I know I should stay away from eating sweets. I’ve had a problem with indulging too much in unhealthy foods. It must be genetic, because my mom has always had a taste for candy so much that she keeps a large tin box above her fridge filled with chocolate candies, red vines, and other assorted sweets. My dad is also big on baked treats and ice cream- especially for a late night snack. Maybe it’s genetic or maybe it’s learned through exposure, but I definitely got it from them. On top of all that, after college, my lifestyle changed from walking around for several hours a day to spending that time and more sitting either in a car or at a desk. It’s unfortunate in this day and age that we spend a lot of time sitting and less time actually moving. With these things working against me, it’s terribly easy for me to gain weight.
Self-Sabotaging my diet with my mindset
Now, I know that to lose weight, most of the work comes from diet, so I need t o stay away from high calorie foods. With that in mind, while I was at work, and there was a box of free cookies laying out ready to be eaten, I told myself, “don’t eat those cookies because I’m trying to lose weight.” Ten seconds later a cookie was in my mouth. I thought I’d have enough willpower to prevent myself from succumbing to my vice, but I didn’t. But why didn’t I ? Could my problem be solved by simply having more willpower to fuel my self-control?
Go toward the healthy, not away from the unhealthy.
The solution is actually much simpler. Performance psychology defines specific mindsets around a goal as goal orientations. When we have the mindset to achieve an outcome, then we have a performance-approach orientation. When we approach an obstacle or objective with a specific goal to accomplish, we become motivated, and mentally find ways to make that goal a reality. On the other hand of Goal Orientation theory is performance-avoidance orientation, which is the mindset taken in order to avoid an outcome. The difference in these two orientations is that performance-approach tends to elicit more motivation than performance-avoidance, and therefore has a higher rate of success in affecting goal achievement. An example of this would be to go into a game telling yourself to win (performance-approach) versus telling yourself not to lose (performance-avoidance). When you tell yourself not to fail, you will put in just enough effort so that you don’t reach that unsatisfactory outcome. It’s like studying for an exam so that you get a D-. Still better than an F , but not by much. On the other hand, when you have a performance-approach orientation, you will take many more opportunities to achieve that goal, and put in more work to get there.
Why specific named diets can work
Looking back to the context of the cookies on the counter I can definitely say that I took a performance-avoidance orientation as I was trying to avoid eating unhealthily and gaining more weight. I told myself, “don’t” rather than “do,” which allowed me to falter. This is all too easy in long-term goals, because a little performance-avoidance oriented action such as not eating a cookie can be looked at as negligible in the long run, and will be more likely to fail. These actions will nickel and dime themselves until you’re motivationally broke and your goal is unfulfilled. Eventually, giving into the urge to eat the cookie becomes a habit, and you’re back to square one.
The lesson to be learned here is to focus on creating a performance-approach orientation. Instead of trying to avoid an outcome, create an actionable goal that combats that outcome and gives the outcome you want. This is why plans like South Beach, Atkins, Paleo and Ketogenic diets can work. Since they set their own rules for how you should be eating, the dieter looks for options within that diet- an approach mindset.
Creating choice over compulsion
For me, instead of saying no to sweets, my goal will be to eat a healthy diet with lots of fruits and vegetables. When we try to avoid a behavior, we try to force ourselves to stop it off. Instead, we can be more mindful of the options and create a choice for ourselves, giving a healthier or more productive option as an alternative to the habit.
I want to lose fat. In order to do so, I must eat healthier, which means more vegetables and fruit, and less breads and sweets. The next time my sweet tooth acts up- as it is fated to do- I will not just see that cookie. When I see that cookie, I will think, “do I want to be unhealthy and eat the cookie, or do I want to be healthy and eat an apple?” Of course I want to be healthy. I’ll choose the healthier alternative- the apple.