By Gemma Askham
Everyone knows that girl – the one who can always say no to a second glass of
wine, manages to avoid taking a huge slice of office birthday cake, and
shakes her head at the canapé tray instead of wrestling the waiter for it.
Sadly, we’re not her. Well, we weren’t – until now. Because a new book
claims willpower isn’t something that you’re simply born with, but something
that you can actually develop.
“Like a muscle, willpower follows the rule of ‘use it or lose it’,” says Kelly
McGonigal, author of Maximum Willpower: How To Master The New Science Of
Self-Control. All day, little things (like trying to keep schtum when your
boss is driving you crazy), act as willpower leeches, sucking away at your
self-control, so by the time that sugary 4pm cupcake appears, you’ve
snaffled it before you can say: “No thank you, I’m all about a balanced
diet”. But with a cunning willpower workout, you can make your brain sharper
than one of David Beckham’s designer suits, and say goodbye to food
temptation – forever! Obi-Wan Kenobi and his Jedi crew would be well
The rules of the discipline diet
1 Stop eyeing it up
As with your topless Tom Hardy screensaver, if that chocolate bar is sitting
there right in front of you, looking delicious, your mind’s going to be
totally one track. Keep treats out of sight and you’ll save willpower and
calories. In a study published in health journal Appetite, people ate a
third fewer sweets when they kept them out of sight in a drawer, not on
2 Brush your teeth early
Clean them post-dinner, when you’re full, and your willpower will be stronger
to resist snacking through Homeland. “Your lazy impulse not to have to clean
your teeth again may just win out against your impulse for sugar,” says Roy
F Baumeister, co-author of Willpower: Rediscovering Our Greatest Strength.
Lazy, us? Yes, actually. Ace.
3 Use the 10-minute rule
This is the time you should wait when a food craving hits before you act on
it. “Unlike being hungry, cravings typically only last 10 minutes – distract
yourself by texting a friend, having a cup of tea, or going out for a walk
and think of the long-term benefits (like getting into those jeans),” says
health psychologist Mark Bradley.
4 Reverse your habits
Build up your willpower by shaking up your routine. Don’t swear, say “yes”
instead of “yeah”, don’t cross your legs when you sit down, use your
non-writing hand for tasks… or do something good on a daily basis that you
don’t normally (such as sitting up straight or keeping a spending diary).
“By noticing what you are about to do, and choosing to do the more difficult
thing instead of the easiest, you are unwittingly flexing your ability to
resist temptation,” says Kelly.
5 Swap “I’ll be good” for “I won’t eat chips”
Studies have shown that the more specific your food-resistance plan (avoiding,
say, one particular food), the less effort it takes to resist. “This is true
even late in the day, when your supply of willpower is low,” says Roy.
6 Say “later” not “never”
The second you tell yourself you can’t have a food = You. Can’t. Stop.
Thinking. About. It. Gah! And because self-control uses up energy in the
form of glucose, the more you’ll crave sweet stuff as you get progressively
hungry. “Eat something healthy, then tell yourself you can have a dessert
later,” says Roy. Often the thought of a delayed reward is enough to kill
7 Beware of being oh-faux good
When McDonald’s introduced salads, experts bizarrely saw sales of
super-naughty Big Macs rise instead. Why? Because we confuse the option of
being good (we could order the salad) with actually being good (but we
Also, while researching her book, Kelly found that people who ordered a
“healthy” dish when eating out then went on to undo their good work by
ordering sugary drinks, side dishes and desserts. So it can be a good idea
to plan what you’re going to order before you go out, as often you can check
fat and calorie values on the restaurant’s website.
- 80: the percentage of dieters who lose their money after placing bets
with a bookmaker on hitting their weight-loss goal
My willpower workout
“My name is Gemma and I have no willpower. I can justify anything (£200
Topshop jacket? Value per wear!), I have a sweet tooth (my arrival at work
is marked by the opening of a full-fat Coke), and I love a distraction.
Mainly my fridge. So, if anyone needs the help of health psychologist Kelly
McGonical, it’s me.
Kelly suggests meditation as a great way to improve self-control. I’m
sceptical. ‘It increases blood flow to the prefrontal cortex [the bit of the
brain that deals with willpower] in the same way that doing weights
increases blood flow to your muscles,’ she says.
Thankfully, five minutes of meditation a day is all it takes to boost your
self-control. Sit still, hands in lap (no fidgeting), eyes closed, and think
‘inhale’ as you breathe in slowly and deeply, and ‘exhale’ as you breathe
out. Aim for just four to six breaths a minute to activate your
self-control. Got it.
I test it out, and barely manage a breath before my mind starts to wander –
but apparently being bad at meditation is good. Noticing you’ve lost focus
is what’s important, then you just need to concentrate on getting it back. I
finish my session relaxed – and when I get into work, I’m keen to get into
my inbox, not the fridge. It feels odd, but it works.”