How to have your cake … and not eat it! A new book reveals the secrets of self-control and making those New Years Resolutions last

How to have your cake … and not eat it! A new book reveals the secrets of self-control and making those New Year’s Resolutions last


It”s that time of year again: when we swear we”ll eat more healthily, work out regularly, stop smoking, and get our finances under control

Yes, it’s that time of year again: when we swear we’ll eat more healthily, work out regularly, stop smoking, and get our finances under control. Unfortunately, as we all know, it can be incredibly difficult to stick to any New Year’s resolutions for more than a week or two.

But a fascinating new book, written by American psychologist Kelly McGonigal of Stanford University, seems set to change all that. Bringing together all the latest research on self-control, it sets out to explain how we can break destructive habits and create healthy new ones, conquer procrastination and manage stress.

McGonigal says we can all make a success of our New Year’s resolutions if we change the way we think about — and learn the secrets of — willpower.

‘Now more than ever, people realise that willpower —– the ability to control their attention, emotions and desires —– influences their physical health, financial security, relationships and professional success,’ she says.

‘And yet, most people feel like willpower failures most of the time —– in control one moment, but overwhelmed and out of control the next. Many feel guilty about letting themselves and others down. Even the best-controlled feel a kind of exhaustion at keeping it all together and wonder if life is supposed to be such a struggle.’

After years of watching people wrestle with these problems, McGonigal realised that much of what we believe about willpower sabotages our success and creates unnecessary stress. So she decided to write a book — bringing together the newest insights about self-control from psychology, economics, neuroscience and medicine. If you want to make a change in your life this year, these strategies can help them become a reality.


Psychologists at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, were stunned by the results of their recent research into a new treatment for enhancing self-control. After two months on their willpower ‘treatment programme’, the six men and 18 women had substantially reduced their smoking, drinking and caffeine intake — even though the researchers hadn’t asked them to. They were eating more healthily, they were spending less time watching TV and more time studying.

They were saving money and spending less on impulse purchases. They felt more in control of their emotions. They even procrastinated less and were less likely to be late for appointments. Incredible. So what exactly is this miracle willpower drug and where can you get a prescription, you ask Well, the programme didn’t involve drugs at all. The willpower ‘miracle’ was simply small amounts of physical exercise.

The participants, none of whom exercisedregularly before the intervention, were given free gym membership and encouraged to make good use of it. They exercised on average just once aweek for the first month, but were working out up to three times per week by the end of the two-month study. The researchers did not ask themto make any other changes in their routines, and yet the exercise programme seemed to spark astonishing new-found strength and self-control in all aspects of their lives.

The next time you

The next time you”re feeling stressed and about to reach for chocolate, cigarettes, drink or your store card, look for another form of stress relief

Exercise turns out to be the closest thing to a wonder drug that self-control researchers have discovered — and the benefits of exercise are immediate. Just 15 minutes on a treadmill has been shown to reduce cravings — studies have proved dieters are less tempted to eat and smokers less likely to give into cigarettes if they keep fit. But the long-term effects of exercise not only relieve ordinary, everyday stress — it’s been shown to be as powerful an antidepressant as the drug Prozac.


In addition to taking more physical exercise, if you consciously use small amounts of self-control on a daily basis you’ll soon be able to master your bigger goals, say researchers. For example, one willpower-training programme asked participants to create and meet small, self-imposed deadlines. You can try this for yourself with any task you’ve been putting off, such as cleaning out your wardrobe, for example.

When the willpower trainees set this simple kind of schedule for themselves over a period of two months, not only did wardrobes get cleared and projects get completed, but they also improved their diets, exercised more and cut back on cigarettes, alcohol and caffeine.

Other studies have found that committingto small, consistent act of self-control — improving your posture, having breakfast every day, cutting back on sweets, or keeping track of your spending — can increase willpower. Andwhile these small self-control exercises may seem inconsequential, theyappear to improve the bigger willpower challenges, including focusing at work, taking good care of our health, resisting temptation and feeling more in control of our emotions.


Whenwe want permission to indulge, we’ll take any hint of virtue as a justification. To see this in action, you don’t have to look any furtherthan dinner. Studies show that people who order a main dish advertised as a healthy choice also order more indulgent drinks, side dishes and desserts. Although their goal is to be healthy, they end up consuming more calories than people who order a regular main course.

Glucose, found in foods such as orange juice, is one of the key ingredients your brain needs for effective self-control


The most commonly used strategies for dealing with stress are those that activate the brain’s reward system: eating, drinking, shopping, watching TV, surfing the internet and playing video games. And why not It’s only natural that we turn to the things that cause a release of dopamine (the neuro-transmitter in the brain that creates feelings of craving and desire) when we want to feel better.

Unfortunately, the things we turn to for comfort often end up turning on us. In surveys on stress, the most commonly used strategies are also rated as highly ineffective by the same people who report using them. For example, only 16 per cent of people who eat to reduce stress report that it actually helps them. Another study found that women will often go shopping when they are worried about their finances, but the only reliable change in mood they experience from their drug of choice is an increase in guilt.

While many of the most popular stress-relief strategies fail to make us feel better, there are strategies that really work. According to the American Psychological Association, the most effective stress-relievers are exercising or playing sports, reading, listening to music, spending time with friends or family, getting a massage, going outside for a walk, meditating or doing yoga, and spending time on a creative hobby.

The least effective are gambling, shopping, smoking, drinking, eating, playing video games, surfing the net, and watching TV for more than two hours. The next time you’re feeling stressed and about to reach for a chocolate bar, cigarette, drink or your store card, try one of the stress relievers above instead.


Ok, so you’ve eaten an entire packet of biscuits, smoked ten cigarettes or been late for work twice this week. Don’t give up on your resolution. Everybody experiences setbacks — you just need to learn how to handle them.

The following exercise is recommended by psychologists to help people find a more self-compassionate response to failure. Research shows that taking this point of view reduces guilt but increases personal accountability — the perfect combination to get you back on track with your willpower challenge:

Think about how you feel. Ask yourself if you are being overly self-critical.
Remember you’re only human. Everyone struggles with willpower challenges and everyone sometimes loses control. Can you think of other people you respect and care about who have experienced similar struggles and setbacks This perspective can soften the voice of self-doubt.
What would you say to a friend Consider how you would comfort a friend who experienced the same setback. This perspective will point the way to getting back on track.

Extracted from MAXIMUM WILLPOWER by Kelly McGonigal, to be published by Macmillan on January 5 at 11.99. Kelly McGonigal 2012 To order a copy for 9.99 (p&p free), call 0843 382 0000.