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Baby Steps to Grown-Up Control

Flex your willpower muscle in everyday life and your diet will benefit.

The pickled bologna offered at the bar in Michigan certainly caught the attention of Joseph Korely. A New York artist, Korely was on his annual Christmas trip back home to visit the family, a regular occasion for digging up old hatchets. As the evening wore on, Korely exercised steely self-control, remaining impeccably polite to his brother despite several provocations. At the same time, Korely, a trim man who is careful about what he eats, found himself nibbling at a platter of pickled bologna. As Korely explains, "I kept it together with my brother. But I lost it with the bologna." He polished off a whole platter. Then ordered another.

Kathleen Vohs, a professor of consumer behavior at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management, is not surprised to hear stories of people pushing themselves so hard that they break down. "Self-control is in many ways a limited resource, like a muscle that gets depleted if overworked," she says.

Anatomy of a Failure

Don't push yourself too hard, or your discipline will buckle. More is not always better.

Psychologist C. Peter Herman of the University of Toronto studies breakdowns in dieting. Herman's experiments involve tempting dieters with food. If people are calm, they can typically stick to their diet. But when stress, intoxication, or fatigue are induced, dieting tends to fail. Herman looks at it this way: "If your mind is disturbed or occupied, you don't have the wherewithal to maintain focus. So if you relax your defenses, your palate will take over."

Even the stress of simple boredom can throw off a diet. For example, Elizabeth De Lotbiniere, an American novelist based in London, found that she could keep to her diet each day until the time her husband came home. Then she would have to listen to the details of his day. "It was just so boring," De Lotbiniere says. "I kept thinking if I have to listen to this I'm going to at least have some peanuts." Now separated from her husband, she found that her "snacking problem left with him."

Structuring Success

Why diet boot camp isn't such a bad idea.

Dan Ariely, a psychologist at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, has examined people's insights into their abilities for self-regulation. Ariely points out that people can promise themselves they will stick to a diet, but without external controls and penalties, they're unlikely to follow up on their commitments. Leaving it up to ourselves may be too hard. This explains why people need to turn to Weight Watchers, diet boot camps, or even stomach stapling. Ariely notes several tools to aid self-control, such as ordering foods online to avoid the temptation of seeing it at the supermarket. Ariely also points out that it's hard to define a portion size and find a natural stopping point. One solution is to use plates with preset amounts, such as frozen dinners.

The Hard Science of Hard Lessons

A neurologist's view.

If self-control can be depleted like a muscle, then it can also be built up, too. And brain research supports the muscle metaphor. Richard Restak, a neurologist at George Washington Medical School, has studied brain scans of people with eating disorders and problems with inhibition. Restak is currently treating a patient with damage to the prefrontal cortex, the result of a traffic accident. The PFC is the brain's executive command center. "The patient has very limited self-control. He lashes out, yells at people, and is a compulsive shopper," Restak explains.

Based on his work with this patient and others, Restak believes you can improve the performance of the brain itself. "Increasing activity in the area that regulates self-control (the PFC), for example by thinking twice before you buy something, enhances the functionality of this area permanently," he says—and these changes are visible using neuroimaging. In other words, the brain bulks up.

Building the Muscle of Self-Control

Exercising restraint in other realms can carry over into dieting discipline.

You can build that psychic six-pack through a few simple psychological and physical strategies. Vohs and psychologist Roy Baumeister of Florida State University are pioneers in this area. Their work shows the importance of being physically self-aware, and using small actions to build the mental muscle of self-control.

"We call these 'baby steps,'" Vohs says. They are small but easily achievable. For example, if you are used to having a glass of wine when you come home from work, Vohs suggests trying to skip it for a few days. It's not as much for the saved calories (though this can't hurt) as it is to create an interruption that builds awareness. By building the self-control muscle through daily tiny tests of will, you may be able to tackle bigger tasks—like a major diet. "By taking small steps, you end with a sense of discipline that is more meaningful and powerful," Vohs says. "It's so simple. Start small and build the muscle of self-control to get your body and mind in tune."

Four baby steps to improving restraint.

Try these exercises to build the mental muscle that can actually help you diet.

  • Focus on eliminating "um"s or other unnecessary words from your speech.
  • Spend a week or two avoiding alcohol.
  • Try brushing your teeth with your less dominant hand.
  • Remind yourself to sit up straight.

Control Measures

How much self-discipline do you really have? Take this quiz—designed by Kathleen Vohs of the University of Minnesota—to find out.

never = 1

sometimes = 2

frequently = 3

almost always = 4

___ How often do you hit the snooze button on the alarm clock?

___ Do you find that even when you try to control your emotions, others can tell what you are feeling?

___ On days when you feel tired and lethargic are you unable to get yourself to the gym or exercise class?

___ Do people say you have no patience?

___ At the end of a party, how often do you regret some of the things you've said?

___ Do you have a problem controlling your urges? For instance, have you found you can't control your desire to drink alcohol or to gamble?

___ How often do you act on the first impulse you have?

___ Do your friends tell you that you're bad with money and unable to manage your finances?


Scoring: How muscular is your restraint?

  • 26-32: Weak. Start flexing today. You need to bulk up.
  • 19-25: All right. Nice tone, but a few problem areas.
  • 8-18: Strong. You could put the world on your shoulders.