasting, by the way, ties in the second even more powerful strategy for developing willpower that Mischel uncovered.
From Distraction to Abstraction: Weight Loss Willpower In Action
Your attention needs to be focused on activities and you need to distracted, and I wold say that is a successful trait of people who manage to sustain long-term weight loss. It becomes a powerful life strategy. They know that sitting around and getting bored leads to negative thinking and often eating. So they don’t let that happen. Instead they find projects to do, joining groups or clubs, they get out. They meet friends and stay busy.
Staying busy and distracted from temptations will help.
But we can’t spend our whole live distracted. The very act of delaying gratification means they we will gratify our desires at some point.
The curious case of images and reality
Mischel made an astonishing discovery that really has had very little coverage but which holds some fascinating clues as to how to develop enough “willpower” to achieve your weight loss objectives.
Here’s what happened: he found that the way you pictured food or photos/images they saw made it easier to resist eating. Significantly easier.
In fact children were able to delay at least twice a long, just by either imagining the food or seeing a picture of it, rather than seeing it in reality!
This is probably because of some form of dissociation, which means that if you had a photo of you next to food, that would probably have a similar effect.
In fact, Mischel goes on to describe something similar happening, that having an image or picture of the food actually becomes a cue to remember to delay ratification.
Here’s how it worked in practice:
When encouraged to focus on the abstract qualities of the rewards, children waited an average of more than 13 minutes but they waited less than 5 minutes when the same type of thoughts were directed at comparable objects that were not the rewards.
In other words, this is going way beyond distraction. The kids who were taught or shown how to simply change the focus of their attention and make the food in to a picture in their mind or saw a picture of it substantially modified their own behaviour.
Try this experiment now
#1. Imagine a tasty food
This could be a cake, pastry, bread, chocolate or some other treat that could be a downfall. Pick one that springs to mind. Taste the chocolate going in and down.
Mischel suggest that the very act of focusing on the “abstract qualities and associations” of a product that we can resist it. So let’s try a second experiment.
#2. Now create a photo of that image with you in it
See yourself in the photo. Imagine the food there with a frame around it, like it’s a picture you might hang on your wall.
Think about the qualities of the chocolate:
- How much might is weigh?
- What is the colour of the wrapping?
- What lettering can you see on it?
- How long and wide is the product?
The answers to the above questions are not important. However, what is important is the mental representation you have.
Typically, I know from my research in NLP and submodalities that there is the world of difference being associated (as if you are experiencing) and event, and dissociated (seeing yourself in the picture or telling the story in the third person as if you are an actor in the story).
Tucked away in his research, Mischel suggests that thinking about food in an “abstract ..informative manner” is equivalent to being “nonconsummatory” i.e. you aren’t imaging eating it.
He goes on to say that these “cool” representations of the rationally-driven executive function contrast with “hot” thinking of the impulse-driven limbic system.
A client came to see me recently and told me she could resist food for some of the day, but was unhappy that it was very hard at night time because she could see it in here kitchen and was tempted.
I suggested putting it out of sight!
In the exercise above, the act of dissociating from an image or putting a border around it makes it less appealing. The trick is to practice this skill and disassociate when you need to.
In an arousing representation, the focus is on the motivating, “hot” qualities of the stimulus that tend to elicit completion of the action sequence associated with it, such as eating a food or playing with a toy.
In the next article in this series, putting it all together, we’ll see how to use this information and integrate it into a strategy you can use to gain immediate benefits.
Text quoted from “Delay of Gratification in Chidren, “Walter Mischel; Yuichi Shoda; Monica L. Rodriguez. Science, New Series, Vol. 244, No. 4907 (May 26, 1989), 933-938. [Please note the original authors are not involved in any way with this website or author, nor were they consulted for this series. Whilst every care has been taken to be fair and honest in representing ideas extrapolated from their work, this does not reflect the full complexity of their outstanding independent academic research. It is highly recommended to read the original paper cited to get a full accurate picture.]Google+