The Myth of Willpower
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The Myth of Willpower

Despite what we've been told, successful dieting has nothing to do with mind over matter. Here, what really does work.

The Myth of Willpower

One of the best presents you can give yourself in the New Year is a break from diet-related guilt. Here's why: Your inability to resist "just one more" doughnut or piece of pizza isn't due to any lack of willpower. "People think they can make a resolution, and then just resolve to 'make it happen,'" says Charles Platkin, author of Breaking the Pattern (Red Mill Press, 2002). "In fact, it's nearly impossible to effect real and lasting change in your diet through the sheer force of your will."

The truth is, dieters who rely on willpower are setting themselves up for failure. "We think we should be able to stop thinking about that piece of cake, but for most of us, it isn't that easy," says Daniel M. Wegner, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Harvard University. "When we fail, we start to believe there's something wrong with us." Instead of thinking of willpower as "some internal entity you can turn on and off," says Michael Lowe, Ph.D., a psychology professor at MCP-Hahnemann University in Philadelphia, people should learn to recognize the role played by external factors -- the friend who says, 'Oh, come on, it's a party, dig in!' -- and then have a plan for how to handle them.

The idea is to have this strategy planned in advance. "This will significantly improve the probability of your success," says Platkin. For example, you could tell your friend ahead of time that you're starting a diet and would like her help. That way she'd be less likely to hold up a cream puff to tempt you. Or you could eat a healthful dinner before you head out, so by the time you get to the party you're simply not hungry. Or volunteer to bring a dish to the party that's low-cal but delicious.

Of course, you could also plan to go to that party and do a little celebratory noshing. The most successful dieters allow themselves occasional indulgences -- they think of it as a reward for all their careful planning the rest of the time.

Weight-Loss Tips That Work

Forget willpower. Instead try these strategies to help reach your goal:

  • Don't start your diet until you've worked out all the details -- filled the fridge with healthy foods, told your husband he's not allowed to bring ice cream home for a month, enlisted friends for support.
  • Expect screw-ups. Giving in to temptation isn't a sign of your weakness -- it's normal. Forgive yourself and start fresh tomorrow.
  • Reward yourself. Whether it's a new pair of shoes or a manicure, there's nothing like a little incentive to keep you going.