In Weight Loss, Character Trumps Willpower

Why traditional approaches to dieting and overeating may be incorrect.

Posted Dec 07, 2018

If you’re one of those people who repeatedly breaks their diet for “comfort food”, take heart:  Relying on willpower may be the wrong approach.  It turns out willpower, or the ability to resist short-term temptation in favor of long-term goals, is not just a metaphor.  It’s more like a muscle that fatigues when you use it to make decisions, because decision-making burns glucose in key areas of the brain such as the prefrontal cortex. 

That’s why so many of us start out with the best of intentions on Monday morning and abandon them later that afternoon for a tasty treat.  It’s also why so many do well on their diets during the day but “go wild” before bed or after dinner.  It seems there are only so many good decisions we can make per day. 

In this context, the common advice to “be good with food 90% of the time and indulge in unhealthy treats 10% of the time” is flawed.  It's a nice goal in theory, but in practice requires constant decision making.  Every time you’re in front of a chocolate bar at Starbucks you have to decide “Is this part of the 90% or the 10%?”, and in so doing, you burn a little more of your willpower reserve for the day.

The solution, in my experience with hundreds of clients, has been to rely on character over willpower, because character eliminates decision making.

Permit me to illustrate with a thought experiment.   Suppose you walk into a diner after a long, hard day at work.  You haven’t been paid in four weeks and have barely any money to pay for your meal.  You look down at the table as you’re seated and see a crisp $10.  The waitress says “I’ll be right back, I just have to get you a menu.”  She obviously hasn’t seen her tip from the last customer…

Furthermore, you’re all alone.  There are no windows.  There’s no video camera. There’s nobody up front.  Nobody would see you steal the $10 if you wanted to…

Do you take the money?

Most people say “No way!” 

When I ask why they say “Because I’m not a thief!”

“So even though you could personally better your situation without negative consequences, you really wouldn’t do it?” I ask.

The reply is inevitably, “No!  That woman worked hard for her money and it belongs to her.  I couldn’t live with myself if I took it.”

“And how much willpower would that take?” I ask.

“None!” they say.  “Like I said, I’m no thief!”

What’s going on here?  

As a matter of character, most people have already defined certain self-rewarding behaviors as off limits no matter what.  That’s just not the kind of person they are.  Without knowing it, they’ve internalized a rule (e.g. “I never steal”) to define how they will habitually behave in the face of temptation. 

Here's the important point - in so doing, they have eliminated ALL decisions regarding that particular temptation.   “I never steal” means the person doesn’t take what doesn’t belong to them no matter how broke, tired, hungry, etc. they may be.  No matter what happened to them during the day.  “I never steal because I’m not a thief” is a statement of character which means “I never steal no matter what.”

Furthermore, we've all implemented dozens of character rules without knowing it.  I’d be willing to bet you don’t run up and kiss attractive strangers in the street on the mouth.  I’m also pretty sure you don’t kick policemen in the tush.  Or scream at the top of your lungs in your mother-in-law’s living room.

Now, why can’t we make those kinds of character decisions with food?

Turns out we can.

You can create rules which define the type of person you want to be around any temptation.  For example “I will never eat chocolate on a weekday again.”  This is not "just a rule" but a character statement which says “I’m the type of person who only eats chocolate on weekends.”    

With this commitment, all chocolate decisions which otherwise would have to be made Monday through Friday are eliminated, and a monumental amount of willpower is preserved.

Try it for yourself.  Take a breath for a moment and think about your single most troublesome trigger food or eating behavior.  Then make one character rule which defines the role you’d like that food or behavior to play in your life.   A rule that defines the type of person you’d like to be with regards to this food or behavior...

How would you like to be with that food or behavior from now on?

The only limit is your imagination.  Just be sure that rule is definitive and precise.  Ten outside observers should be able to follow you around all day and 100% agree on whether you did or didn’t follow it.  For example “I will never eat standing up again”, “I will always drink two glasses of pure spring water each morning”, “I will only ever eat pretzels in a major league baseball stadium again”, “I will always put my fork down between bites”, etc. 

What kind of person will you become to lose weight?  

Please note that only you get to decide.  I'm not referring to some objective standard against which everyone should be judged (as you might find in religion, etc).  I'm talking about our innate ability to choose exactly who we want to be and how we want to behave, and about using character as a vehicle to accomplish this.

References

Baumeister, R. F.; Bratslavsky, E.; Muraven, M.; Tice, D. M. (1998). "Ego depletion: Is the active self a limited resource?" (PDF). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 74 (5): 1252–1265.

Gailliot, M. T.; Baumeister, R. F.; Dewall, C. N.; Maner, J. K.; Plant, E. A.; Tice, D. M.; Brewer, B. J.; Schmeichel, Brandon J. (2007). "Self-control relies on glucose as a limited energy source: Willpower is more than a metaphor". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 92 (2): 325–336

Casey, B. J., et al. (2011). Behavioral and neural correlates of delay of gratification 40 years later. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108, 1498-5003.