Motivation and self control: tips on taking back the power!

Have you ever had the experience of watching yourself do something you know very well you shouldn’t do, and yet end up  being an unsuspecting accessory to some heinous crime against self-preservation ? Just the other day I was minding my own business, trying to ignore the newly purchased block of dark chocolate in the pantry while doing work. Yet somehow the block was sending out some type on sonar waves which made it into my lounge room compelling me to drop the urgent work I was doing and eat it, and not the righteous 2 squares I’d normally have either. Things got real.  

A few chapters into the book ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ by Nobel Prize winning author, economist and researcher Daniel Kahneman and I have gained so much insight into the idea of self-control and motivation, and what might of happened that fateful  chocolate riddled afternoon. This gentleman has dedicated  a large portion life to his research to his System 1 and System 2 thinking that we all do. Simply put,  we have two speeds when it comes to thinking our fast/automatic brain (intuitive, judgemental, self-gratifying), and our slow/effortful brain (deliberate, rational, measured).

His clear and insightful explanation between the two becomes really important when we look at how people behave when asked to do a task which required brain power and willpower. My interest lays in dietary and fitness related aspects of this, but the ideas are generalisable across any tasks which require deliberate thinking. Kahneman explains that it takes conscious effort to apply self-control  in any given task, let’s say, not demolishing that chocolate in the pantry. It also requires a large amount of energy, from glucose, as the nervous system is the biggest consumer of our energy stores. While we may be able to apply the magic will of steel the first time, if you have a busy mind, are tired, have low blood sugar levels or have already said no a few times previously, it has been demonstrated that because your self-control or ‘ego’ has been worn down, it is more likely that you will fall into the ‘stuff it- one more won’t hurt’ mind set and let loose.  

Does this situation sound familiar? Tired, over worked, monkey brain swinging from thought to thought? How much of your eating is done when you are not actually hungry, or even worse, when you are so hungry that you are about to gnaw your arm off and eat everything in sight? Or have skipped out on exercise because you managed to come up with a baker's dozen of reasons why you don't need to (and then subsequently purchased a baker's dozen of donuts for comfort).

Knowing that you can actively improve on self-control is comforting, albeit ironic, as working on self-control requires conscious effort…which means you might need a snack while practicing. Doh!

The most important thing here is to look at what going on in the period before the dietary indiscretion occurs. Ask yourself if there are particular times of the day where you trip up most? Often people try to avoid snacking only to end up eating more than if they had prepared something in advance. Would you have had more control if you had prepared a healthier snack for those critical times? The benefit is twofold in that you eat when you have the choice and need the energy, but are also providing your brain with enough energy to apply self-control- an energy sucking endeavour.

Sleep, down time and keeping work and home free from dietary distractions are also important to your success in delivering yourself from evil. Kahneman tells us that early risers are more susceptible to treats at night, where night owls are vulnerable in the morning, as the brain is running low at these times. Busy monkey brains also lead to lowered will power as diet choices become lower on the list of important things to spend mental energy on.

So before you throw in the towel and concede that maybe you just have general poor self-control and will never lose weight or get fit, take a look at the bigger picture. A bit more shut-eye, having healthy snack options close at hand and giving yourself down time to clear you head are just a few easy examples of how you can put yourself in the best position make positive health choices consistently and avoid the aforementioned conviction as accessory in crimes against chocolate.