One of the best parts of the holiday season has got to be the food – there's eggnog to be glugged, cheeses to be sampled and sweets to be devoured. The worst part? The regret you feel when you've consumed far more than you had intended.
What can you do to resist eating the entire cookie platter, or reaching for that third helping of stuffing?
First of all, forget any techniques you may have heard about for strengthening your willpower. Dr. Marina Milyavskaya, assistant professor in the department of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, says there's contradicting evidence these days about whether it's possible to increase one's self-control in the first place.
"There's some evidence that suggests you can, but how exactly and what works? … Researchers are still trying to tease that apart," she says, explaining there's also been a lot of controversy lately about the notion that willpower is a finite resource that gets depleted the more you try to hold out.
Sadly, she says, your best bet is to avoid putting yourself in situations where your self-control will be tested.
"Set up your environment in such a way that you're not faced with these temptations because at that point [when you encounter them] … it's almost like you've lost already," she says. "So don't buy that big bag of cookies. Don't leave them out on your counter."
But of course, avoiding temptation is easier said than done, especially during holiday gatherings. So Milyavskaya suggests making a plan for situations where you'll likely face your kryptonite. For instance, if you've got a weakness for your Aunt Joyce's four-cheese macaroni casserole, plan to have one serving instead of letting your desire be the guide. The more you plan for such scenarios, the more likely it'll become habitual, she says.
"What you're really trying to do is build good habits, be pro-active about it, and so these sort of plans can do that," she says.
And consider why you're exercising restraint in the first place, she advises. Research consistently shows you're more likely to reach goals that you pursue for "want-to" reasons, compared with those you pursue because you "have to." In other words, you stand a better chance of succeeding if the goal is something you value, enjoy or is personally important, she says.
It's the difference between stopping yourself from binging because you don't want to feel too sluggish to take the family tobogganing afterward and doing it because you think you should. If delving into that shortbread buffet truly brings you joy? Well, you may as well shed the guilt and savour it. Willpower be damned.