Ever the thoughtful grandmother, on June 1, 2012, my mother emailed me announcing that it was National Donut Day. “Do my grandchildren know?” she asked. “Don’t you think your family should celebrate?”
I rolled my eyes at her suggestion. I have a bit of a reputation as the Food Gestapo, and have often stood between my children and my mother when it comes to excessive intake of the delicious white stuff. But sometimes it is important to bend a little, just to show that you can, so when I picked up my kids from school later that day, instead of turning left for home, I turned right.
“Where are we going?” they asked.
“Hing’s Donut Shop,” I replied casually. In the rearview mirror, I saw my girls look at each other, their eyes wide.
“Why?” whispered Clara, my youngest who has an insatiable sweet tooth.
“It’s National Donut Day,” I explained. “I thought we should celebrate, don’t you?”
They fell all over themselves. “Oh, yes. Oh, yes, definitely, Mom. We should celebrate. We haven’t had a donut in so long so just one donut to celebrate would be a great idea.”
They couldn’t believe their good luck.
When we arrived at Hing’s, the girls weighed their donut options carefully before making their selection: an apple fritter for Emma, a maple bar for Clara, and an apricot danish to drop off for their donut-loving dad at work. I longed for an old fashion with chocolate icing and colored sprinkles. They were the donuts my grandpa used to bring home for a mid-morning “coffee break” when I visited. I knew one bite would transport me back to those happy times in my grandparents’ kitchen, but I abstained. Donuts are not part of my gluten-free, low-fat health regime.
The girls settled into a booth along the wall, and for the next half-hour gleefully celebrated National Donut Day. (Since my mother is a suspicious woman, I took a photo and sent it to her.) Both daughters offered me a bite of their treat, but I declined even though it taxed my willpower mightily.
“I have to stay on my eating plan,” I told myself. “I’ve been doing so well.”
I also knew from the past that my willpower teetered on a slippery slope. If I started breaking the rules–willy nilly eating donuts–soon I’d be forgetting to floss, skipping my daily supplements, and sleeping in instead of getting up to exercise. Once the slide started, who knows, I might not be able to arrest my descent. Before long I’d be slugging bourbon straight from the bottle while I lay on the couch and watched daytime television, my kids having to beg rides home from other more responsible mothers. I’d be one giant heap at the bottom of the hill, all because of a single bite of donut.
I was strong that day, and didn’t give in. Unfortunately, my donut craving did not go away. In fact, it took on a life of its own. After our National Donut Day celebration, I thought about eating a donut almost every day. Which is strange since prior to my diet restrictions, I never really cared for donuts that much–could pass them up without a second thought. But here I was, every afternoon my willpower tested anew as I resisted turning right instead of left.
This baffled me. I am not a weak person especially when I set my mind to something. I am also very well-versed in why those donuts are extremely bad for me, and I kept expecting my intellect to override these base donut desires. I’d read that new habits are established when followed faithfully for 30 days, but I’d been on this gluten-free diet for almost two years, and resisting baked goods hadn’t gotten any easier. In fact, my desire for cake, cookies, and muffins had magnified along with a pervasive sense of denial.
Not long after National Donut Day, I picked up Elizabeth Berg’s short story collection The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted. In the title story, Berg’s character decided she’d had it with dieting after a frustrating experience at a morning Weight Watchers meeting. She then did what I’d been wanting to do since June, she drove straight to the donut shop. But instead of choosing just one donut, she had the counter help fill a large pink bakery box with every donut that struck her fancy. “A bow tie, a chocolate-frosted cake, a Key lime, a powdered cake, a Boston Creme, a lemon bark, a maple-frosted, a coffee roll, a maple-frosted coffee roll, a cranberry muffin . . .” Then she took her box of donuts, and in the privacy of her car, ate one bite from each one. She washed it down with an extra-large coffee. Lots of cream.
I read of her willpower collapse with my mouth hanging open. I was secretly thrilled by her slide and shocked by the wasteful, self-indulgence, both which railed deliciously against all the rules in my brain. After finishing Berg’s story, my willpower was at an all-time low–instead of just wanting one donut, I wanted a box of donuts. I had to hold myself in check with an iron fist, making me feel even more miserable and deprived.
I was at the point where I thought I might as well start stocking up on bourbon, when a friend emailed me an article entitled “Recharge Your Motivation” by Richard Laliberte. (Ironically, the article was posted by the Weight Watcher’s site.) According to the latest research findings, willpower has nothing to do with your strength of character, and it isn’t a trait that some people have and others don’t. Actually, the battle of the slippery slope is fought out all day long between two parts of our brain. The subcortical brain, our rewards and emotion center, wants that donut at any cost. “It’s been a bad day. You deserve a treat. What harm is there in one little donut. You can start again tomorrow.” The prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain for higher thinking and goal setting, says, “Don’t give in. You can do it.” According to researcher Kathleen Vohs, “People only indulge in 17 percent of the desires they decide to resist.”
The major misconception that most people have about willpower, myself included, is that they think the more they use it, the more they will be able to stay on track. But the newest studies have found the exact opposite to be true. Vohs refers to our willpower as a “resource” that can become depleted, similar to a muscle that can become fatigued from overuse and eventually just give out. Stay on a restrictive diet for too long and eventually you are going to end up face planted in a box of donuts.
Unfortunately, diets are the least of it. Our willpower, which is at its highest in the morning after a night of rest, is depleted bit by bit as we face normal daily stressors. Every time we resist yelling at the neighborhood dog who keeps using the front lawn as a pit stop, abstain from cussing out the driver who wouldn’t let us change lanes, or stop ourselves from acting annoyed when our coworker misses yet another deadline, we are using up valuable willpower energy. Add a dozen more stressful situations per hour where we have to resist throwing a toddler tantrum–technology breakdowns, miscommunications that lead to misunderstandings, and too little time to do too much work–and it is pretty easy to understand how our willpower is shot by mid afternoon. No wonder we toss our tennis shoes in the back seat, zip right past the gym, and spend the evening snapping at kids and spouse alike for minor misdemeanors as we throw a frozen pizza in the oven defiantly ignoring the vegetables in the crisper.
Just to complicate things further, tests have shown that the mental energy used to deal with stress and to sustain willpower is fueled by glucose. When our glucose stores, which come from food, get low, so does our ability to keep our desires under control. That is why we end up standing at the pantry eating the four Snickers bars left over from Halloween that were hidden behind the mustard. Our primal instinct to restore glucose levels is so powerful that we may not even be aware of what we are doing until the wrappers lay crumpled and empty at our feet.
The good news is that just like a muscle, willpower can be restored and even strengthened if given ample time to rest and replenish. Encouraged and empowered by these latest willpower findings, I have come up with some ideas to help keep myself comfortably at the top of the slope rather than always teetering on the edge.
One Goal at a Time Instead of compiling a list of five or six goals that will kickstart a new life, focus on just one goal at a time so willpower is not strained.
Make Goals Small and Reasonable Instead of extreme goals (give up all caffeine, exercise one hour a day, never eat sugar again), create smaller, more reasonable goals that will make success obtainable. (And also help avoid failure stress and the all-or-nothing slide.)
Avoid Willpower Challenges in the Afternoon and Evening Since willpower is weakest towards the end of the day, try to avoid pitfalls such as baking a big batch of cookies in the afternoon. Try to eliminate late day stressors as much as possible, and schedule exercise for the morning hours when research shows that follow-thru is more likely.
Make a Trip to the Donut Shop Now and Then Make a point to celebrate a proverbial National Donut Day. Once a month, or better yet, once a week, plan little rewards for the 83 percent of the time that willpower succeeds. Take a day off from exercise or dieting. Schedule time for a venti latte with a friend or to watch episodes of a favorite sitcom. Allow self-control muscles to take a well-deserved break so to rest and regenerate. Most importantly, make it a celebration instead of a slip. Indulge freely without a smidgeon of stress-inducing guilt.
In case you were wondering, National Donut Day 2013 is June 7. I have it on my calendar. It is going to be a big celebration that will require a large pink box full of donuts. I’ll take a picture. Or better yet, I’ll meet you at Hing’s.