How to stick to a diet (willpower is useless)

It seems obvious that willpower is the best way to stick to a diet. However, you can’t depend on willpower because it changes so much day to day, even a bad sleep can almost completely deplete it. Instead, planning is the answer, allowing preparation for every eventuality, including when willpower is low.

Loss of control

The start of a diet comes with a flood of willpower. It feels like you could eat broken glass to get to your goal if you had to. But that willpower drains fast with hunger and fatigue on top of the busyness of life.

You might have a slice or two of the pizza your family ordered in, or a binge. Either way, the critical factor is the loss of control. Once that threshold is crossed, it’s very common for a diet to completely unravel. It’s called the counter-regulatory effect (also known as the what-the-hell effect. As in, “I’ve already ruined my diet by eating a cookie, what the hell, I might as well eat the whole box”).

It’s a funny mental trap that intuitively makes sense to us, but isn’t logical. An extra cookie will barely make a difference, but a whole box could definitely set your diet back (or destroy the whole project by triggering a chain of overeating).

Planning shifts the power to you

Having to make good decisions at every meal saps willpower and makes it more likely you’ll give in to temptation. On the other hand, planning gives you a clear map, and makes the diet automatic.

Is that pizza on the plan? No, therefore you don’t eat it, and willpower wasn’t required for the choice—the decision was already made.

But I need pizza!

A diet plan can be as flexible as you like, and you can change it on the fly (diet tracking apps make it easy). Again, feeling in control is the important part.

Substituting a given caloric value of any food won’t impact your fat loss.

How to deal with binges if they happen

If a binge is inevitable despite all the best planning, here’s a trick to maintain control and avoid coming off the rails.

Beforehand, give yourself some guidelines by deciding what you’re going to eat. (And maybe track calorie estimates in an app or your head if you’re data-driven like me.)

This does two things. It lessens the likelihood of going too crazy overeating because you’re still being accountable. But more importantly it means you technically haven’t gone off your plan, you’ve just made a last minute change.

This might sound like a semantic game, but it makes a difference. The what-the-hell effect results from feeling like you’ve cheated on your diet. However, if the extra calories were actually part of your plan, even if a last-minute change, you’re still in charge. In my experience this makes falling off the wagon in the following days much less likely.

The next morning, just get back to the diet as usual. It’s not a good idea to try to compensate for the overeating by eating less in the following days.

Obviously overeating can’t be a regular occurrence, but this approach will cover emergencies.

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