Cognitive Behavioral Strategies

Lynne S. Gots, Ph.D.
Licensed Psychologist

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202-331-1566

2440 M Street, NW
Suite 710
Washington, DC 20037

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Why You Don’t Need Willpower to Change a Habit

By Lynne Gots, posted on December 27th, 2017.

There’s no shortage of advice this time of year about eating clean and getting ripped. And while the prospect of a new you in the new year can be seductive, especially after a month of overindulgence, I’m not a fan of restrictive diets or New Year’s resolutions. They simply don’t work over the long haul.

Any rigid regimen carries with it the whiff of deprivation, of restraint, of saying “no” when your mind wants you to say “yes.” The key, we’re told, is willpower.

Just say no. Just do it.

Let’s be real. If it were so easy to turn away from that donut or force yourself out the door on a dark, frigid January morning to go to spinning class, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.

We know from research that willpower is a limited resource. Over time, with repeated use, it becomes depleted, just like any energy source. And the moments when we most need it—say, after a stressful workday at Happy Hour when the margaritas are $5 and the queso and chips beckon—it’s gone.

So I suggest changing the narrative. It’s too easy to throw in the towel when you tell yourself, “I don’t have any willpower.” Those words render you powerless in the face of overwhelming forces beyond your control.

Instead of recruiting willpower to help you pursue your goals, consider building willingness power.

Willingness starts with motivation. Begin by looking at the costs and benefits of the behavior you want to change. If you want to improve your diet, for instance (notice I didn’t say “eat clean”), pay particular attention to what you get from the undesired habit. The costs will be readily apparent to you. But the benefits? Not so much.

To get you started, here are some real-life examples of the benefits of overeating (continuing to eat past the point of satiety or even to discomfort) I’ve heard over the years:

  • It relaxes me.
  • I enjoy the taste of food.
  • It keeps me from feeling bored/ lonely.
  • It’s social.
  • I don’t like rules.
  • I deserve a reward.
  • It passes the time.

Then look at the costs (I’ll bet you won’t have any trouble coming up with a long list) and review them daily or more frequently if necessary. Remind yourself why it’s worth it to forego all the positive associations with the behavior you want to change in order to achieve your goal.

In a nutshell, willingness means being open to feeling short-term discomfort for long-term gain. It’s a useful skill to cultivate, and not just for sticking with a diet or exercise plan but for all the challenges life brings.

So in 2018, ditch the idea of willpower and practice willingness power. You’ll be laying a more solid foundation for success.




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Posted in Goals, Motivation, Techniques |

How to Stop Being Your Own Worst Enemy and Start Getting Things Done

By Lynne Gots, posted on January 15th, 2014.

Even though I don’t think New Year’s resolutions work, I’m still a sucker for the kinds of self-improvement lists popping up everywhere this time of year. “Five foods you should never eat!”  “The only three exercises you’ll ever need!” “The ten best breakfasts for fat burn!” Even my own recommendations for modifying a morning routine turned up in the latest issue of Working Mother Magazine condensed by the journalist who interviewed me into three ways to “Change a Habit, Change Your Day.”

I’m clearly not the only one irresistably drawn to quick fixes. So here’s another list.

My Five Favorite Tips for Becoming More Productive

1)    Don’t wait for motivation to strike.

You don’t have to feel motivated to start. Momentum builds from action, so do something. Anything. Once you take the first step, it gets easier.

2)    Stop fooling yourself.

Think you’ll do it later? Think again. Get started now because it will never happen later.

3)    Make a daily To Do list.

And then cut it by two-thirds. There’s nothing more daunting than a long list of tasks you’ll never finish. Pick a few items you know you can complete in one day. You can always add more if you have time.

4)    Do the hard stuff first.

It’s tempting to get started on the easy, mindless tasks but by the time you get around to the more difficult ones, you’ll have run out of steam (see #2). Motivation researchers have shown we have limited stores of willpower. So jump in and tackle the big challenges first, before your willpower dwindles.

 5)    Reward yourself.

You may think your day is already front-loaded with too many pleasurable activities (watching cute kitty videos on YouTube, playing Candy Crush Saga, searching home design sites for the perfect ottoman, reading political blogs, making Fantasy Football trades, sneaking in an episode of your favorite TV series). But you’re probably using those as distractions, not rewards. Do the time-wasters after you’ve finished a task and they’ll become motivators instead of sources of guilt. You’ll either enjoy them more or discover the limitations of their appeal, thereby freeing up time to explore new (and possibly more meaningful) leisure pursuits.

So test out my suggestions. If they work, you may never need to make another New Year’s resolution again.




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Posted in Behavior Change, Motivation, procrastination, Self-help, Techniques |

Willpower Failures: When Good Intentions and Outside Forces Collide

By Lynne Gots, posted on July 7th, 2013.

I just cleaned out the fridge. No more unidentifiable slimy greens in the vegetable crisper, shriveled limes in the fruit bin, and molding jars of pickled okra and salsa on the shelves. I’m planning a roasted eggplant dip and cucumber salad for dinner tonight to use up the last of this week’s CSA produce.

I was feeling pretty virtuous until I opened the freezer. Sharing space with the plastic containers of precooked beans, quinoa, and brown rice, alongside the loaves of artisian whole-grain bread, were three half-gallons of ice cream, three pints of premium gelato (there had been four until I polished one off last night—“to free up shelf space”) and three pints of frozen yogurt. I’d purchased one of the gelatos and one of the frozen yogurts. My husband had stockpiled the rest.

He’s pretty health-conscious most of the time, avoiding excess salt, eating massive salads every night, and eschewing red meat. Formerly a cooked vegetable hater, he’s even become a devotee of roasted Brussels sprouts and kale. So how to explain his frozen dessert hoarding habit?

I found the answer in a New York Times article, “Why Healthy Eaters Fall for Fries.” Several studies of consumer choices in fast-food restaurants found that posting calorie information did little to reduce calorie consumption overall. In fact, at Subway, people actually ate higher calorie meals despite reading the nutritional information, possibly because the chain offerred a $5 special on footlong subs.

Behaviorial economists conclude that good intentions take a back seat to economic incentives when we’re choosing what to order in a restaurant. That also seems to be what’s going on when my husband shops at the Giant. When I’ve asked him to cut back on buying ice cream because I end up eating more of it than he does, he says, “But it was on sale. Two for the price of one!”

I can’t get upset with him. It’s not his fault. Behavioral economics made him do it.

So I guess I don’t have to beat myself up either for lacking the willpower to eat fruit for dessert instead of gelato. And for not choosing the frozen yogurt—which, as I said, is in ample supply in my freezer and would be a lower calorie option. Because another study of consumer behavior found that people presented with a range of healthy, neutral, and unhealthy menu items most often went for the unhealthy foods.

As psychologists do, the researcher coined a term to explain the tendency to make a nutritionally unsound decision when more nutritious choices are available:  “vicarious goal fulfillment.” Just seeing the healthy menu options apparently makes us feel healthier and thus gives us the license to overindulge.

So the next time I’m tucking into a bowl of Talenti caramel cookie crunch, I won’t blame myself for my lack of willpower. And I might even top it with a dollop of whipped cream and a drizzle of chocolate syrup.

Because I’ll know it’s just a case of vicarious goal fulfillment.




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Posted in General, Mental Health and the Media, Motivation |

This blog is intended solely for the purpose of entertainment and education. All remarks are meant as general information and should not be taken as personal diagnostic or therapeutic advice. If you choose to comment on a post, please do not include any information that could identify you as a patient or potential patient. Also, please refrain from making any testimonials about me or my practice, as my professional code of ethics does not permit me to publish such statements. Comments that I deem inappropriate for this forum will not be published.

Contact Dr. Gots

202-331-1566

2440 M Street, NW
Suite 710
Washington, DC 20037

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If you don't receive a response to an email from Dr. Gots in 48 hours, please call the office and leave a voicemail message.

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