Minor Stuff

Why I’ve Been Successful

“How did you do it?”

I get this question a lot now that I’ve lost thirty-five pounds.  The answer is simple, but no one wants to hear it: self-control.  You can put it in any form of words you like, but what it boils down to is willpower.  I’m not trying to toot my own horn here, but it was an essential and necessary component in everything I’ve done to improve my health so far.

Allure magazine Dec 2009 cover
Allure magazine Dec 2009 cover

The amazing thing is I had no idea that developing my willpower was the key behind losing weight (rather than subject knowledge, which tools you use or any other contributing factor) until recently.  As in, until this morning when I read this jaw-dropping article in Allure called “Mission: Control” by Judith Newman.  I would love to link to the article, but it appears to not be available online.  Instead, I must encourage you to run out and buy the December 2009 issue, open up to page 189, ignore the half naked model wearing pleather on leg press machine, and start reading.

You’re probably saying, “Karen, since when do you subscribe to a magazine devoted to makeup?  You don’t even wear makeup.”  Well, that’s true.  The fact of the matter is, I didn’t exactly pay for a subscription to the magazine.  With the paper-based news and magazine industries hit so hard recently, I’ve gotten free subscriptions to Wired and Allure through other purchases I’ve made.  In the case of Allure, I could have instead gotten Glamour, which I used to read years ago.  I decided to go with Allure over that since I’m less familiar with the content and likely to learn more from it.  That’s one of the better decisions I’ve made, based on what I’ve learned from the magazine so far.

The article I’m referring to cites multiple psychological studies, most of which are over ten years old (I must be out of the loop), that help explain how strong self-control is developed, maintained, and most importantly, how it wears out.

To quote the article:

What most of us don’t grasp about willpower is that it is a limited resource, according to research by Roy F. Baumeister, a professor of psychology at Florida State University.  This is particularly true when it comes to losing weight.  You may have every intention of eating less, but if you are exercising self-control in one arena of your life, it may be hard to get it together in another.

In a 1998 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, hungry subjects were presented with plates of radishes and chocolate chip cookies.  (The latter were actually baked in the lab, so that the air in the room was fragrant with cookie goodness.)  Some subjects were allowed to eat the cookies, and others were told to eat only the radishes.  Later, they were given puzzles to solve–and the radish eaters gave up more quickly on a puzzle than subjects who had not had to exert self-control by avoiding the cookies.  In other words, the radish eaters who had to say no to the siren song of cookies could not exert the discipline needed to plug away at a boring, frustrating task.

Thus, self-control is a resource your body uses, similar to energy.  Certain actions/foods will build up willpower, while others drain it.  The article goes on to explain that exerting self-control obviously drains your self-control resource, in addition to other actions like decision-making, thought control, emotion control, impulse control, and task performance.

The good news is you can build self-control up, similar to strengthening a muscle.  This is something I have been doing unconsciously for the past year.  I started to get a handle on what things I wanted to change about my life, I started enacting them slowly.  The first things I changed were small, like “I want better posture,” “I want to speak more clearly,” or “I don’t want to speed as much while driving.”  The article considers these to be mental workouts that help increase your willpower.  Since willpower is a limited resource, though, you shouldn’t try to change too much at once, especially if the things you’re changing are big.


Then, as if the article already knew it had me hooked and wanted to make sure I’d blog about it, it went on to slightly bash artificial sweeteners.

Using up your self-control resource also lowers your blood glucose levels.  To replenish your pool of self-control, sugar does a good job at being a quick fix.  Artificial sweeteners, on the other hand, were shown to not have this effect.  In the long run, though, the protein-rich snacks will be better for you and have a similar replenishing effect; it just doesn’t act as quickly as sugar does.  Additionally, liquor will lower your blood glucose levels, which may be part of the reason why our willpower goes out the window when we drink.  Sleep also replenishes the self-control resource, and lack of sleep puts your willpower in a bad place.

Oddly enough, the article then goes on to talk about other ways to motivate oneself.  It recommends the threat of losing money, as opposed to the reward of gaining even the same amount of money, as “Tons of economic studies have shown that people work harder to avoid monetary losses than they do to gain a similar amount.”

Back on topic, though, the article mentions another self-control method that I’ve been using myself, without thinking about it.  The author calls them “if-then plans.”  You think about a situation beforehand, and make specific plans in the event of a situation that would otherwise throw you off.  For example, “If I’m tired when my alarm goes off, then I’ll get up anyway.”  You’d be surprised at how well this works, if you take a little time to focus on that.  The article claims that these plans remove the decision-making that would normally take place at that time, which prevents that decision from using up your self-control resource.

So, to sum up, here is a list of things that REPLENISH your self-control resource:

  • Sugar (for a burst)
  • Protein (slower, but lasts longer)
  • Sleep

These are the things that DRAIN your self-control resource:

  • Using self-control of any kind (thought, emotional, impulse, etc.)
  • Decision-making
  • Task performance
  • Alcohol

So, keep that in mind if you have an indulgence situation coming … like Thanksgiving.  Give yourself every advantage you can.  Plan ahead so there won’t be any decisions to be made.  Get a lot of sleep.  Do tasks ahead of time if possible.  And, if all else fails, have a little bit of some real sugar.

On a side note, the article goes on to say that a 2007 study in the Journal of Consumer Research found that exerting self-control in one area of your life increases the amount you’ll spend shopping.  That probably explains why my checking account hit an all time low.  Well, that and Jamaica.  😀