5 Willpower Strategies To Survive the Holidays

It’s that time of year again!

A time when we spend our days with friends, family and feasts. To most, it is a time to cut back on our daily routines and enjoy the great cooking, holiday treats, and festive eggnog. 

Unfortunately, it is also the time of year that many can lose a lot of goal progress in just a few days of indulging. Even though we have earned the time to relax and be family does not mean that our bodies should be the ones to pay the price.

For all of you who are looking to come out of the holiday season as healthy, if not healthier, as when you went in, here are 5 research-based ways to use your willpower to survive the Holiday season!

1.    Play offense, not defense 

When we think about willpower, we often think about “playing defense”. We see a temptation and we use our willpower to resist it. Those who have remarkable willpower, however, do not take this strategy – they “play offense” [1].

Playing offense means going into the holiday season with a plan. Rather than waiting until the bottle of wine is opened, you plan beforehand that 2 glasses will be enough for you. Rather than relying on your willpower to save you when your family is serving 3 kinds of dessert, you plan to have 1 serving of your favorite.

But mostly, playing offense is about understanding that during the holiday season, your willpower will indeed be tested.

This is a phenomenon called the “Hot-Cold Gap”. When we are sitting here on December 22nd with a cool head and no freshly baked cookies in front of us, we overestimate the willpower we will have on December 24th when there will be plenty of temptation [1]. If we do not take on the holidays with a plan, then we will likely lose track of just how much this loss of willpower can affect us. 

So think about what you really want out of this holiday season. How much do you really want to indulge? Which are the indulgences that matter the most to you? Then make pre-commitments to stick to what you really want out of the holidays.

2.    Do not defer to January 1st

The biggest mistake people make during the holiday season is to “check out” of their healthy lifestyles in mid-December and pick it back up on January 1st. They believe that they will be able to make up for all of their vices in the new year. Do not fall into this trap.

This type of thinking leads to what researchers call the “What-The-Hell Effect”. When we say that we will be able to make up for today’s vices with tomorrow’s effort, we give ourselves license to indulge.

If the New Year is really going to be the time that I start dieting and exercising, what the hell, I may as well enjoy these cookies and this wine while I can! 

In moderation this is not a terrible idea, per se, but the What-The-Hell Effect leads us to go completely overboard [2]. It can leave us in an unnecessarily large "debt" that we will likely be unable to make up for in the New Year. So avoid the trap of going overboard and think about how much better you will feel on January 1st knowing that you have not dug yourself into a hole.

3.    Do not deny yourself anything 

On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have the people who attempt to deny everything they come into contact with. They try to cut out the treats, the mashed potatoes and gravy, and the delicious wine. This will lead to either:

A)   Missing out on a time of year that you are supposed to be celebrating


B)   Eventually giving in and feeling guilty because you feel as if you have no willpower

Trying to completely cut things out that we really want can lead to what researchers call “Ironic Rebound”. Essentially what this does is make us want the very thing we are trying to cut out even more than if we were to allow ourselves that thing [3]. 

This means that we will get even more cravings than if we were to simply allow ourselves to eat what we want. Then the guilt we feel when we give in can actually drain our willpower and make it more likely that we will give into the next temptation as well. 

So do not completely deny yourself the ability to enjoy the pleasures of the holiday season. It will either leave you feeling sad that you missed out or guilty that you gave in. Surviving the Holidays is about moderation.

4.    Eat The Frog First 

Mark Twain had a famous quote that if you “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning then nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.”  

What Twain meant by this quote is that if you get the hardest things done first thing in the morning, everything else in the day will be easier and more enjoyable.

For the holiday season, this means accomplishing our goals of health and well-being first thing in the morning. If you want to exercise, do it right after you wake up. If you’re worried about eating healthy, eat a healthy breakfast, and so on. 

Your willpower is the strongest first thing in the morning [1]. So use it to accomplish the things that are going to help you make it through the holidays happy and healthy. It will be much easier to make it to the gym or eat a healthy before you begin to indulge in the treats of the holidays. Plus, if you get these things accomplished, you will be able to truly enjoy yourself the rest of the day.

5.    Try These Defensive Strategies

Okay, so you’ve done a great job of playing offense, but all of the sudden there comes temptations that you were not prepared for. As a last line of defense, you can use these strategies that will make it easier to resist cravings and get out of the holidays strong, healthy, and ready to take on 2015!

 1. How To Resist a Craving 

There is a scientific reason we get cravings and this simple technique will increase your willpower to resist it.

2. Positive Procrastination 

Positive procrastination is a technique that will allow you to calm down the reward center in the brain that creates cravings.

3. Using the Right Language

Simply by changing the way you say “no” to a temptation can make it exponentially easier for you to resist it.


The holidays are a special time of year. They are a reason for celebration as we look back on everything that we have accomplished over the last year and get ready to do even more in the next one. However, we can get too carried away with our celebration and dig ourselves into a huge hole on January 1st.

The best way to avoid this fate is to “play offense”. Think about what you really want out of this holiday season. Do not indulge too much, nor deny yourself the ability to celebrate with family and friends. Use the strategies listed above to create a plan to make the most out of the holidays and get ready to make 2015 the best year of your life!


  1. Baumeister, Roy F., and John Tierney. Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. New York: Penguin, 2011.
  2. Adams, Claire E., and Mark R. Leary. "Promoting Self–Compassionate Attitudes Toward Eating Among Restrictive and Guilty Eaters."Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 26.10 (2007): 1120-144
  3. Wegner, Daniel M., David J. Schneider, Samuel R. Carter, and Teri L. White. "Paradoxical Effects of Thought Suppression." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 53.1 (1987): 5-13.