Here are three examples:
- You intend to wake up earlier so that you can work on your novel for an hour before going to work, but you keep hitting the snooze button instead of getting up.
- You intend to go out for a walk every day after work, but you plop down on the couch and switch on the TV, instead.
- You intend to eat healthier foods, but you keep eating donuts for breakfast and fast food for lunch.
What’s going on? To a large extent, it’s a problem of self-control. You have trouble exerting sufficient control over yourself in order to get up when the alarm rings, exercise after work, and refrain from eating that sugary pastry. The good news is that there are strategies you can use in order to increase your self-control.
Here are five scientifically-proven ways to strengthen your self-control so that you can begin to close the gap between what you say you’re going to do, and what you really end up doing.
There’s a famous study in which a group of little kids were each given a marshmallow, and they were told that if they waited fifteen minutes before eating it, they would get a second marshmallow. However, if they ate the marshmallow before the fifteen minutes were up, they wouldn’t get another one.
Obviously, it was in each kid’s best interest to wait fifteen minutes in order to get two marshmallows instead of just one. The study found that the kids who stared directly at the delicious, gooey marshmallow were more likely to give in and eat it before the fifteen minutes were up then the kids who closed their eyes, looked away, or found ways to distract themselves.
The lesson from this study is simple: look for ways to avoid temptation. Here are two examples:
- If you’ve gotten into the habit of stopping by the bakery on your way home from work each day and eating a brownie, and you want to break this habit, take a different route home from work.
- If your colleagues leave pastries in the break room and, as a result of indulging in these treats each time you go to get yourself a cup of coffee you’ve gained a few pounds, set up a small coffee maker in your office so that you no longer have to go into the coffee room.
It’s very difficult to say “no” to temptations when they’re staring you right in the face. The best way to resist temptation is to avoid it. Here are three practical applications of this strategy:
- If you’re trying to lose weight, don’t bring junk food into the house.
- If you’re trying to save money, leave the house without your credit cards.
- If you’re trying to give up smoking and you find yourself craving a cigarette, find a way to distract yourself (go for a swim, find someone to play a board game with, or work on a hobby that keeps your hands occupied).
Jump Rope For Ten Minutes
Studies show that a ten minute workout can increase your self-control. After a quick workout, your brain gets a blood-flow boost that delivers extra oxygen to the pre-frontal cortex. At the same time, your pre-frontal cortex is the part of your brain that is responsible for higher level functioning, such as taking action that will allow you to achieve your goals.
The practical take-away from this is the following: when faced with a situation in which you’ll have to exert self-control, get a quick workout in. Are you thinking of calling that ex-boyfriend you swore to yourself you would stay away from? Climb on the treadmill and run for ten minutes. After your mini-work-out you’re much more likely to make the right decision.
Make New Friends
A third strategy for increasing your self-control involves hanging out with people who have lots of self-control. You’ve probably heard the saying that birds of a feather flock together. If you want to increase your self-control, join a flock with lots of willpower.
A study conducted at Duke University shows that people with low self-control pick-up on self-control cues in others. In addition, they’re helped to avoid temptation by being around those who have high self-control. Think about it: are you more likely to stick to your diet if everyone sitting with you at the restaurant orders a healthy meal, or if they order the most fattening meal on the menu?
Play the “What-If” Game
In order to strengthen your self-control, plan how you’re going to respond to stimuli which might threaten to push you toward temptation. For example, suppose that you’re trying to give up smoking. You know that you’re highly likely to take out a cigarette and start smoking after a stressful meeting.
Here’s how to play the what-if game:
- Ask yourself: “What if I have a stressful meeting at work?”
- Formulate a plan: If I have a stressful meeting at work, I’ll do a few yoga stretches in my office in order to relieve the stress.
Having a Plan B will help you with your self-control.
Be Kind to Yourself
Suppose that you’re on a diet. However, on Tuesday, you blow it. You go out to lunch with a friend and order a hamburger with cheese and bacon, and a side of fries. Then, you have a sundae for dessert. You now have two options:
- You can beat yourself up for messing up and blowing your diet.
- You can forgive yourself for the slip up, give yourself a pep talk, and resolve to do better the next day.
In her book, “The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It”, Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., explains that people who follow the second approach are much more likely to stick with their diet. If you mess up, be gentle with yourself and move on. Your second grade teacher was right: kindness goes a long way.
Your level of self-control will determine how successful you are in achieving your goals. In addition, your self-control has an enormous impact on your self-esteem. After all, if you follow through on what you say you’re going to do, you’re more likely to feel good about yourself. Use the five strategies described above and begin increasing your self-control right away.
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