No Willpower During the Holidays? “Flexible Thinking” Can Help.

by | Updated: November 19th, 2022 | Read time: 5 minutes

If you’ve got a black-and-white approach to diet and fitness, especially during the holidays, blame collective culture. I hate using the word blame, but a zero-sum approach to most things leads to disappointment, if not failure, plus I’ve got a scientist with a bunch of credentials on my side.

Woman Drinking Coffee on Couch Practicing Flexible Thinking to Stay in Control of Wellness

“As a society, we’ve been taught that we should exercise in prescribed intensities and amounts, and eat ‘doses’ of food,” says psychologist and health-behavior expert Michelle Segar, director of University of Michigan’s Sport, Health, and Activity Research and Policy Center, and author of The Joy Choice: How to Finally Achieve Lasting Changes in Eating and Exercise. “This very precise formula is the primary reason so many of us tend to believe if I can’t do it ‘right’ then it’s not worth doing at all.”

The healthcare industry, “where precise research is conducted,” contributes to this misconception, as do the fitness and diet industries, which are “full of claims that if we do it ‘right’ — their way — we’ll lose weight, get fit and healthier,” Segar says.

But there’s no single ‘right’ formula for good living, and strict guidelines don’t leave room for reality.

“Much of the time, our plans become unworkable due to unanticipated needs from our many life areas,” Segar says. “So if we come to those frequent points with all-or-nothing thinking, there is only one option: Do nothing.”

Doing nothing makes us feel like failures, plus inaction means we’re not making any sort of progress. “After a couple ‘nothing’ responses, many just give up — until the next time they start this vicious cycle,” Segar says. “That’s why we need a more adaptive approach, one that can survive the frequent turbulence our eating or exercise plans encounter.”

Being adaptive is surprisingly accessible, part of who we are.

“It’s important to consider that our brain’s executive functioning evolved for us to be flexible and pivot when we need to,” Segar says. “Something unexpected at home, at work, with our kid’s schooling requires that we operate with flexible thinking. Yet, when it comes to our eating and exercise projects we bring rigid, high-stakes thinking that doesn’t just stress us out, it too often guides us to do nothing.”

What’s more, Segar notes, research on eating and exercise suggests that applying flexible thinking to challenges and special occasions is associated with better behavioral outcomes, including weight-loss maintenance.

How to practice flexible thinking 

Segar’s 3-step process, “POP!,” makes setbacks workable. Here’s how to put POP! into practice this holiday season:

Holiday situation: You’re at a party that doesn’t have food on your eating plan.

1. Pause

How to: Take a few breaths, recognize that you’re at a specific occasion, and focus your attention on the goal to pivot and problem solve in the next step.

Why it works: Pausing and taking a few deep breaths supports your working-memory executive function, which gives you space needed to refocus and respond tactically to the obstacle your plan encountered.

“This preps thinking for the next strategic step,” Segar says.

2. Open up your options and play

How to: Think compromise instead of succeed/fail.

“The stakes are not high because you are in charge, and there’s so many ways you can play with this situation,” Segar says. “What food options would help you feel like you’re participating in the celebration? Is there a way to sample one or a few, so while you’re participating you’re still honoring your current eating plan? If you participate in this celebration through eating, do you want to change how you eat later or tomorrow to give you a sense of respecting your eating plan?”

Why it works: Pivoting is more productive than being obdurate because it empowers you to get curious about options. Playing with alternatives when you hit roadblocks cultivates creative thinking and problem solving.

“The goal of this step isn’t to get it ‘right’ but to generate possibilities,” Segar says.

3. Pick the “Joy Choice”

How to: Proceed with moderation. For example, eat one slice of pizza instead of three.

Why it works: It provides momentum, keeping you on pace toward your greater goals.

Otherwise, in an all-or-nothing state, you either think to heck with it, toss your whole plan, and go hog wild, something you’ll likely regret. Or you stick to your plan through gritted teeth, which will make you resentful and unhappy, leading to repercussions. “You’d rebel against this rigidity and reclaim your freedom to eat ‘whatever I damn well please!’ and eat much more than you really want,” Segar says.

The Joy Choice “gives us grace, redefining success away from ideals to the perfect imperfect option that keeps us moving forward, despite and through the challenges, keeping us on the path of lasting change,” Segar says. “It’s also called the Joy Choice because when we make a decision, no matter how small or whether it’s a ‘compromise,’ we are literally fueling ourselves for the people and projects we care most about. That converts a simple decision into something that brings meaning and purpose, once we learn to see it in this way.”

Mitra Malek writes and edits content related to wellness.

Featured Products

Natural Vitality Natural Calm
Bach Original Flower Remedies Clarity Of Mind
Himalaya Hello Peace