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Thought for Food: How to Scientifically Think Yourself Thin

Guest blog from Piers Steel

Dr. Piers Steel is one of the world’s foremost researchers and speakers on the science of motivation and procrastination. Although he has researched human potential and performance from a variety of perspectives, Steel’s primary focus has continued to be on the subject of procrastination. His research and discoveries were published in his bestselling book, The Procrastination Equation, and he has appeared in countless media outlets around the world, including Psychology Today, New Scientist, Good Housekeeping and The New Yorker. Presently, Steel is setting up a behavioural lab at the University of Calgary to conduct cutting-edge procrastination research and partnering with the Seaman Family Centre to carry out neurobiological studies on why people put off despite expecting to be worse off.

So how is your diet going? Chances are you are on one or that there is a diet in your future. The majority of Americans think about dieting all year round, with as many as 41 percent on a diet at any given time, in an attempt to lose an average of thirty-seven pounds. Britons aren’t far behind: about a third are constantly on a diet. The statistics for the rest of Europe, even France, are similar. We all seem to have a few pounds or kilograms to lose and have trouble doing it.

Let me see if I can peak your interest in a helpful idea. Right now, we all know what we need to do to shed the weight: eat less and exercise more. No mystery here. The problem, then, isn’t with our knowledge but our ability to put this knowledge into action. We try to eat less, to get to the gym, but we can’t find the motivation to follow through. Resigning ourselves to our predicament, we end up looking for the easy but probably ineffective, like the fad diets from dubious Internet advertisements. This makes it a mental issue, not a physical one, and since the source of our problems are in our minds, so will be the solution.

Everything is created twice, first mentally and then physically. First comes belief and then comes action.  However, if the belief isn’t nurtured, and more importantly, shaped in a very particular fashion, the actions won’t follow. There are two mental tricks that you need to master. These techniques require precision. Get the details wrong, and they will backfire and actually work against you.

The mind’s imagination can play two roles. One is a call to action, to change belief into reality. The other is fantasy, to allow us to gain satisfaction and enjoyment from afar by simply imagining what it would be like. The first helps with getting stuff done. The second replaces getting stuff done. We will need to use both in our efforts to lose weight.

The first method, the call to action, I’ve written about before in “The Motivational Wisdom of Lady Gaga versus The Secret.” To acquire the motivation to act, you mentally contrast where you are right now after first imagining where you want to be. Note the order of that, first you fantasize about being the ideal weight and then you reflect on the weight you are now. Here’s a walkthrough from my book The Procrastination Equation:

 Mentally capture that feeling of vigor that will infuse your body and all the activities you’ll engage in with friends and family, once you’re in shape. As a parent, for example, it might be playing with your kids again. Now contrast that with where you are now. You are tired and rubbery, spending far too much time in front of the TV. Doesn’t feel good, does it? But it does make you want to do something about it.

So first you think about the positives and how virtuous you are going to feel from working out, how slender and enviable you are going to look by eating smaller portions and exercising more. Then you will contrast that feeling with the guilt and frustration you feel by doing nothing. Do just the positive fantasizing and often that’s all what you end up doing.

The second method is from a recent Science article by Morewedge, Huh, and Vosgerau, titled “Thought for food: Imagine consumption reduces actual consumption.” In a productive way, they exploit the fact that fantasy can take the place of action. Instead of having people fantasize about having lost weight, which would ultimately hurt their dieting efforts, they had them vividly imagine themselves eating a bowl of chocolate M&M’s, thirty of them to be precise. As per their title, imagining consuming a treat can take the place of the treat itself. Those who took the time to fantasize about a chocolate indulgence actually ate fewer M&M’s when a real bowl was presented to them. The trick here is to pay attention to the degree of fantasy. You didn’t get the effect when people imagined eating only three M&Ms; it wasn’t enough to satiate. You had to imagine all thirty of them.

So the next time you have a main course to order, imagine how great you will feel by choosing the healthy option. Then follow that up with reflecting on how lousy you will feel if you went with the high-fat status quo. And for dessert, imagine eating it, mouthful by mouthful, taking the time to visualize each bite. For a cheesecake or an ice cream parfait, that’s 15 to 20 loving spoonfuls. With the right degree of fantasy, you are on your way to be at the weight you always wanted for yourself.