Self-control is what you lose when you wander into the kitchen at night and find that plate of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. Or when you’re trying to stick to a budget but can’t resist a few of those awesome sale items on your way to the checkout lane. It’s the stuff that disappears when you’re supposed to be going to the gym on a Saturday morning or cleaning out the garage.
If only we were gifted with more will power, we think, we’d be able to do it all. Our diets would put us right up there with the Greatest Losers. Our credit card debt would shrink out of sight. We’d live in spotless, uncluttered surroundings with every paper filed, and bring all our projects to completion a day ahead of time. If only.
Well, I can’t promise to make all of those wishes come true. But I can share some great news about the latest research into self-control. The bottom line is this: If you want more, you can have it.
That’s what Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson says in her new book, Success: How We Can Reach Our Goals.
Self Control: A Definition
Dr. Halvorson’s definition of self-control is, “The ability to guide your actions in pursuit of a goal to persevere and stay on course, despite temptation, distractions and the demands of competing goals.”
While some people have more of it than others, if you’re low on the self-discipline scale, don’t despair. Dr. Halvorson explains that it’s not an inborn trait. It’s an acquired ability—something you can develop for yourself. And understanding how it works will put you on the right track.
How Self Control is Like a Muscle
Dr. Halvorson’s research proves that self-control is like a muscle in a lot of ways. It might be weak now, but with exercise it develops.
Have you ever noticed that when you resist temptation, the next time you’re faced with it, saying no to it is easier? That’s because you strengthened your self-control muscle by using it. Say no to a temptation often enough and after a while it loses its power over you completely.
But just as you can’t do a weight-training set with five pound dumbbells today and expect to be lifting 500 pounds tomorrow, you can’t build strong self-control overnight. It takes practice—regular, continued use.
Exercise it, though, and you’ll have it at your disposal for any task you choose. An arm you strengthen by lifting weights can carry and push and punch and pull as well. Exercise self-control in one area of your life and it will generalize to other areas, too.
How to Build Your Self-Control
In an article in the Harvard Business Review, Dr. Halvorson says the way to build willpower is to take on a challenge to do something that you would rather not do.”
“Give up high-fat snacks, do 100 sit-ups a day, stand up straight when you catch yourself slouching, try to learn a new skill,” she says.
“When you find yourself wanting to give in, give up, or just not bother — don’t. Start with just one activity, and make a plan for how you will deal with troubles when they occur (“If I have a craving for a snack, I will eat one piece of fresh or three pieces of dried fruit.”) It will be hard in the beginning, but it will get easier, and that’s the whole point. As your strength grows, you can take on more challenges and step-up your self-control workout.”
Your Self-Control Muscle Gets Tired
Just as a muscle does, self-control gets tired. If you used it all day to keep focused on your work, it’s going to be worn out at night. Stress burns up the energy it needs to operate. But give it a little rest, and it’s good to go again.
Now that you know that, you can plan ahead for the times when you know your self-discipline will be low. You can leave your credit cards at home and take cash to the store, for example, if you’re going to run a series of errands where you’ll be faced with the stress of multiple decisions. You can prepare some wholesome snacks ahead of time when you know you’ll spend the evening watching TV. Or you can limit your calories throughout the day so you can indulge in one great treat at night. I knew a woman who lost over a hundred pounds by treating herself to a small ice cream cone every night as a reward for sticking to her low-cal regimen during the day.
The key is to think ahead and plan for the times when you know you will have used up your supply of self-control. When is temptation likely to strike? What can you do to make it easier to say no?
Make Deals with the Devil
Happily, like a muscle’s, your self-control’s strength will return after a little rest – and be stronger than before because you exercised it.
In the meantime, you can give flagging self-control a little boost by offering yourself enticing rewards for staying on the path to your goal. Keep a list of pleasures, and give yourself one of them if you resist the moment’s temptation. Promise yourself a bubble bath, or a bike ride, or a trip to Tahiti. Bribe’s work!
In whatever way you can, increase your motivation for keeping on track. Go for a walk. Call a friend for encouragement. Spend several moments vividly imagining how you will feel when you accomplish your goal.
Remember that your self-control is only tired and think about how good you’ll feel if you stay on task anyway.
Worth the Price
Positive accomplishments are one of the main pillars of well-being. We all feel great when we succeed in reaching a goal.
Put this new understanding of self-control to work for you, and you will have a power tool at hand to help make your best dreams come true.
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