Whether you’re trying to improve your diet, quit smoking, drink less alcohol, stop being a sofa spud, or want to break another bad habit in 2014, sticking to a New Year’s resolution can be hard. After all, temptations are everywhere.
It can be especially challenging to resist when you’re tired or stressed. “Modern life is full of self-control demands that can drain your willpower,” says Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist at Stanford University and author of The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It. “Researchers have found that self-control is highest in the morning and steadily deteriorates over the course of the day.”
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When trying to change, it’s a mistake to rely on willpower alone. This is partly because willpower or self-control becomes depleted with repetitive use. In other words, self-control is like a muscle: If it’s overused, it gets fatigued. If you don’t rest it or replenish its reserves, you risk self-control burnout.
Fortunately, scientists are discovering which strategies really work to boost willpower and put an end to bad habits – and which don’t. In many cases, the best strategies involve minor tweaks to your usual behavior.
Choose the right words. Saying “I don’t” rather than “I can’t” can make it easier to resist temptation and stick to your planned behavior, according to recent research in the Journal of Consumer Research. For example, if you are swearing off desserts and somebody offers you a chocolate sundae, say, “I don’t eat sweets,” rather than “I can’t eat sweets.”
This works because the phrase “I can’t” signals deprivation or a sense of loss from having to give up something you want – whether it’s ice cream after dinner or a second (or third) glass of wine. By contrast, saying “I don’t” signals self-empowerment and determination, which makes the refusal strategy more effective, according to a series of four studies at the University of Houston. Using the "I don't" approach increased peoples' feelings of autonomy and control – and resulted in positive behavioral change, more than saying “I can’t” or using a generic “just-say-no” strategy.
Imagine other people’s reactions. When considering a particular choice –whether it’s to smoke or indulge in a rich dessert – imagine what people whose opinions you value would think of your choice. Would they be proud of you or would they disapprove? Research suggests that taking the social element into consideration “can provide a powerful boost to self-control,” McGonigal says. “When you need a little extra willpower, bring a role model to mind,” and ask yourself what that person would do.
For some people, envisioning what their mother or father would think about their loss of willpower is an effective way to stay on the straight and narrow.
Engage in mini workouts. In a recent review of the research on the effects of physical activity on executive function, researchers from the Netherlands found that short bouts of exercise improved self-control. The theory: Brief bouts of exercise may boost blood flow to the pre-frontal areas of the brain, which are responsible for executive functions such as planning and controlling inhibitions. Consider this yet another good reason to take a brisk 10-minute walk when temptation comes calling.
Commit to a small, consistent act of self-control. Like a muscle that gets stronger with the right kind of training, sticking with a single behavior that involves self-control – whether it’s improving your posture or foregoing your afternoon sweet treat – can improve overall willpower, McGonigal says. “While these small self-control exercises may seem inconsequential, they appear to improve the willpower challenges we care about most, including focusing at work, taking good care of our health, resisting temptation, and feeling more in control of our emotions.”
Practice “mindfulness meditation.” This form of meditation involves developing a conscious awareness and acceptance of living in the present moment – often by focusing on your breathing – while letting your mind roam free. Besides being relaxing, it turns out that a brief period of mindfulness meditation can counteract the depletion of self-control that comes from exerting self-control, according to a recent study at the University of Basel in Switzerland. In other words, mindfulness meditation can replenish your self-control after it’s been drained. The UCLA Mindfulness Awareness Research Center has a series of free online meditation guides that can get you started. Go here for them.
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The complete version of this article first appeared in Health Radar
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