Previously on Mind Fuel Daily, we learned some surprising facts about self-control. While we tend to think of self-control as a personality trait, it’s actually more like a resource that we carry around. And it’s a limited one at that: the more we try to exert self-control, the more our willpower gets depleted.
While this might sound discouraging (after all, how many temptations do we have to fight and face every day?), there are multiple strategies that you can use to improve your willpower.
Aim for Good Habits
Experts say one of the best ways to control a behavior is to develop regular habits around it. Once a habit is locked into your routine, you exert less willpower making decisions or getting yourself to do something. For example, if you exercise at the same time every day or the same days every week, you’ll waste less energy figuring out when to squeeze a workout in. And because your body gets accustomed to working out at certain times, you don’t spend nearly as much effort motivating yourself: you automatically know to grab your sneakers or head to the gym.
Make One Change at a Time
Trying to control and change too many behaviors in a short period of time, like around New Year’s, is doomed to fail. That’s because you’re using too much self-control all at once: you’ll inevitably deplete all your energy before you meet all your goals. Instead, focus on accomplishing one goal at a time or forming one sustainable habit. Once that’s done, move on to the next.
Do Self-Control Exercises
While we have limited amounts of willpower, self-control has often been compared to a muscle: if we over-exert in the short term, we’ll tire out. But if we do moderate exercises over time, we’ll slowly grow stronger. Scientists have found that doing certain self-control exercises-like squeezing a handgrip-can boost self-control in other areas of life.
Make If-Then Plans
Try something called an “implementation intention.” This is a plan that takes the form of an “if-then” statement. For example, “If I start to lose patience, then I’ll take 10 deep breaths”, or “If I walk past a candy store, then I’ll cross the street.” Doing this gives you a set of actions to perform in situations where your willpower might be tested. Psychologist have offered that “if-then” intentions improve self-control. This is because you’re automatically drawing on a pre-determined plan instead of using your willpower to make a decision in the moment.
Out of Sight, Out of Mind
This tried and true idiom really holds weight. You’re less likely to indulge or resort to poor habits if temptation stays out of the picture altogether. Otherwise, you use up lots of energy trying to resist what might be sitting right in front of you. Examples include not buying chocolate if you’re cutting back on sweets, or taking a route that avoids the local bar if you’re aiming to drink less.
While psychologists have found that we have limited willpower, they also believe that we usually keep some on reserve. If we feel properly motivated and inspired, we are able to draw from it in times of need. For example, studies have found that people were able to perform longer on a task if they were told they were being paid. Or, if they were told that their efforts helped other people. This was true even if their willpower had already been significantly depleted. To stay on task and exert self-control in times of need, remind yourself why you are pursuing your goals.