Tempted by that doughnut How telling yourself 'I'll eat it later' will prevent you from overindulging
There is, it seems, one case where procrastination can be a good thing.
Portuguese scientists have found that postponing an unhealthy pleasure – like a bowl of M&Ms – is a way to build up self-control.
Junk food urges are quelled by putting off eating until an unspecified time – and by resisting the initial period of strong temptation, it becomes easier and easier to turn down a food, say researchers at the Catolica-Lisbon School of Business and Economics in Portugal.
Resisting the urge: Scientists found that by putting off eating junk food, the temptation to eat it at all is reduced with lasting effect
Rather than focusing on delayed gratification or denial of a treat, the strategy helps individuals to overcome the moment of intense desire when it is easiest to give into the appeal of a fresh cupcake or a warm doughnut.
'[Postponement] really keeps the temptation at
arm's length,' study researcher and psychologist Nicole Mead, told Live Science, after the results were presented to the Society for Personality and Social Psychology.
As part of her team's research, study participants were divided into three groups. One group was told they could help themselves from the bowls of M&Ms provided, another was asked not to eat any at all and the third group was told they would be able to eat some candy later, reports the science site.
Later, when students believed the experiment had finished, they were given free reign over the M&Ms.
The difference in the three groups' approaches to the candy was clear – those who had been forced to abstain gorged themselves, devouring 9.81 grams, those who had already eaten as many sweets as they liked ate a further 5.19 grams and those who had been told they would eventually have some candy only ate a small amount, just 5.08 grams.
Compounding their findings, the effects seemed to last: Those in the postponement group ate M&Ms just 1.15 times over the following week, compared to 4.48 times for the group who had been denied M&Ms and 3.18 times for those who had eaten the candy as they pleased.
'You need the resistance at the moment of peak desire, then the peak desire moment passes'
The strategy seems to work by overcoming temptation, Roy Baumeister told LiveScience. The Florida State University psychologist said: 'You need the resistance at the moment of peak desire, then the peak desire moment passes.'
Not only does the technique have lasting effects, but the results were the same – as proven by a later experiment where the researchers gave potato chips to Dutch school children – whether postponement had been forced onto individuals or chosen.
And by turning a food down, it appears to become easier to say no repeatedly, possibly because people start to approach the food differently, as if they no longer like that food.
'It seems that every time they encounter it again, they desire it less and less,' Ms Mead said.
As long as that moment of peak desire is overcome, with no specific 'treat time' the strategy, they found, appears to hold true.
Unfortunately, the postponement technique may not be a silver bullet for dieters. The researcher explained to the site that fixating on avoiding the food may simply keep the temptation constantly in mind.