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Practical Dieting Tip: Delay, Don't Deny, Temptation

The journey to lose weight is complex, and often with more struggle than success. That's why there are thousands of 'miracle' diets, 5-minute workout plans, and mountains of self-help books and blogs. The combination of mental, physical and emotional changes to often long-held habits aren't usually solved by anything quick and easy.

Recently, we suggested that focusing on starting new habits instead of the specifics of a diet might be a good approach. Unfortunately, even that can be a complicated thing to grasp.

But what if you could start building willpower to change habits by doing something small? What if by actually letting yourself say "yes" to that dessert, cheeseburger or candy bar could be the small way to start making gains?

Delay Gratification By 10 Minutes

If you break it down, every aspect of losing weight...whether cutting calories or burning more..comes down to self-control. The big problem with willpower is that you often can't predict when or where you'll need it. That's what makes "the 10-minute delay" rule (as it's called by Kelly McGonial, author of The Willpower Instinct) such a powerful idea that you put into practice right away.

So what is the 10-minute delay rule?

Simply put, it is delaying the physical/mental gratification of anything counterproductive to your efforts such as weight loss/dieting by just waiting 10 minutes before giving in to the temptation to eat that cupcake or deciding you're definitely not going to the gym.

Wait, but even if I wait 10 minutes before I eat the cupcake, I still eat the cupcake. How does that help?

woman looking at vending machine

In the immediate term, even a short delay in gratification reduces your anxiety specifically because you aren't telling yourself "no."

If, after the 10 minutes, you still want to do it, do it! Even if you do, you've subliminally reexamined your immediate reward system and have shifted the power back to your brain's self-control system. Even after a few failures, immediate gratification has now become a future reward.

Sounds great, but it will feel like the longest 10 minutes of my life.

Perhaps, but you can not only keep yourself preoccupied, but use this time effectively by doing things such as creating a positive distraction (like giving someone a call), reading an article on your phone, or getting a quick chore done.

Even better, think about the long-term reward of your weight loss (or any goal) efforts by picturing your future self as already yours.

A good example of how this works is a study known as the "Marshmallow Tests" done by Columbia University to understand willpower. They put four-year-olds in a room, alone, with marshmallows or cookies. They were told they could have two of them if they waited until the researcher returned.

Spoiler alert: plenty of the kids only held out a few minutes (even seconds) and snatched the treats but some did wait until the researcher came back to the room. The difference between the kids, they learned, was distraction. The kids who held out sang songs, counted outloud, or twirled their hair. You can watch below for more.

What next?

Though ten minutes doesn't sound like it is enough time to make a difference, by keeping with it consistently, it could grow. Your brain starts seeing the temptation as a future reward instead of the immediate gratification. The overwhelming feelings of urgency begin to lessen and ten minutes can turn into 15 minutes, 20 minutes, 60 minutes, and potentially how ever long you want at some point.