Not Another Diet — Principle 7

Rules Are Better Than Decisions

There’s a persistent idea that achieving a healthy weight has to do with willpower, or the lack of it. That’s incorrect for a whole variety of reasons, not the least of which is a misunderstanding of what willpower is, and how useful of a concept it might be.

Indeed, studies have found that trying to teach people to resist temptation either only has short-term gains or can be an outright failure. “We don’t seem to be all that good at [self-control],” Brian Galla, a psychologist at the University of Pittsburgh, says.

I’ve come to see it as a bit of an illusion. We don’t set ourselves up for success by relying on our ability to face temptation and decide each time to choose the virtuous option.

We set ourselves up for success by limiting our options and pre-deciding how we’ll navigate temptations. In doing so, we make using our willpower less necessary throughout the course of the day.

Photo by Mark Duffel on Unsplash

It’s a comforting idea that we can access our better selves at will, and one that quickly falls apart in the real world. We have more control over the big decisions (taking a new job, for instance), but the everyday ones are too slippery and subtle to rely on a finite resource like willpower.

The trick to making better decisions, then, is to figure out how to manage your internal resources and acknowledge your limits.

I understood the fallacy of relying on willpower when it was explained as being more like a bank account. You get a certain amount each day and it can be exhausted. In the modern world that can happen quickly. You stop by a coffee shop on the way to work and fend off the tempting treats, and sail past the fast food only to get to work and find your co-worker handing out treats. You are hungry and tired of saying no by 10a. Besides, look at all that you already resisted! Down go the cupcakes and you feel unraveled before the day has gotten into full swing.

This is where pre-deciding or ‘rules’ can be useful.

I use this technique in two ways: I have overarching rules that I rely on day to day about what I do and do not consume, but I also use this technique to pre-decide before I go to a gathering or party with trigger foods. The movies is a great example. I make the call ahead of time that I am skipping the concessions. Then there is no need for consternation or going back and forth in my mind trying to justify the calories. I’m passing and in so doing, reserve my willpower for other unexpected challenges.

Pre-deciding doesn’t always work. There are occasions where I end up at a restaurant with a big, pile of chips in front of me and am not able to keep myself from diving in. That means I may not go back, or request they be taken away before I’ve had even one. This one is a bit trickier with multiple people at the table. I encourage you to plan realistically so that the indulgence can be accounted for instead of consuming and then trying to figure out how to mitigate the damage (which is what I did recently).

A good rule of thumb of overindulging is that it will show up on the scale two days later, and generally takes about two weeks to take it off. I use this idea to keep myself from mindlessly grabbing junk food. Do I want the two weeks of extra effort required to eat this?

The overarching rules keep me from having to pre-decide too often. I know how I’ll choose for the options that present themselves more regularly. This is important because if every healthy decision has to be arbitrated in real time, that leaves too much room to be easily talked out of the superior option. Workouts can be brushed off, treats justified.

Here’s a few examples of overarching rules I keep for myself:

  • No caloric beverages with the exception of smoothies and the occasional alcoholic drink. Water is always the default.
  • No desserts stored at my house. I do indulge on occasion, but always at a party or out and about.
  • I choose food without sugar for 90% of my diet. ‘Does this have sugar?’ is a helpful question to figure out if I should eat this item/dish.
  • No more than two alcoholic beverages for any evening out, and on a school night one or ideally, none. I also limit indulgence to once a week, so make it good!
  • If it’s possible to walk to my destination, I do so.
  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Multiple floors is better (see principle 4 for more about the power of moving all day and wearing clothes that make that possible).
  • Move every day. Sometimes a workout, sometimes a long walk, but it has to be done.

There are more, but these are core ideas in addition to the other principles I’ve written.

Pre-deciding is useful for going into situations where it is likely you will be offered or are tempted by foods that cause weight gain or bingeing. A few of the ways I help myself are by deciding in advance to forego alcohol or appetizers, and focus on a lean protein. I imagine myself sending a bread basket back, or requesting we don’t take the chips. I give myself permission for dark chocolate at the grocery store, but nothing else. I decide to join friends for a hike, but skip the beer afterwards.

Visualization is a great technique to effectively deciding in advance. See yourself, in your mind, going through the process of rejecting the problematic choice, choosing the good and feeling ok about not having the more momentary pleasure.

Research has shown that visualizing a desired behavior can help reset current habits.

Make sure your visualizations are granular. It doesn’t work to simply say, I’ll be healthy from here on out. It does work to say, I’m going to pass on dessert at the restaurant outing tonight. Use this technique often, and think of the action as fulfilling a promise to yourself.

Seeing yourself manage the challenges is a confidence booster and a real plan for navigating world full of temptations. It preserves your resolve for when you absolutely need it, like when you really don’t feel like going to spinning. The decisions was already made so you might as well go.


If you are new to this series please go back and read the introduction. It’s important to understand the basics before simply adopting the principles.