Throughout almost every discussion around goal setting I can recall, there seem to be a few recurring phrases that get thrown about as to why someone hasn't achieved what they want in the past, particularly when it comes to food. Self-discipline, or a lack thereof, is one of these phrases.
I used to think that self discipline was the be all and end all too. I even remember a time in high school when I had the super cringeworthy idea of getting something that resembled self-discipline as a tattoo without understanding what it really is (it looked terrible too, thank god I didn't have the self discipline to stick to that one!).
But no, from my experience helping people get stronger, get healthier and lose fat, it has become clear that self-discipline isn't the holy answer we are looking for. Why?...
Because Self-Discipline is a Finite Resource.
Self-discipline isn't something we can pluck from thin air and suddenly use to make every decision for us. If we could we would be doing it already, we simply don't have that much. Look at our food choices, especially when we are emotional or bored, our brains are too clever at getting what it wants by convincing us we need either sweet, sugary, crunchy or oily, calorie dense foods. So what's the answer for this? How do we use the seemingly little self-disciple we do have to our advantage?... Plan and prepare.
When it comes to fat loss in particular, planning and preparing are huge factors at being successful. If we don't, we go for the easy option.
At the end of a long day at work it's likely your body is tired, you're mentally drained and you're in need of calories. Being that you're so tired, it's also likely you don't want to have to work too hard for them, so the result is usually that we choose foods that are packaged up and easy to eat in a hurry.
Sidenote. Not all packaged foods are created equal and there are some good options out there, but that's not what we're talking about here.
By planning and preparing, we can anticipate that feeling at the end of the day and have the right kinds of foods ready and waiting for you, with the main difference being that they're good for you and you were the one who cooked them just a day or two prior!
You'll hear people in the gym scene talk about food prep all the time, because it works. You also hear people congratulating them for having so much self-discipline, and to an extent I would agree but here's why I think it's not all that it is.
You see, eating out of Tupperware containers isn't where the self-discipline lies, the real self-discipline took place earlier when they followed the following three steps:
Plan your meals for the week (breakfasts, lunches, dinners, snacks)
Go to the shops (buying only the foods that are needed for the plan)
Cook and divide into meals for the week
Eating the food is the easy part, if you've planned well they'll be foods that you can enjoy but also fit in with your goals. So, when you're home from work and you don't have the energy to cook, your fridge and pantry are stocked with foods ready for you to enjoy without throwing you off target.
To take this a step further and really take charge of this whole self-discipline thing, create a set of rules for yourself that are simple and easy to follow. Such rules would mean that you can say no to things that don't fit with them. I'd recommend starting by simply designating a day for your planning, shopping and prep work (Sunday typically works best for most but you decide based on your schedule). Once you've got this down pat begin to build upon it with small realistic changes, future you will thank you for it.
You can't eat crappy foods if they're not in your home. Jon Berardi from Precision Nutrition calls it his first law, if there is food in your home, it will get eaten either by you or someone you love. So don't rely on your self discipline when you need it for other things, keep healthy foods close by that you enjoy!
I want to stress to you (and one that I'll repeat often) is that if you find yourself eating junk that you know isn't going to get you to your goals, don't stress! You're not a bad person, you're not a failure, you're not going to be punished. Just take a moment to refocus on getting back on track with your next meal. That's it, just focus on what's next.
If you're driving along and you puncture one tyre, would you go ahead and puncture the other three? No. Instead you'll go about changing it so you can be on your way.
To round off, when people tell me they're lacking discipline I would argue that they're actually lacking preparation. The discipline and the desire to achieve their goal is there otherwise they wouldn't be in front of me having a conversation. Whilst exercising self-discipline is important, you can't rely on it to magically appear when things get tough and you're tired. What you should focus on instead is creating a routine or structure with a few simple rules for yourself that prioritise the thing you're struggling really with, preparation.
If you would like to discuss this further please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll happily talk to you about some options to help get you going.