The Willpower Workaround: A Surprising Interview with Author Maureen Anderson

What if you could eat as much as you wanted, all day every day, and never gain weight? No gimmicks, nothing unsafe.

Radio personality Maureen Anderson (@DoingWhatWorks) did just that, and she wrote The Willpower Workaround to show just how to do it.

“The Plan” isn’t a big, complicated diet—it’s about a simple lifestyle change Maureen made that changed everything. When she first contacted me about editing her book, I have to admit I was a bit skeptical; I mean, you need willpower—and lots of it—to lose weight, right? Was I ever wrong!

Maureen is one of the most interesting, vivacious, and genuine people you’ll ever meet. Her personality shines through in her book, too, and if you’ve ever struggled with dieting (and who hasn’t?), you’ll love The Willpower Workaround.

Maureen was kind enough to answer some of my burning questions about the book and those sugar cookies she writes about to start the book:

I make the best sugar cookies you’ve ever tasted.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Talk to one of my childhood friends, who won’t share them with her grandchildren because they don’t appreciate the work that goes into them. Or talk to one of my daughter’s former teachers, who used to hide them in the freezer in a bag marked “for the dog” so she wouldn’t have to share them with her family.

Every year between Halloween and Christmas my husband and I used to bake two hundred dozen sugar cookies from scratch. You read that right. Two hundred dozen. Each one painstakingly rolled out really thin, cut, transferred to a baking pan, baked, cooled, frosted, dried, wrapped individually, packed with bubble wrap, and shipped all over the country to friends and family and people we did business with.

Every summer I used to lose the same ten or fifteen pounds a lot of people do because they’re more active, only to always gain them back by Thanksgiving. One year I wondered if it was the cookies. Darrell looked at me. Then he said, “Duh.”

That was all I had to read to know I wanted to work with Maureen, and it was an awesome experience. Recently she agreed to answer some of my burning questions; I found her answers thoughtful and relatable, and I hope you enjoy our conversation!

The Interview:

Candace Johnson: Why did you feel it was important to write The Willpower Workaround and share The Plan?

Maureen Anderson: Thanks for using them both in the same sentence! I think of The Willpower Workaround as the formal name for the way I eat, but it’s a mouthful. I can’t remember if it was my husband or daughter who started calling it The Plan right away—but it’s the perfect nickname, and it stuck.

I wrote The Willpower Workaround because it worked so well it felt irresponsible not to share. The first time I spoke of it publicly in a formal presentation, I did it next to a big poster with photos of everything I ate. When I saw someone taking a picture of the poster I thought, “All those people who told me I should write a book and then give talks were right. It would be great to have a little instruction manual, disguised as a short memoir, available for sale.”

When I decided to give up junk food in August of 2009, it was only going to be for a year. My motives had at least as much to do with wanting a writing project I could sink my teeth into as a diet. I’d been noticing “year in the life” experiments in bookstores. The Year of Living Biblically was a popular one. My book was going to be The Year I Didn’t Cheat. I even purchased that domain name, which inspired the guy taking our order for it to feel bad for my husband. (My husband, Darrell, interviewed me about my progress at the one-month point. Would you like to watch?)

I imagined rip-roaring stories about passing up chips and salsa for another spinach salad, for example, and the snappy comebacks I’d have at the ready for people who made fun of me. Can you imagine a weaker premise for a book? And you know what? I didn’t care! It got me started. I was doing the right thing for the wrong reason, but at least I was doing something. I think one secret to life is experimenting with it.

Candace Johnson: We learn in the book that your initial success with permanent weight loss was based on winning a challenge. Do you have any advice for men and women who need a reward to stay on the path toward changing the way they eat?

Maureen Anderson: I stuck with The Plan at first because I was hoping to have not only a book, but answers to questions like whether a good diet would have other benefits—better skin, better sleep, and so on—that would make it worth sticking with indefinitely. I was skeptical. At the one-month point I was still planning the party I’d have eleven months later, and there would be no spinach in sight! But at the two-month point I felt so good I knew I’d never go back. Had I set out to give up junk food forever, I’d probably still be hooked. Deciding it was only going to be for a year powered me through two months of it. After two months junk food didn’t feel like a reward anymore. Feeling amazing was the reward.

So my advice is to make sure you give yourself a trial period that’s long enough to see results. People give up much too soon, in general—and I’ve been Exhibit A in more ways than I should admit.

Candace Johnson: Many writers use food in their writing routines—some live on caffeine while others motive themselves with special food rewards. What part did food play in your routine while writing The Willpower Workaround?

Maureen Anderson: One of the boldest moves I ever made was challenging the assumption that food should be a reward for anything. It’s like a career consultant friend once told me: you need vacations the same way you need to breathe out after breathing in. Breathing out isn’t a reward for breathing in. It’s just part of the deal. When you make food a “reward” instead of a normal part of taking care of yourself, there’s a tendency to dress it up, to make it “entertainment” (as Dilbert creator Scott Adams says).

The longer I’m on The Plan the more I realize I’m challenging a lot of what our culture and economy is based on. The glass of wine before dinner as a reward for a hard day, the dessert after dinner as a reward for eating the broccoli you aren’t crazy about, the extra couple of glasses of wine after dessert so you can deliver on the promise of “date night.” Isn’t that sad? And it doesn’t even count the donuts at work to celebrate someone’s promotion, the Snickers bar you grab because you don’t have time to eat lunch, and the fast food you get for dinner because everyone’s too hungry and exhausted to cook a real meal — let alone enjoy it with a real conversation.

One of the boldest moves @DoingWhatWorks ever made was challenging the assumption that food… Click To Tweet

I love writing (and my radio work) so much that I don’t need to incent myself to do it. The reward is in the work. Give me enough sleep and a strong cup of coffee, and I’m set. A bit later in the day, I’ll go on a hard run and have another cup of coffee. I have so much energy I border on obnoxious sometimes.

Candace Johnson: You perfectly capture the tortuous relationship women have with their weight when you write, “I weighed 114 pounds in high school, and for about ten minutes on my wedding day.” For me, your book affirms the premise that successful weight loss is about permanent change, not “going on a diet.” How many different diets do you estimate you tried before coming up with The Plan?

Maureen Anderson: I didn’t need to work at being slender until I was in my twenties. That’s when I discovered running. I’d been doing weights since I was fourteen, and adding running to the mix kept the extra pounds at bay. But you know how it goes. You need to keep your body guessing. By my late thirties it had become a project to stay slender. The diets I tried were always some variation of eating the right things, and not too much, and rewarding myself with junk. Every so often I’d decide, “That’s it. No more junk. I’m sick of the negotiation!” I’d have a last supper of everything I could imagine craving ever again—and be “good” for a week or so. This went on for years. That’s why one chapter of the book is “The Last Supper(s).”

Candace Johnson: In your case, a key to success was discovering that your eating habit was an addiction and treating it like one, and then becoming an abstainer (“You wouldn’t tell an alcoholic to drink on Fridays.”). Did you see other similarities to addictions in developing The Plan?

Maureen Anderson: Maybe you’ve heard the suggestion, offered in twelve-step programs, to admit you’re powerless over alcohol or whatever it is. That was a big turning point for me. I’m no match for sugar, and acknowledging that made life easier. “Sugar is crack,” I often tease people (except I’m not really teasing). “Just say no.” I never pass a display of pastry without kind of collapsing in longing, and junk food still calls — constantly. But I don’t answer. Period.

When I started The Plan, it was before many people talked about sugar being addictive. Now it’s widely accepted. It’s difficult to believe I was ahead of my time on that, but I was.

Candace Johnson: In addition to abstaining, did you ever try adding items back one at a time, like people do when testing for allergies?

Maureen Anderson: Oh, yes. I continue to experiment. I recently tried adding sugarless gum to the mix. I remember getting home after a late-night grocery run, unwrapping and chewing every single stick of gum—in quick succession!—from a big pack. That’s how much I craved those hits of even fake sugar. This is not how I want to spend my free time. So I thought, “Nope. Not even sugarless gum.”

Candace Johnson: I like the correlation you draw between what people eat and “the way they move through the world.” (I love that phrase.)  Do you attribute this mostly to their physical well-being, or to the mental well-being that’s brought about by the successful effort to stay healthy and to feeling well?

Maureen Anderson: The biggest surprise of my life is how simple things are, or can be. If you get enough sleep and eat the right things and exercise consistently, 80 percent of your problems might disappear. That’s also widely accepted now, how much disease is directly related to lifestyle.

I’m maniacal about taking care of myself, and I don’t apologize for it. I often wonder what I could’ve accomplished had I started earlier. The biggest benefit of The Plan, by far, is a spike in my happiness setpoint. I can’t tell you how often I’ll think, “I am having a terrible day. And I feel terrific!” It’s The Plan.

“Your body is the coolest thing you’ll ever own,” someone once said. “It’s your ride.” If you take care of your body, your mind will thank you—and the ripples will keep on spreading.

Looking for a spike in your #happiness set point? A simple lifestyle change rocked her world!… Click To Tweet

Candace Johnson: One key to your success was focusing on how bad certain foods made you feel physically, like the hamburger headaches. Did you also focus on how bad you were going to feel about yourself when you indulged in junk food?

Maureen Anderson: You hit on an important part of becoming a new person, Candace. I’m constantly reminding myself how it would feel to have a Twinkie “just this once”—a craving so fierce I stopped answering this question to imagine the delight when it hit my tongue! But I’d be red-faced from trashing much of what I’ve claimed to be about. I’d polish off the whole box, because once you’ve cheated you might as well make the cheating count. Then I’d feel bloated and sleepy and less inclined to resist the next time.

I couldn’t do it. This is who I am now.

Candace Johnson: You begin the book with a description of the most delicious-sounding cookies. Do you ever miss eating those sugar cookies?

Maureen Anderson: Every day!

Thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions, Maureen! Readers, if you’re ready for a plan that will change your life, look for Maureen’s latest book, The Willpower Workaround, wherever books are sold. If you’d like to hear Maureen in action on the radio, scroll back up to the link on the sidebar titled “Wonder How I Became a Freelance Editor?”

Maureen Anderson is a civil engineering graduate turned miserable cubicle dweller turned ridiculously happy—and healthy!— host of the nationally syndicated radio talk show, Doing What Works. She weighed seven pounds when she was born, and has gained an average of two pounds a year since. The Willpower Workaround is her fifth book.

*****

Candace Johnson is a professional freelance editor, proofreader, writer, ghostwriter, and writing coach who has worked with traditional publishers, self-published authors, and independent book packagers on nonfiction subjects ranging from memoirs to alternative medical treatments to self-help and on fiction ranging from romance to paranormal. As an editorial specialist, Candace is passionate about offering her clients the opportunity to take their work to the next level. She believes in maintaining an author’s unique voice while helping him or her create and polish every sentence to make it the best it can be. Learn more here, and follow her on FacebookTwitter, and LinkedIn.

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