You probably know by now that I’m not the biggest fan of willpower. It’s weak. It’s fallible. And it often backfires when we need it most.
If you were dating willpower I’d tell you to dump the jerk immediately. Seriously, you can do better.
The reason I’m so hard on willpower is because the vast majority of the people I talk to still believe it is the solution to their health and weight struggles, and it’s not.
For long-term goals, willpower is far too unreliable to carry you through. Eventually it will break down, and the rebound you experience will be far worse than if you weren’t trying to control your behavior at all.
That said, willpower can be incredibly powerful for short-term goals. When you need to study for an exam or tolerate your family during the holidays, self-control is often your greatest asset.
The most effective foodists must learn when and how to use willpower to your advantage, and when to let it go and fall back on habits.
When it comes to food, one of the best uses for willpower is when you’re experiencing cravings.
Cravings are internal signals that drive you to act against your better judgement. They can come on suddenly and be intensely powerful, driving all else from your mind except the object of desire.
Don’t confuse real cravings with the vague feeling of being “in the mood” for a certain food, even if the desire is persistent. These feelings are sometimes mislabeled as cravings, but they aren’t problematic.
In fact, when people say they’ve learned to “listen to their body,” they are often referring to these feelings. For myself personally, I typically indulge these intuitions without guilt.
Real cravings, on the other hand, typically lead to binges. They are insidious because they do not reflect a real need or emergency, but they hijack your brain into believing that the universe cannot continue unless you get what you crave.
It’s almost like it isn’t you that controls your mind anymore, but some dark force that conspires against your best intentions. Giving into cravings feels so necessary when you do it, but totally icky afterward because you get this sneaking suspicion that it wasn’t you calling the shots. It’s almost like someone else took over your mind.
Fortunately, cravings can be tamed. But the most effective method for quenching cravings is very counterintuitive, so will require practice and a bit of faith in the method.
First, if you’re experiencing cravings regularly you should always start by ensuring your habits aren’t triggering cravings more often than necessary. Be sure you’re eating a wide variety of nutrient dense foods, and not lacking any major nutrients like protein, slowly-digesting carbohydrates, fats, vitamins or minerals.
Also use techniques to reduce stress, and put yourself on a regular schedule of eating, sleeping and exercise to optimize your natural biological rhythms.
Remove obvious triggers like candies and other snack foods from your house and office if possible.
But even under ideal circumstances, almost everyone will experience a craving at some time or another. When these hit, don’t try to fight them or distract yourself from them. As we’ve seen, these techniques tend to backfire and induce more frequent and intense cravings down the line. And when we give in, we tend to go overboard because of the what-the-hell effect.
Instead of fighting with your craving, use a technique called surfing the urge. Urge surfing is a technique for riding out a craving without giving into it. I first learned about this technique in Kelly McGonigal’s brilliant book, The Willpower Instinct, which is the best book I’ve read on self-control and behavioral change.
Surfing the urge is based on mindfulness practice, and has been shown to be far more effective at increasing self-control and decreasing relapse than methods that rely on distraction or trying to push the urge away.
The first essential component of urge surfing is understanding that all cravings eventually pass, whether or not you give in to them. The secret to getting through the craving is riding it out like a wave.
Instead of being afraid of failure and wishing the urge would away, observe it passively and without judgement. Understand that it will come on suddenly, grow and build, peak, then crash and dissipate, like a wave in the ocean.
Cravings almost never last more than 30 minutes, so once that time passes you will be in the clear.
Next time you feel a craving come on, don’t panic. Instead find a comfortable seat and sit up straight. Close your eyes and focus on your breath. When the discomfort of the craving grabs your attention, notice the feeling without judgment, as if you were on an alien planet and just trying to observe an interesting new phenomenon.
Notice if and where the feeling manifests in your body. Is your heart beating faster? Is your chest tight? Are you salivating? Is your jaw tense? Are your hands sweaty or cold? Observe how your body reacts to the craving, then gently take your attention back to your breath and let the feeling go.
This urge surfing technique has been shown to reduce the intensity and frequency of cravings. More important, it makes it much less likely you will give in to them.
For this technique to be most effective, practice mindfulness when you are not experiencing a craving. Try spending 5 minutes each morning just sitting and focusing on your breath. When you notice an itch or a discomfort, observe it passively without acting on it. Notice how it dissipates without you doing anything. Bring your attention back to your breath whenever you remember.
You can learn the full urge surfing technique from scientist Sarah Bowen in this audio file.
Have you tried mindfulness or surfing the urge to quench cravings?
Originally published Feb 10, 2014.