Changepower

Secrets to habit change

The Tricks of Treats

Use the self-talk of "later" to help overcome "now" temptations.

Credit: Lin Pernilee, flickr.com
I've been at the same healthy weight for decades.  I attribute my success to certain "tricks of treats."

Almost every day I enjoy one small treat after dinner.  By "treat" I mean something to satisfy my sweet tooth, like cookies or ice cream.  By "small" I mean something that's a serving size or under--usually less than 200 calories. By "one," I mean only one treat per day.  That means if I have a dessert at lunch, no dessert after dinner for me!  Of course, when I go out to eat or on a special occasion, I might indulge a bit more, preferably in a heavenly dessert that I split with my dining partner.    

Naturally, I'm often tempted to go over my self-imposed limit.  So I have my nightly treat with a cup of decaf, and I tell myself, "OK, if you still feel like another cookie after you finish your coffee, you can have one."  Since it takes about 20 minutes for your stomach to tell your brain that you're full, my craving has usually disappeared once I reach the bottom of my good-to-the-last-drop decaf.  In fact, by that time I'm usually focused on something else.  Psychologists might say I'm using the techniques of "implementation intention" (if-then plans), "urge surfing," distraction, and just plain ol' habit.

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It turns out there's another reason why this technique has been so successful for me.  Without realizing it, I've been using the power of "later." 

In their new book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, willpower researcher Roy Baumeister and science writer John Tierney describe various experiments in self-denial, all of which come to the same odd conclusion.  In my favorite, three groups of subjects watched a short film with bowls of M&Ms at hand. One group was told to imagine they had decided to eat as many M&Ms as they wanted (I'll call them "the indulgers"); the second group was told to imagine not eating any candies ("the deniers"); and a third group was asked to tell themselves not to have any now but to give themselves permission to have some later ("the postponers").  Naturally those who told themselves to indulge ate more than the deniers or postponers.

But here's the fascinating part. After part 1 of this experiment was over, each person was given a questionnaire to fill out along with a bowl of M&Ms, with the directions to eat as much as he/she wanted.  Of course this, too, was an experiment designed by those tricky researchers. Later each bowl was carefully weighed to see who'd eaten the most.  Surprisingly, the "postponers" actually ate significantly less than the "self-deniers," even though they had given themselves permission to snack "later."

Baumeister and Tierney speculate that "...telling yourself I can have this later operates in the mind a bit like having it now."  The self-talk of later seems to satisfy your craving to some extent and can even suppress your appetite.  Baumeister and Tierney say, "It takes willpower to turn down dessert, but apparently it's less stressful on the mind to say Later rather than Never.  In the long run, you end up wanting less and also consuming less."

From another angle, it may be that when you tell yourself, "Never," you activate a part of yourself that rebels when someone tries to take over your free choices--even when that person is you!  We like self-determination, and we like options. In addition, "never" is a harsh command; "later" or "just a little" is self-talk that gives us some flexibility in eating choices. Instead of overly restrictive food rules, we are treating ourselves to a bit of self-kindness.

People with an addictive relationship to sweets might have to use the "power of never" instead of the "power of later."  For example, members of Overeaters Anonymous see themselves as addicted to sugar.  When they start eating it, they can't stop.  Therefore they practice abstinence rather than moderation.  "Never" might be the best message for them and for those with other addictive behaviors. (Even so, the 12-step motto, "One day at a time," allows for some mental wiggle room.)

But for the rest of us, "later" might work better than "never." To use this trick, simply develop the mental habit of saying, "Later," to yourself.  That way you haven't closed any doors--and we humans hate to deprive ourselves of options as much as we hate to deprive ourselves of treats.

You could also try these tricks:

  • Combine healthy eating with the habit of one small daily treat.  Enjoy it after dinner so you can look forward to it.
  • Eat slowly.  Savor the pleasure of eating.
  • Wait 20 minutes before deciding whether to have another treat. Or, add hot tea or decaf to your treat routine to mark the time.
  • Never say "never" unless you are truly addicted to sugar.  You might rebel against your own rules.
  • Don't diet or label certain foods as "bad."

See if these "tricks of treats" work for you!  If they do, you can have a cookie without becoming a cookie monster.

Do you have any "tricks of treats" to share? I invite you to comment below.

© Meg Selig

I'm the author of Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success (Routledge, 2009). Please "like" my facebook page here or follow me on Twitter, and you will receive periodic messages and musings about habit change, motivation, and the good life.

Sources:

Baumeister, R. & Tierney, J. Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength (2011). NY: Penguin Press, pp 234-237.

"Hate to deprive ourselves of options." From: Ariely, D. Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions (2009). NY: HarperCollins, pp. 183ff

 

Meg Selig is the author of Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success.

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