Secrets of self-control
Whether it’s weight loss or anything else that requires self-control, the article below explains the key to success: avoidance, distraction and reframing. A must read.
From the Globe and Mail, January 1, 2008:
This year, you say to yourself, will be the year for a renewed commitment to self-control.
You know what you have to do. You know that if you eat more food, especially crappy food, you gain weight. If you just sit around and watch television, you gain weight. So it would seem pretty straightforward: Pick a diet, visit the health club and crank up the willpower.
But if you’re like most people, this is a New Year’s resolution that’s made to be broken.
I’m going to suggest turning to two unlikely sources for inspiration.
The first is turning 70 this year, and his name is Walter Mischel. He grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., after his family fled from Austria in 1938. The second, Albert Bandura, is turning 82 this year. He grew up in a small Alberta town called Mundare. Both are psychologists.
Dr. Mischel became famous for the “marshmallow experiments,” a series of self-control tests he carried out on a group of four-year-olds in the 1960s. Four-year-olds, of course, are not noted for their self-control. In fact, you could say that at holiday time, our inner four-year-olds come out to play.
Dr. Mischel led a succession of children into a room with a bell and a marshmallow. If they rang the bell, he would come back and they could eat the marshmallow. If they didn’t ring the bell, and waited for him to come back on his own, they could have two marshmallows.
In videos of the experiment, you can see the children squirming, kicking, hiding their eyes – desperately trying to exercise self-control so they can get two marshmallows.
Some broke down and rang the bell within a minute. Others lasted 15 minutes.
When Dr. Mischel followed the children who had more self-control into their 30s, he found they did better than those who couldn’t delay gratification. They scored higher on college entrance exams, they attended better colleges and they were less likely to use drugs.
But that’s not the most interesting part. What Dr. Mischel did in the marshmallow experiment was overturn the orthodox view of willpower.
Most of us look at these kids, or at people in our lives, and ascribe their success to personality. In his experiments, Dr. Mischel showed that behaviour is predicted not by some global personality trait, but by people’s perceptions of themselves in a particular situation. He found that those who are able to resist temptation are not stronger, but are able to focus on three strategies: avoidance, distraction and reframing.
Avoidance is when you make a deal with yourself to leave the coffee room right after pouring a cup because you are aware of your vulnerability to grazing on visible and accessible food items.
Distraction is engaging in a walk or favourite hobby instead of a post-dinner gorge.
Reframing of inevitable setbacks is key to weight maintenance. “I blew it by eating that doughnut; I might as well eat what I like for the rest of the day,” becomes, “Well, I ate the doughnut this morning, but I can still eat healthily at lunch and dinner.”
Dr. Bandura looked at a different predictor of achieving your New Year’s goals: a trait called self-efficacy. Unlike efficacy (the ability to create an effect) or self-esteem (your sense of self-worth), self-efficacy is your perception of your ability to reach a goal.
This trait is commonly seen in healthy people, as they are more likely to engage in good self-management when faced with a health challenge. Without it, people are more inclined to hopelessness.
One way to strengthen self-efficacy is to choose, and then accomplish, small goals that are easy to meet. Start with your target weight. People are often disappointed when they don’t lose 20 per cent of their weight, yet health gains are made at 5 to 7 per cent. Another way to consider this is to set goals for behaviour instead of weight loss. Try “I will drink more water and less pop” instead of “I will lose 10 pounds.”
Small changes are more long-lasting than big ones. Change one meal, go from whole to 1 per cent milk, rather than try to commit to jogging 7 days a week. Success breeds self-efficacy and vice versa.
The most interesting recent study on this subject appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine last year and was led by Rena Wing of Brown University. Unlike obesity studies that focus on how to lose weight, the STOP Regain trial tested a method that taught participants how to keep those pounds from coming back – regardless of what method they used to lose the weight.
Participants weighed themselves frequently – this was critical – and were given tools to regulate their weight. For example, if they gained three to four pounds, they landed in the “yellow zone” and were instructed to tweak their eating habits or exercise routine.
Results were impressive. In the control group, 72 per cent of participants gained five or more pounds during the 18 months, compared with 46 per cent of the feedback group. By weighing themselves frequently and having a fallback plan, self-efficacy was repeatedly supported.
The response of our society to weight loss is the desire to find a special super diet, or to have an iron will. We skirt around the psychological traits that are at the heart of actual success.
The children who exercised self-control didn’t stare directly at the marshmallow and exercise sheer willpower. On the contrary, they did the opposite: They thought of things other than their appetite.
This year, take a page from Dr. Mischel and Dr. Bandura. Instead of finding a new celebrity diet, think about how you think.
Getting in shape
Some provinces provide free web and phone access to dietitians, as well as other helpful tools. Here are three good examples:
Click on Eat Right Ontario and you can peruse the general advice in English or French, e-mail a question, or simply call and talk to a dietitian at 1-877-510-5102. It also has a new section on resolutions (from smoking to weight loss). At Active2010.ca you can find local activities and general advice on exercise.
The B.C. version features http://www.brandnamefoodlist.ca, an up-to-date list of the nutritional value of specific products with ratings. 1-800-667-3438.
At Capital Health in Alberta you can look into a Weight Wise Workshop. 1-877-414-2665.