Hey you! Yes, you -- the one with all those balls in the air! Before you take another bite of pumpkin pie, read this.
A couple of new books -- Willpower, by social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister, Ph.D. and New York Times reporter John Tierney, and "The Willpower Instinct" by Stanford University psychologist Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D. -- dig into the science of this mysterious and elusive thing we call willpower, and a little examination of their findings reveals that the current reality of women's lives leaves us particularly challenged. And that's just in regular life: add on the stress of the holidays and the abundance of temptation that surrounds during this most wonderful time of year, and it's little wonder we find it so difficult to say no to the second helping, the umpteenth glass of bubbly, the fifty-seventh mini-quiche, one more little goat cheese stuffed date ...
Where was I? Oh, willpower. So, in an example of a serious willpower fail, the other day, after writing for several hours, I opted to flip through the latest issue of Elle, rather than do my laundry, go to the grocery store, or sweep the house. Although the slip proved serendipitous, as that's when I came across Rachel Combe's piece, "Control Freak-Out." In it, she takes on how this science affects women, and she gets it exactly right:
We tend to think of self-control as a spiritual virtue, like love or charity. However, research shows it's more like a muscle, subject to fatigue, lifestyle, and energy supply. You can wear out self-control not only through traditional tests of will -- resisting pastries, not cheating on your spouse -- but through less obvious means: making too many decisions, having lots of competing goals, castigating yourself if you fall off whatever wagon you're trying to stay on, failing to sleep or eat well.
The list of willpower sappers pretty much describes my life and those of most women who are out there trying to have it all... It seems to me that women are at particular risk of having their self-control henpecked to death... Marketing studies show that we make, on average, 80 percent of major and minor household purchases and decisions such as food, cars, health care, and the house itself...
Sociologists say that women inhabit more roles these days than ever. This multiplicity of hats can translate into nonstop competing goals (work or kids, kids or spouse, spouse or self, self or community, community or extended family)... [A] study found that the more subjects' goals clashed, the more they worried, the less they got done, and the more likely they were to be physically and/or mentally ill.
The above is likely not news to you: More than likely, to a certain extent, it is you. The question is, in this season of gravy and eggnog, of cocktail parties and family get-togethers, of shopping and traveling, how can you keep your willpower muscle in shape, so you'll be equipped to flex it when you need it most? (I'm talking to you, Thanksgiving dinner.) Here are some tips:
1. Don't be the decider. Decision-making is wildly taxing on your self-control. So do what you can to delegate (surely your husband can handle choosing which brand of TP to take home?) and simplify, and -- most importantly -- consider the timing. Study after study has shown that the more choices we have to make, the more likely our rational brain will just check out -- and with it, our willpower. So don't spend an entire afternoon at the mall agonizing over what to buy whom on your list, and then expect to be able to behave like anything other than a mindless vacuum cleaner in the face of the buffet table at the Williams' holiday party, with its dessert table piled high with homemade fudge and macaroons, and that cheese plate that undoubtedly cost more to assemble than your fanciest little black dress did to accessorize. (Oh, and speaking of little black dresses, consider one of Combe's strategies, and come up with a "uniform." One less decision to make.)
2. Ratchet down the stress by putting things in perspective. I spent upwards of 10 hours over the past two days worrying over how to prepare the items I'm responsible for at Thanksgiving ... an amount of attention that's decidedly out of proportion with the importance of the decision at hand. (After much deliberation, I'm opting to go savory on the sweet potatoes; cheesy on the brussels sprouts, for the record.) This tends to be harder for women, though. Just as an example, during a recent interview, I was explaining the concept of "Opportunity cost" -- the idea that when you're doing A, you are by definition not doing B -- to the woman who was interviewing me. So, I said, "If you're staying up late to make cupcakes for your kid's bake sale, you are by definition not working on your report for work, or having sex with your husband."
"So, you're saying you should figure out if your kids are more important than your work?" she asked.
"No!" I said, "Not at all, in fact. A cupcake is not your child." I meant that sometimes we ascribe too much weight to things. Sometimes, finishing a particular report is more important than lovin' (or the oven), but that doesn't mean work is more important to you than your children or the sexual state of your marriage. Sometimes, in fact, a cupcake is just a cupcake -- something to remember the next time you find yourself freaking out over the napkin rings or the wrapping paper. (Ahem. Guilty.)
3. Fail well! This time of year is loaded with land mines. You will, inevitably, have one too many at the office party, realize you've inhaled a platter of cookies without even tasting them, swear at a fellow shopper, and/or snap at someone you love. But there are good and bad ways to deal with your missteps. Combe writes:
The What-The-Hell effect applies to eating, drinking, procrastination, and just about any other act of will. The key, however, isn't that you shouldn't try to control eating or drinking; it's how you react when you fail. In studies of drinkers, the worse people felt about drinking too much one night, the more they drank the next two. The same went for procrastinating students: The harder they were on themselves for missing a deadline, the more likely they were to miss a subsequent one. On the flip side, the more compassion people show for themselves, the more likely they are to take responsibility for failures, seek advice, and correct the situation.
Realize that traversing the holiday season is like running a gauntlet of temptations. And when one of them knocks you off track, pick yourself up, dust yourself off, put your party shoes back on, and dare to face another tray of passed appetizers. Forgetting the gift for your office Secret Santa, indulging in a pumpkin scone AND a pumpkin latte on the same day, sending your kid to her performance of the Nutcracker with uncombed hair -- these things happen. They do not make you a bad person (though they might make you an undesirable Secret Santa); they make you human. (And -- hello! -- slip-ups of the caloric variety are generally delicious, or they wouldn't tempt us so. Shouldn't you be enjoying that mouthful of peppermint bark, rather than silently berating yourself for eating it?) Give yourself a break.
4. Be good to yourself. The very things that keep you healthy boost your willpower, too. Yes, this season is hectic, but capitalize on those moments when it's not. You know you'll have more than enough baked goods in your life over the next couple of weeks, so squeeze in a salad where you can. Exercise. Sleep. See your friends. And, failing all of that, just take one minute a day, 60 seconds to close your eyes and be thankful for every last bit of your crazy, imperfect life, and all of the crazy, imperfect people in it. Then open them back up, and face the fondue pot like the soldier you are.