Put down the Marshmallow – the truth about Self Discipline

Self-discipline, willpower, and self-control, all resort to the same unique application – resisting temptation. On a weight loss journey, the most significant challenge you will face is resisting temptation. The hardest time during my weight loss journey; when my self-discipline got tested to its breaking point was in social settings. For instance, a braai with family or friends. There are almost always lots of delicious snacks before the meal. My friends are all having wine, while I can’t have any. It is in that moment that I found myself having to choose my goal every time, over and over again, until I reached my goal weight. It is through self-discipline that I could resist temptation and not give in to the temporary pleasure offered by social encounters. Studies have shown that people who cultivate self-discipline are happier, more productive, and less stressed. The good news is, that willpower and self-control can be trained. It’s not a ‘you either have it’ or ‘you don’t’ situation. Self-discipline is really like a muscle: the more you work on developing it and using it, the stronger it will become. You don’t have iron clad will from the get go, you start slowly by making different choices in the face of bad habits. Self-discipline is an essential quality, and it’s a key differentiator between people who are successful in life and those who aren’t. Seven in ten women are overweight or obese. That is 69.3% of South Africa’s female population. Being overweight is easy, there is no self-control or self-discipline needed. That is why more people are overweight than naturally thin. What sets the other odd 30% apart….is that key differentiator. And it is this element that will allow you to maintain the weight loss and continue reinforcing better habits and good food choices well after you reached your goal.

“You can never conquer the mountain. You can only conquer yourself.”

The Stanford marshmallow experiment was a study on delayed gratification in 1972 led by psychologist Walter Mischel, a professor at Stanford University. The experiment began by bringing a child into a private room, sitting them down in a chair, and placing a marshmallow on the table in front of them. At this point, the researcher offered a deal to the child. The researcher told the child that he was going to leave the room and that if the child did not eat the marshmallow while he was away, then they would be rewarded with a second marshmallow. However, if the child decided to eat the first one before the researcher came back, then they would not get a second marshmallow. So, the choice was simple: one treat right now or two treats later. The researcher left the room for 15 minutes. As you can imagine, the footage of the children waiting alone in the room was rather entertaining. Some kids jumped up and ate the first marshmallow as soon as the researcher closed the door. Others wiggled and bounced and scooted in their chairs as they tried to restrain themselves, but eventually gave in to temptation a few minutes later. And finally, a few of the children did manage to wait the entire time. This popular study became known as The Marshmallow Experiment, but it wasn’t the treat that made it famous. Follow-up studies of the children who resisted temptation and received two marshmallows showed them to be more successful in life, achieved higher grades at school, and were more productive and happier individuals. The unique results of this study showed that where the mind applies its focus is a direct consequence to your ability in resisting temptation. Some children focused solely on instant gratification. While the children who managed to wait applied their focus on a long-term goal. It was the end destination that was more satisfying, rather than the present fleeting satisfaction. Developing self-discipline is easier than being overweight. All it takes is your sole, resolute and complete focus on your long-term goal. Your long-term goal needs to be more satisfying to you than the temptation of the marshmallow. I often ask the women I coach, “how important is it to you, really?” Because if losing the excess weight was SO important, you would find a way come hell or high water to get it done. Now, let’s throw everything you know about temptation on its head…you already possess all the willpower you need to exercise total self-control. The mind likes to plan, analyse, and sort information, which is why there are short-term memory and long-term memory. The brain takes useful and meaningful information and stores it in your long-term memory bank. What is meaningful? What is useful? The brain will focus and apply energy to matters that will make you healthier, more successful, more positive, and more productive, aiming for anything that will improve or enhance you. Because that is useful and meaningful to your body and mind. The brain is the only organ that does not deteriorate, it matures. Your brain is already wired naturally to have self-control, the brain wants and needs to focus on goals that will improve the system, the body, and the being. Have you ever given in to temptation only to be disappointed that it did not taste as good as you imagined? The brain actually wants to get pleasure from your long-term goals, not instant gratification. The pleasure you get from cheating on your diet, and eating that cookie is remarkably diminished because your brain does not want “that” pleasure, it desires long-term pleasure more. It wants to store long-term meaningful behaviour, because that is what the brain is optimally designed to do. Let me explain it this way, your brain is going to want to remember to run away from a sabretooth tiger, and to remember what you need to do – to actually run…away. Why? It guarantees your survival, which is what your brain wants, and of course, you want that too. So, I’m telling you that you are built to resist temptations to obtain long-term goals, then why do you struggle with being overweight? Because food is emotional. Food relationships are in the mind. Have you ever heard the saying, never make a life-altering decision when you are emotional? It is because emotions hijack our brain’s ability to process logical thinking and rationale. In less than 3 seconds an emotion can wipe out your brain’s ability to focus on what is useful and meaningful, the long-term goal. That is why identifying emotional triggers when it comes to eating is so important in a weight loss journey. How do you train that muscle to develop better self-discipline and resist temptation? Firstly, identify the goal, it must be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound. Identify interim and halfway goals that you want to achieve before you get THE ultimate number on your scale. Once you’ve chosen a goal, list the reasons why you want to achieve it. Try to express these reasons in a positive way and find your motivation. When you list the reasons why you want to achieve something, you’ll find it much easier to get the job done. Now you need to identify the obstacles that you’ll likely face when working toward your goal and devise a strategy for overcoming each one. Often our self-discipline crumbles because we haven’t identified the obstacles that we’ll face, and we haven’t developed strategies to overcome them. When these obstacles show up, we’re unprepared to deal with them, and this shakes our resolve. Don’t skip this step! When we’re developing self-discipline, we’re often trying to break a bad habit and replace it with something more productive. However, if that habit is tied to a certain time of day or routine, breaking it can leave a hole. If we don’t replace that habit with something else, then its absence becomes even more noticeable. As you work on your self-discipline, pay attention to how you’re feeling as it develops and strengthens. You might feel free, happy, proud, and energized. Also, think about keeping a journal to write down your self-discipline goals and track your progress. This reinforces the positive changes that you’re implementing in your life and gives you a record that you can look back on to see the progress that you’ve made.

Over time, your self-discipline will strengthen, and you’ll be able to apply it to lots of other areas of your life.

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