Many of the clients I work with come looking for complete health renovation. They want Hollywood beach bodies yesterday. And they’re willing to go on almost any diet and slash almost every unhealthy habit that stands in their way.
While that’s an admirable ambition, the sad truth is that this approach just doesn’t work over 95% of the time (and if you don’t believe me, just check out the studies that show the success rates of diets (1). Hint:…they’re dismally low).
But luckily for us real humans, there’s a smarter way. And not just smarter, but easier, more effective, and a lot more fun too.
And it all comes down to the power of making 1, tiny change…
The woman who ignored 95% of my advice, and got impressive results anyway
Let me turn back the clock a bit and introduce you to Sally (not her real name). I met Sally one day while giving a public health talk in a college in Dublin. She came up to me afterwards and told me that she had been at one of my earlier talks and wanted to thank me.
Why? Because she had lost almost 7kg (and counting) and felt like she had almost doubled her energy by implementing what she’d learnt at my last talk.
- Me: “That’s awesome news. I’m really happy for you. Hey, do you mind me asking; exactly what actions did you take?” (note the plural –s- on actions here)
- Sally, + confused look: “Actions? No I only did one thing, and it worked like magic!”
- Me + even more confused look: “Seriously? Only one thing? What thing?”
- Sally + smug look: “Well, all I did was stop drinking junk and stuck to water. That meant of course that I had to adapt to black tea and coffee. It was hard at first, but just like you said, my taste buds adapted and now look at me! This stuff works!”
Needless to say I looked like someone who had just seen a florescent yellow monkey pop out of thin air and start doing the gangnam style dance on my projector.
And I’ll confess, in that instant my ego wasn’t too impressed. I mean, I labour over every talk I give. I take pride in filling each talk with as much evidence based, actionable advice that everyone the audience can use to completely turn around their life… And there was this woman who had ignored almost all of it, but STILL got great results…
Making sense of the nonsensical
It turns out, Sally wasn’t only partial to the odd vanilla frappuccino or caramel mocha late. On her ‘good days’ (ahem) she’d drink large low-fat lates with sugar. For Sally, low-fat = healthy, so she had the misguided idea that made this habit ok.
But here’s the truth. Considering some of these drinks can fit a massive 40% of our daily calorie allowance into one tall cup, and the devastating metabolic effects of all that sugar and milk, I’m not surprised that cutting them out completely lead to her losing fat and feeling more energised. But still, it was a puzzle to me why that single action would lead to such dramatic results.
It wasn’t until much later while trawling through some change psychology research that I finally found my answer.
The compound interest of willpower training
Let’s be honest, saying no to fruit juice and soft drinks, and cutting out the sugar, milk and all the other fancy flavourings from your coffee isn’t easy. But, in saying that, it’s not as if it’s something that would leave you crying in grief. Although uncomfortable on the taste buds for the first week or two, it’s something that anyone can do.
I think Sally had picked this habit because although challenging, it had seemed manageable to her. And it turns out that this was a very wise decision.
Why? Well, according to recent psychology studies it all comes down to the benefits of willpower training. And to fully understand the power of willpower training, you first need to know a few things about willpower:
- Our willpower is in limited supply (2). Once our daily quota is used up, we start making very bad decisions that aren’t exactly aligned with our best intentions (just ask any tired and stressed dieter if they want a cookie at 3pm, I bet they can’t resist).
- Will power is a little like a muscle; the more you work it, the bigger and stronger it gets (3, 4).
- Committing to any small consistent act of self-control can dramatically increase our will power reserves.
So how does this relate to Sally?
Well, here’s my favourite bit:
- Once we increase our willpower reserves, we start making better choices in other areas of our lives without even noticing.
And that’s likely why Sally saw such great results. By resisting the sweated junk drinks she was essentially doing a small, daily willpower work out. This increased her willpower reserves, and all that extra willpower spilled out into other areas of her life making the healthier and better choices seem easier and more natural.
So while it seemed like Sally had ignored 95% of the advice I presented that day, she’d actually taken action on a lot more than she had realised.
And all this by simply cutting the liquid crap and drinking her tea and coffee black.
Sound like something you can do?
Of course it is.
If like me you already take your tea and coffee black and unsweetened, here’s another few daily will power training ideas. And by the way, it doesn’t need to be food related to see results.
- Always take the stairs; never the escalators.
- Do a 2 minute mini stretching / workout when you get out of bed every morning.
- Stop complaining about your body, to your friends, husband / wife, to yourself (for some, this is a lot more difficult than it seems- and your friends will thank you for it).
- Do a 5 minute relaxation / meditation each evening after dinner, after work or immediately after you wake up.
- Keep a small notebook on you and keep a record of each piece of unhealthy (or healthy) food you eat each day.
- Think small… very small.
- Choose a single tiny action that’s a little uncomfortable but still doable.
- Do this every day for at least a month.
- Tell us about your will power training action in the comments below.
- Share the love by sharing this post on your facebook page, or spread the message by tweeting: “Willpower training 101: Cut the liquid crap & drink your tea & coffee black. @feedyourmachine”
- (1) Mann T, Tomiyama AJ, Westling E, et al. Medicare’s search for effective obesity treatments: diets are not the answer. Am Psychol. 2007 Apr;62(3):220-33. [PDF]
- (2) Baumeister RF, Gailliot M, DeWall CN, Oaten M. Self-regulation and personality: how interventions increase regulatory success, and how depletion moderates the effects of traits on behavior. J Pers. 2006 Dec;74(6):1773-801.
- (3) Muraven M, Baumeister RF, Tice DM. Longitudinal improvement of self-regulation through practice: building self-control strength through repeated exercise. J Soc Psychol. 1999 Aug;139(4):446-57.
- (4) Muraven M. Building Self-Control Strength: Practicing Self-Control Leads to Improved Self-Control Performance. J Exp Soc Psychol. 2010 Mar 1;46(2):465-468.