3 Tips for Avoiding Weight Gain Over the Holidays

The holidays are a difficult time for those of us who both enjoy eating and worry about our waistlines.  Chances are good that if you overindulged a bit at Thanksgiving, you are now looking ahead to the month of December with a wary eye – only too aware of the minefield of cookie platters, holiday parties, family dinners, and gift baskets that you will have to somehow navigate.

You know from experience that you cannot get through these trying times on willpower alone.  So here are three very simple and proven-effective motivational strategies for ending up in your current pant size on January 1st.

Tip 1:  Acknowledge That You Probably Can’t Have Just One. According to the laws of physics, bodies in motion tend to stay in motion, unless something acts to stop them.  Well, the same thing can be said about human behavior, too - including eating.

Your actions have a kind of inertia – once you start doing something, it often takes more self-control to stop than it does to just avoid doing it in the first place.  And it gets harder to stop the longer the behavior goes on.  So it’s easier to be abstinent if you stop at the first kiss, rather than letting things get hot and heavy.  And it’s a lot easier to pass on the potato chips entirely, rather than just eat one or two.

Stopping before you start is an excellent strategy to keep your need for willpower to a minimum.  Consider cutting out all between-meal snacking over the holidays.  The fewer times you start eating each day, the less you’ll have to worry about stopping.

Tip 2:  Set VERY Specific Limits. Before you get anywhere near the cookie platter, the fruit cake, or the cheese plate, think about how much you can afford to eat without over-indulging.  Decide, in advance, exactly how much of any particular holiday treat you will allow yourself for dessert, or at the Christmas party.

The problem with most plans, including diet plans, is that they are not nearly specific enough.  We plan to “be good,” or “not eat too much,” but what does that mean, exactly?  When will I know if I’ve had too much?  When you are staring at a table overflowing with delicious snacks, you are not going to be a good judge of what “too much” is.

An effective plan is one that is made before you stare temptation in the face, and that allows no wiggle room.   Studies show that when people plan out exactly what they will do when temptation arises (e.g., I will have no more than 3 cookies and nothing else), are 2-3 times more likely to achieve their dietary goals.

Tip 3:  Savor.   Savoring is a way of increasing and prolonging our positive experiences.  Taking time to experience the subtle flavors in a piece of dark chocolate, the pungency of a full-flavored cheese, the buttery goodness of a Christmas cookie - these are all acts of savoring, and they help us to squeeze every bit of joy out of the good things that happen to us.

Avoid eating anything in one bite – you get all the calories, but only a fraction of the taste. Also, try not to eat while you are socializing.  When you are focused on conversation, odds are good that you will barely even register what you are putting in your mouth.

Eating slowly and mindfully, taking small bites instead of swallowing that bacon-wrapped scallop or stuffed mushroom whole, not only satisfies your hunger, but actually leaves you feeling happier.

And that, ideally, is what holiday feasting is all about.

Should Leaders Show Anger?

From my Fast Company blog, click here.


If It Doesn’t Kill You, It Will Make You Stronger… But There Are Limits.

Does that which does not kill us, really make us stronger?  On the surface, it doesn’t seem like it.  People who have experienced significant adverse events, like having to endure physical abuse, experiencing homelessness, or becoming the victims of a natural disaster, often suffer very painful long-term negative effects, particularly in terms of their mental health and well-being.

There has been little in the research on coping  (until very recently, that is) to suggest that these individuals are likely to end up more resilient after being put through the wringer – not much evidence that they are better able to handle future difficulties with greater strength and adaptability, and to rebound emotionally faster and more effectively.

For the record, being resilient in the face of difficulty is actually the norm, rather than the exception. Most people report that they have had to cope with some significant adversity in their lives, and the majority of them do not permanently suffer for it.  By and large, we recover faster and better from hardship than we expect to.  But there is a big difference between returning to “baseline” after a negative event (to being “your old self” again) and ending up somehow stronger for it.

And yet many of us have a sense that adversity does indeed foster resilience - that people who have been through a lot are actually tougher, and better able to handle the curveballs that life may throw at them.  Are we wrong?

New research suggests that we are right – but only when adversity strikes in moderation.

The researchers who conducted this study looked at data from a broad sample of nearly 2000 Americans.  (The average age was 49, but ranged from 18 to 101 years old.)  The participants filled out a measure of cumulative lifetime adversity, which asked them to indicate how often they had coped with serious difficulties or trauma, including major illness or injury, assault, loss of a loved one, serious financial difficulties, and natural disaster.

(Note: I am not saying, nor are the researchers arguing, that these difficulties are equal in severity, nor that every person who experiences them suffers to the same extent. It’s just not possible to take into account every person’s unique experience in a study of 2000 people.  The researchers’ strategy, instead, was to take a set of  negative experiences that we can all agree are terrible to endure, and look at how people who have had to deal with more of them differ from those who’ve dealt with fewer.  This seems like a reasonable approach, even if it’s not a perfect one.)

Not surprisingly, those who had experienced a lot of adversity had poorer outcomes, on average, than people who reported no history of adversity  - they were more depressed and anxious, were less satisfied with their lives, and were more likely to have physical or emotional problems that interfered with their ability to work and socialize.

The real surprise comes when you look at people with relatively low lifetime adversity (2-4 serious adverse events or traumas).  They reported having better outcomes than people who had zero lifetime adversity!  They were happier, more satisfied, and better able to cope with life’s daily ups and downs.

This actually makes a lot of sense.  When you are exposed to a limited number of significant stressors, you come to see a bad situation as more manageable, and you approach it with greater confidence that you will be able to get through it  (“If I can handle that, I can handle anything.”)

Without adversity, you don’t get a chance to hone your coping skills, and develop the “I can get through this” sense of efficacy that will serve you well when trouble comes along.  Too much adversity, on the other hand, is likely to overwhelm your psychological resources, leaving you feeling less capable of coping when things go wrong.

So, what wisdom can we extract from these findings – how can we benefit from them?  I think there are two points in particular worth remembering:

First, it is unwise to try to shelter someone from adversity completely.  It’s perfectly natural to try to protect our loves ones from bad experiences – particularly our children.  But if you never get to tackle big problems on your own, you’ll never develop the confidence and psychological resources you’ll need to succeed.  Ironically, when we shield a person from the harsh realities of life, we leave them even more vulnerable.

Second, if you’ve dealt with a lot of adversity in your life, don’t beat yourself up for not ending up tougher for it.  It’s not surprising that your experiences have left their mark on you, and that you have a harder time than other people do just getting through your day.  Be kind to yourself, and seek out the assistance that you truly deserve (from friends, counselors, support groups), to help you begin to heal.

Four Reasons Why Power Enhances Performance

From my Fast Company Blog:

The people with power in any organization are usually its top performers.  (Not always, I know, but that’s a topic for another post).  It’s natural to assume that the reason they’ve ended up with so much power is precisely because they are top performers.  But in many cases, it’s the other way around – power creates peak performance.

Studies show that powerful people, even when working alone, work differently than those with less power.  Often, their work is simply better.  This is true regardless of how long the person in question has been powerful – in fact, you can bring people into a room, assign one of them at random to be the “leader,” and immediately begin to see the difference.

Psychologists find that power leads to better performance, particularly on complex or difficult tasks that require effort and persistence, for four reasons:

1.     Leaders feel responsible to the group they are leading, and to its goals.  This is an added motivation that followers often lack.

2.     All eyes are on them.  Leaders feel more individually identified and therefore more accountable for their own work.  Because they expect to be noticed by others, they feel pressured to set a good example.

3.     Power stimulates the brain – specifically, what psychologists refer to as the brain’s executive function, which is instrumental when it comes to achieving goals.  When participants in the laboratory are given power over the outcomes of others, we find that they are better able to control their attention, plan future behavior, and take goal-directed actions, all hallmarks of superior executive function.

4.     Power keeps you going. A recent set of studies show that powerful people not only outperform the less powerful, but that they continue to be able to do so even when their energy and willpower has been seriously depleted.

Self-control is a limited resource – like a muscle in your body, it gets tired when you’ve given it a good workout.   Typically, when you’ve depleted your self-control by working on something really challenging, your performance on subsequent tasks suffers.  Powerful people, however, are slower to show signs of depletion – they can keep up their A-game longer, thanks in part to their strong motivation and heightened executive functioning.

It’s worth noting that powerful people don’t always outperform the less powerful. After all, leaders have a lot on their plates – they can’t possibly bring their best to everything.  This raises the question of delegation.  How do they (and should they) decide where to put their effort?

The short and unsurprising answer is that they generally withhold effort when the task in question is unworthy of a powerful person.  In other words, when it seems like the kind of thing an underling would do.  This attitude can and does affect performance. For example, in the studies I mentioned earlier, when the participants were given boring, repetitive tasks like filling out multiplication tables, those assigned to a leadership role performed worse than nonleaders, and complained that they didn’t think it was the sort of task a leader should have to do.

Arrogant as this may seem at times, you have to admit that this attitude makes some sense.  Powerful people approach tasks with greater energy and intensity, but their well of energy and intensity isn’t bottomless.  They need to be selective.

Unfortunately, they don’t always pull it off, which brings us to the serious weakness that comes with power.  Making decisions about what is and isn’t worthy of a leader’s limited resources actually requires resources – when you are overworked, tired, or otherwise depleted, you have a hard time appraising a situation correctly.

Overworked leaders often don’t realize that a particular task is really more appropriate for a subordinate to perform – they end up trying to bring their A-game to everything.  They make bad choices, burn out, and their performance suffers.

So if you are fortunate enough to be given a position of power, it’s quite possible that your best performances lie ahead of you.  Even your brain is primed to rise to the challenge.  But beware of the leader’s Achilles heel – if you are too burned out to make good decisions about what to delegate, you’ll end up squandering many of the performance advantages that your power has given you.


Two Things You Need (and One You Don’t) For A Happy Marriage

If you want to be happy in your marriage, what’s the most important ingredient?  Everybody (married or not) has a theory about what it takes to live happily ever after.  You can divide them, roughly speaking, into three different camps:

#1:  It’s about YOU.

Some people, the theory goes, are just destined to be unhappy in their relationships.  Perhaps they are too insensitive, too negative, or too emotionally unstable – whatever the case may be, and no matter who they end up with, they will never know real marital bliss because their own personalities will always get in the way.

#2:  It’s about YOUR PARTNER.

Others believe that being happy in your marriage is all about choosing the perfect Special Someone.  Before I got married, I heard this a lot.  “You need someone emotionally mature,” or “a guy who pays attention to the little things,” or “a husband you know you can always count on.”   According to this theory, whether or not you are satisfied in your relationship isn’t so much about you, as it is about what the other person brings to the table.

#3:  It’s about how SIMILAR you and your partner are.

Birds of a feather flock together, as the saying goes.  (Presumably, they are happy about this arrangement.) Some people will tell you that the key to marital happiness lies in the similarity between your personality and your partner’s.  Dating services promise to match you according to key “dimensions of compatibility,” arguing that people who are more alike should end up being happier together.  Judging by the popularity of these services, this theory has a broad intuitive appeal.

But who is right? Is it your personality, your partner’s personality, or the similarity between the two that really matters when it comes to having a happy marriage?  A recent landmark study provides us with some answers.

Psychologists Portia Dyrenforth, Deborah Kashy, Brent Donnellan, and Richard Lucas looked at over 10,000 couples from three countries (Australia, England, and Germany) who had been married on average about 23 years.  Each husband and wife had completed a version of the Big Five personality inventory, which measures the five traits thought by many psychologists to make up the core of a person’s

When You Benefit From Being Underestimated, and When You Pay For It

From my Fast Company Blog:

There have been times in my life when I felt that, because I’m female, I have been treated unfairly in the workplace – times when I was passed over for leadership positions, or less trusted with responsibilities that are traditionally given to men.   Then again, I’ve also felt at times that I’ve benefitted from low expectations - particularly when handling something women aren’t supposed to do well. (Like the time when diagnosing and repairing a simple computer glitch suddenly rendered me a “computer whiz” around the office.  Come on, people.)

If you are a member of a group that is stereotyped as less competent, then you are no doubt well aware that stereotypes do in fact influence how your coworkers and supervisors see you.  What you may not have realized is that their influence can work for or against you, depending on the type of evaluation you are receiving.

Psychologists who study the way human beings make judgments distinguish between using minimum standards (enough to make you suspect something is true) and confirmatory standards (enough to make you certain that something is true).

Imagine you are trying to figure out whether or not Steve is a dishonest guy.  Minimum standards of dishonesty would probably be met the first time you catch Steve in a lie – you would start to suspect that Steve can’t be trusted, but you wouldn’t be sure. After all, everybody lies from time to time.  To meet confirmatory standards, however, you’d probably have to catch Steve in a number of lies – enough to conclude that he is more than usually deceptive.

Stereotypes affect both our minimum and confirmatory standards for a given trait, but in opposite directions.  For example, part of the stereotype for women, particularly in the business world, is that they are less competent than men.  Studies show that because of this stereotype, minimum standards of competence for women are lower than they are for men. In other words, you are quicker to suspect that a woman is smart than you are to suspect that a man is.  That’s because when a woman does something “smart” it stands out more, since it is (unfortunately) more surprising.  When it comes to minimum standards of competence, women seem to benefit from being underestimated.

Unfortunately, the reverse is true when it comes to confirmatory standards, which are higher for women when it comes to competence.  So in order for someone to be certain that a woman is smart, she needs to provide more evidence of competence than a man would.  For a woman, you need to be consistently really smart to prove you aren’t actually stupid.

These differing standards have real world consequences.  In one study, female candidates for a job were more likely to be placed on a short list than males (evidence for the lower minimal standard of competence), but less likely than male candidates to actually be hired (evidence for the higher confirmatory standard of competence). In another study, White law school applicants with weak credentials were judged more positively than Black applicants with identical credentials (further evidence of the higher confirmatory standard for a stereotyped group).

So stereotyped people (women, minorities) will have an easier time than their White male counterparts when minimum standards are used to judge them, and a harder time when confirmatory standards are used.  But what determines which standards are used?

In a recent set of studies, researchers found that set of standards that get used is often determined by the formality of the evaluation.  A formal record or log  (like an end-of-the-year review) invokes the use of the confirmatory standard, while informal evaluation and personal note-taking  (like the kind of feedback your boss gives you at a weekly meeting) invokes the use of the minimum standard.

The researchers asked each participant in the studies to review information about a company trainee with a spotty performance record (i.e., he or she had lost a file on a client, missed an important deadline, and forgotten a scheduled appointment with a client, among other things).  The participants were asked to either “take informal notes” that would be for purely personal use, or to keep a “formal employment log” that would become a part of the employee’s permanent record.

They found that participants were more likely to record negative behaviors in their personal notes for White males than for women or Black males, but less likely to do so for White males in their formal notes.  In other words, judges noticed and recorded fewer negative behaviors for the groups stereotyped as incompetent (women and Blacks) when using minimal standards in the informal evaluation, but noticed and recorded more of the same behaviors when using the confirmatory standards of the formal evaluation.

At the end of both evaluations, participants were asked if the trainee should be kept on at the company or terminated.  Not surprisingly, White males were more likely to be recommended for termination when evaluated informally, and less likely to be fired when evaluated formally.

The participants in these studies weren’t overt racists or sexists – in fact, they weren’t even aware that they were evaluating employees differently because of their race or gender.  Like much of today’s workplace bias, its influence occurred at an unconscious level, perpetrated by otherwise decent and fair-minded people.  But even if its workings are intangible, the results of bias are anything but.  When different standards are unknowingly used, people end up being more likely to be hired or fired because of their gender or race, and that is unacceptable.

The good new is, unconscious bias loses much of its power once we recognize that it exists.  Once we become aware that we are apt to use different standards to evaluate people doing the same job, and once we understand when we are likely to be a little too lenient, or a little too critical, we can adjust accordingly.  Probe your own thinking for bias – ask yourself, would I come to the same conclusion about this employee’s behavior if she were a he, and if he were White?  Chances are you can make fair decisions, once you realize how and why you might make unfair ones.