Reaching Your Goals, Part 1
Would you rather lose 5 lbs this month, or 15 lbs in the next 3 months?
Willpower has been on my mind a lot lately. The vast majority of my personal training and wellness coaching clients are trying to create better lifestyle habits for themselves. Seven times out of 10 conversations start like this:
Me: “What is it that I can help you with?”
Client: “I just need the motivation to exercise / eat better / manage stress / quit smoking / lose weight.”
The other 3 out of 10 calls begin this way:
Me: “Is there something in particular I can help you with?”
Client: “No, I know exactly what to do, I just don’t do it for some reason.”
After thousands of wellness consultations, I feel like I can offer some insight into this topic. Willpower is the art of self-control, and it comes down to triggers, rewards, and planning.
- Triggers – are the situations that we struggle with
- Rewards are the good things we associate with that situation
- Planning is how we prepare for the trigger
For example, post-dinner snacking is a very common trigger. What is the issue at hand? Hunger probably isn’t it, unless you did not eat a balanced meal. A commercial on tv may have caught your attention and now you want something similar. What’s the reward? It is usually comfort, happiness, or alleviating boredom. The plan for this might be to save some room in your daily nutrient intake for an evening snack, or stretching while you watch tv so you are less tempted to head back into the kitchen.
Researchers often refer to willpower as delayed gratification. They study the differences between “low-delayers” and “high-delayers.” Arguably the most famous study of willpower was done by Walter Mischel. He conducted the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment, which consisted of preschoolers being told they could have 1 marshmallow now, or wait 15 minutes and get 2 marshmallows. This is not to say that willpower is an innate skill. In fact, in a recent interview Mischel had this to say about it:
“”The most important thing we learned is that self-control — and the ability to regulate one’s own emotions — involves a set of skills that can be taught, and learned. They’re acquirable. Nothing is predetermined.”
A follow up article in Time magazine explored what scientists have found by following 60 of the original participants, who are now in their 40s. Subjects’ willpower was tested in a neutral environment, as well as a “hot” or emotionally charged environment. Low-delayers, or those with less self-control, tended to have more trouble when emotions were involved. High-delayers appear to have better mental brakes.
This research confirms what I’ve seen many times over the years. The emotion associated with the trigger is often the difficult aspect of willpower, not the trigger itself. Those who struggle with self-control may find it helpful to practice removing emotion from the circumstances they are in. I do my best to stop and consider the if/then of the situation. If I pack my lunch the night before, then I will be less tempted to go out to eat for lunch tomorrow.
Back to my original question. You could make drastic but unrealistic changes for 30 days and lose 5 lbs, or you could adopt a better approach to diet and exercise and consistently lose weight for three months. Quick fix vs. long term solution. Delaying gratification is about putting what you want in the long term ahead of what you desire in that moment. I like to think of it this way – its not ‘never getting what I want’, but rather working towards what I’ve always wanted. I’m willing to make a few sacrifices to achieve my goals.