As 2017 approaches, it’s natural to think about things we would like to change in the new year. In other words, we think of ways to improve ourselves. Many plans for self-improvement require long-term self-control. Losing weight, for example, may require a diet in which for weeks or months we deny ourselves delicious but high-calorie foods and endure hunger pangs without relenting. Fitness requires regular exercise, meaning we have to get on the treadmill or elliptical machine over and over despite our aversion to breaking a sweat. Improving blood pressure may require a tasteless low-salt diet; completing projects may require reducing social media use and turning off our cell phones for periods of time.
Self-control is no fun, of course. Whatever we have decided to give up tends to become more appealing to us. We get grumpy, and our motivation gradually erodes. Often as not, there is eventually a lapse, followed by a “failure cascade.” “What the heck,” we think. “I’ve already had one cookie, so I’ve broken my diet. Why not have a few more while I’m at it?”
A recent study proposes that we can short-circuit this pattern of good intentions followed by misery, hopelessness, weakened motivation, and guilt-producing relapse by planning to cheat right from the start. A recent article in the Atlantic describes a paper by scientists in Portugal and the Netherlands reporting on three studies into the effect of planned cheat days. In the most significant of the studies, participants were either put on a 1,500-calorie per day diet or a 1,300-calorie per day diet with a 2,700-calorie splurge day at the end of each week. As the Atlantic reports, “Those who had the cheat day reported they were better able to sustain their motivation and self-control than those who ate the same amount each day.”
The study was only for two weeks, and there wasn’t a difference between the groups in the amount of weight lost, so this seems to be one of those findings that needs to be substantiated by further research. Still, even if outcomes between approaches are the same but having planned cheat days improves my mood and helps me feel better about myself, including them in self-improvement plans would be wise.
The strategy of using cheat days is probably only useful for those areas of our lives in which exercising self-control is still taking quite a bit of effort. In my case, I don’t feel any need to have cheat days in the areas of exercising or following a vegetarian (actually pescetarian) diet; I’ve done those things so long, I don’t feel tempted to do anything different. Restricting sweets, on the other hand, still is work for me, and I would welcome a cheat day now and then. As a matter of fact, now that I’m thinking about planned times to cheat, I’m starting to plan which would be the best days for me to indulge a bit!
So, dieters, exercisers, and other self-deniers! Plan to take some cheat days! You’ll be happier (though not necessarily more successful) for it!