The Science of Willpower

Secrets for self-control without suffering

How to Resist the Office Candy Dish

The 15-min break that controls cravings.

Over the years, I have heard from many people who live in terror of the office candy dish. When the mid-afternoon slump hits, even the most undesirable candies (butterscotch hard candies? pastel mints?) can become irresistible. I had one student who would email or call a colleague rather than walk over to her desk, just to avoid the bowl of chocolates.

A new study in the journal Appetite provides a strategy for anyone who can't resist the jelly bean jar, the vending machine, or the secret sugar stash in the bottom drawer.

The researchers had participants complete a series of boring but attention-demanding computer tasks (sound like your job?). But first, half the participants rested quietly for 15 min. The other half took a 15-min walk. During the computer tasks, a bowl of chocolates sat on the desk. Participants were invited to snack as much as they liked, if at all.

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The bowl was pre-weighed so the researchers could measure exactly how much people ate.

The results: Participants who had gone for a walk ate half as much chocolate as those who had simply rested.

This is not the first study to find that exercise reduces cravings; other studies show that a brief walk helps people resist food, cigarettes, and mental distractions.

So when you take your break, try getting out of the office or at least walking around the building. On the Stanford campus, there's a real trend of "walking meetings." If the weather is nice enough, people take their agenda outside. (I also recently had an indoor two-hour conversation with a professor of neuroscience who refused to sit down the entire time - that's commitment.)

Of course, this all sounds good now. But we all know that when you're feeling drained, it will be hard to remember that going for a walk will give you a bigger energy boost than a handful of candy. So put a reminder somewhere you'll see it -- a picture of a person walking on your bulletin board, a pair of sneakers under your desk, whatever works for your workplace.

Kelly McGonigal is a psychologist at Stanford University. Her latest book is The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It.

Study cited:

Oh H, Taylor AH (2011). Brisk walking reduces ad libitum snacking in regular chocolate eaters during a workplace simulation. Appetite, 58, 387-392.

Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., is a health psychologist at Stanford University.

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