Book Excerpt: Chapter Seven “The Solution to Willpower, Motivation and Other Things That Don’t Work: The Two Tables Strategy”
From pages 119 – 122 of Eat Like It Matters:
If dieting left me feeling like I was holding my breath underwater, it’s no wonder that I found it impossible to do it for very long. But this is what relying on willpower has always felt like to me: it takes so much mental energy to maintain that it is exhausting and unsustainable. When you cut yourself off from the one strategy you rely on to deal with stress—in my case, overeating—and then put yourself in a very stressful situation (dieting), it is doomed from the get-go.
But something very interesting happened to me when I decided to change my life. All of that gritting my teeth and steeling myself for the big fight fell away. In its place I learned discipline.
First, let’s talk about the difference between willpower and discipline: as we saw in my failed attempts at dieting, willpower is trying to white-knuckle it through a challenging situation by simply exerting your determination from out of thin air. For me it stirred up feelings of panic and fear. I felt as if I couldn’t breathe, and there was a sense of futility to the whole thing, as if caving was somehow inevitable. There was a moral shortcoming implied in my failure. (If only I would try harder, I would berate myself.) Discipline, on the other hand, is a learned skill. Discipline comes from planning and preparation. Discipline is borne of a clear vision and specific goals. When you’re disciplined you have direction; you understand your own limitations and compensate for those either by creating strategies that work for you or by drawing on the expertise of the specialized team you bring on board to support your efforts. Sound familiar?
“All right, that’s great,” you say. “But how does that help me when I walk into a meeting and there’s a box of pillowy-soft, sugary magicalness (aka doughnuts) in the middle of the table?”
Are you ready for another visual? Come with me to my two tables. Picture this: There are two tables in front of you. One is modest sized and has lots of fruits and vegetables on it. There are lean proteins, some good-for-you convenience foods, healthy fats, whole grains, and a few treats. The foods on this table are all here because I consciously put them here. To be on this table, a given food must meet two important criteria, or it gets the boot.
- It must be healthy.
- I must absolutely love it—as in, can’t-wait-to-eat-it-super-excited-every-time-it-shows-up-on-my-plate love.
That’s it! It’s very simple. Now, the other table. That table is huge! It looks like a ginormous buffet table from my worst-nightmare restaurant. On that table is everything else: meats loaded with saturated fat, boatloads of processed foods, full-fat dairy, white bread and other grain products that have been stripped of nearly all of their nutritive value, sugary foods, and most restaurant food. See why it’s such a big table?
Besides the fact that this is a very powerful visual tool for me—it clearly defines for me what I eat versus all possible food choices—it also illustrates an incredibly important principle that has guided my body transformation: I choose which table any given food goes on. I “place” it there myself. Intentionally.
As I began losing weight I started doing this as a self-protection tool. Remember, sometimes you must protect yourself from yourself! What I didn’t learn until much later is that my trick has been proven to work for many who struggle to lose weight. In a 2012 study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, researchers split 120 students into two groups. One group was trained to use “I can’t,” while the other was trained to use “I don’t.” The results were stunning.
The students who told themselves “I can’t eat X” chose to eat the chocolate candy bar 61 percent of the time. Meanwhile, the students who told themselves “I don’t eat X” chose to eat the chocolate candy bar only 36 percent of the time. This simple change in terminology significantly improved the odds that each person would make a healthier food choice.
Fascinating. The reason this works so well, not just for me obviously, is that it’s incredibly empowering to feel a sense of control over something that had felt very out of control all my life. Ben & Jerry’s ice cream tormented me for years. I thought I should be able to control my desire for it. I just needed more willpower, right? And it’s a bad idea to eliminate foods from your diet entirely, so we’re told. (As I’ve said, this is baloney. More on “moderation” in a moment.) But consciously deciding which foods get to be on my table—which foods support my goals, which foods are good enough for me—is incredibly empowering. And even though Ben & Jerry’s is definitely delicious, and I would indeed be very excited to see it on my plate, it doesn’t meet the other criteria: it’s not healthy. This one tool is incredibly liberating for me. No longer is it somehow a moral failure on my part that I cannot exert willpower over these foods. Instead, they simply do not make the cut because they don’t meet the criteria to be on my table.
You may be surprised to learn that there are plenty of healthy foods that don’t make the cut either; remember, the foods on my table aren’t just there because they’re healthy; I must love them too. I don’t like green peppers, so they’re not on my table. Likewise, I viscerally detest cantaloupe. Not on my table (you can have mine)…
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