It starts with the bowls of leftover Halloween candy, brought in by colleagues too afraid of temptation to leave them lying around their own homes. What follows is an avalanche of sweet and savory goodies – the seemingly endless supply of cakes, cookies, and treats that the holiday season always seems to bring to every office, everywhere.
As if it isn’t hard enough not to overeat during all those holiday parties and family dinners, how are you supposed to summon up the willpower to resist the diet-busting delectables that your coworkers insist on bringing to the workplace? In fact, it’s likely even harder to resist treats when you’re at the office: previous research has shown that when you’re using a lot of self-control to perform other tasks – something each of us routinely does while handling the stresses and challenges of work – there isn’t much left over for resisting Emily’s lemon bars or Doug’s glazed doughnuts.
If you have any hope of reaching the new year in your current trouser size, you are going to need a strategy. Saying “I just won’t eat any of it” is not a strategy — if you leave this up to willpower alone, you will not succeed. It’s just the nature of willpower that no matter how much you start out with, its strength will ebb and flow as a function of the demands you put on it.
So try using the following research-tested strategies around the office this holiday season, and you might just be able to button your pants on January 1 without holding your breath.
Set VERY specific limits. Before you get anywhere near the cookie platter or the cheese plate, think about how much you can afford to eat without over-indulging. Decide, in advance, exactly how much snacking (if any) you will allow yourself at work that day, or at the holiday party.
The problem with most of the plans we make, including diet-related plans, is that they are not nearly specific enough. We say that we will “be good” or “not eat too much,” but what does that mean, exactly? How will you know when to stop? When you are staring at a table overflowing with delicious snacks, you are not going to be a good judge of what “too much” is.
An effective plan is one that is made before you stare temptation in the face, and that allows no wiggle room. Studies show that when people plan out exactly what they will do when temptation arises (e.g., “I will have no more than 2 cookies and nothing else”), are two-to-three times more likely to achieve their goals.
Decide what you will do instead. When you do reach your limit, what will you do then?
When you’re trying not to engage in Behavior X (where Behavior X is eating a holiday treat — or, incidentally, doing anything else you find tempting), studies suggest that one of the worst things you can do is focus solely on not engaging in X (e.g., “If I want another cookie, then I won’t eat one.”) Unfortunately, this is exactly what most of us do.
In fact, researchers at Utrecht University in the Netherlands found that focusing on not doing X can result in a rebound effect, leading people to do more of the forbidden behavior than before. Just as studies on thought suppression (e.g., “Don’t think about white bears!”) have shown that constantly monitoring for a thought makes it more active in your mind, focusing on a suppressed behavior can create even greater longing.
To defeat the treat, the key is to decide in advance what you will do instead of eating it — or more generally, what you will do when temptation beckons (e.g., “If I want another cookie, then I will have a glass of water instead.”) By using water-drinking as a replacement for cookie-eating, you can move past the urge more easily.
Savor. Savoring is a way of increasing and prolonging our positive experiences. Taking time to experience the subtle flavors in a piece of dark chocolate, the pungency of a full-flavored cheese, the buttery goodness of a Christmas cookie — these are all acts of savoring, and they help us to squeeze every bit of joy out of the good things that happen to us. Avoid eating anything in one bite – you get all the calories, but only a fraction of the taste.
Try not to eat during meetings or other times when you’re interacting with colleagues. When we you are focused on conversation, odds are good that you will barely even register what you are putting in your mouth.
Eating slowly and mindfully, taking small bites instead of swallowing that bacon-wrapped scallop or stuffed mushroom whole, not only satisfies you hunger, but research suggests it actually leaves you feeling happier, too. And that, ideally, is what holiday feasting is all about.
Willpower is like any muscle – if you overtax it, it will fail you. But like a muscle, you can strengthen it gradually, over time. Strengthen your ability to resist office treats today, and tomorrow you might just find your increased willpower paying off in other areas of your work life: overcoming procrastination, keeping your temper in check, or resisting the distractions of the web when you’re tackling a particularly boring assignment. A little willpower training session now can leave you better positioned to tackle those New Year’s resolutions in January.