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8 Hacks to Bulk-Up Your Self Control

Making healthy lifestyles sustainable.


In changing behavior, I firmly believe that avoidance is probably the best way to change a behavior. If you don’t take your money/cards/wallet into a store you won’t buy anything. Problem solved.

However, what about those times and situations that you can’t avoid? You know there are those environments where you typically have a hard time with self-control, but can’t avoid. What then?

These situations require more self-control from us. This can be problematic because self-control is like a muscle. It can and does get fatigued. The upside is it can be trained and get stronger. But just know, that if you’ve been using a lot of self-control you’re going to be fatigued and in no condition for further workouts. In a great article about self-control the author says, “The first step to greater self-control is acknowledging when you’re at your weakest”. Kelly McGonigal, PhD and author of The Willpower Instinct says in her book, “The willpower response [self-control] is a reaction to an internal conflict. You want to do one thing, such as smoke a cigarette or supersize your lunch, but know you shouldn’t. Or you know you should do something, like file your taxes or go to the gym, but you’d rather do nothing.”

Whether you’re trying to do something you shouldn’t, or not do something you should I’m here to help you bulk-up and strengthen your self-control muscles.

kid trying to make a good food choicePicture this: You’re trying to make clean eating (in this case-no sugary crap like cookies, cakes, etc.) a habit and lifestyle. However, you have to clock in and out for work in the break room. In the break room there’s always tons of crap (cookies, cakes, etc.) put there—you’re sure—to make your life a living hell. It’s just SO easy to grab one on the way out, or in, or both. You just can’t avoid it. Your clients/patrons give you this stuff, so it’s not something that can be addressed in a team meeting. (“Excuse me, could you please stop bringing in those delicious baked goods? I’m trying to be healthy”! How to not win friends).

Talk to yourself

Call them what you will—whether it’s a mantra, slogan, cue or positive affirmation—having positive self-talk that incorporates your core values helps you stay on track. You can repeat these cues or positive affirmations several times a day or just when needed to keep reminding yourself of your higher goals. Focus on framing them as positive realities. Such as, “I am…”, or “I can…” However, you don’t need to necessarily you “I am” or “I can”. Your cues can be as simple as saying to yourself, “Skinny jeans, skinny jeans, skinny jeans” several times a day, or whenever you feel you need an extra boost of self-control.

Be emotionless and emotional

Prepare mentally and be dispassionate and emotionless. When it comes to food, we associate emotions to when we eat, how much we eat and how often we eat. If we can separate our emotions from food we can have a healthier relationship with it. Sugar tastes good, everybody knows this. It’s one of the reasons it’s called ‘comfort food’. It’s also very addictive. However, after the ‘warm fuzzies’ have left, have you ever examined how it really felt/tasted. Often whatever you ate wasn’t worth it, or didn’t truly taste that good. For example, I love candy. There are always mini/fun-sized candy bars at work. Krackles are some of my favorites. After I devour one, I often catch myself saying it didn’t taste that good. It has a waxy feeling on my teeth and mouth, and after the emotions have left the only thing remaining is the aftertaste of a candle. If you can dispassionately judge what you ate, after the emotions are gone, you can create an objective opinion about that food (or whatever) in your head before you enter the dodgy environment. Why would you want to eat wax or a candle? Those Krackles don’t sound so appealing now do they?

However, you also want to be emotional. This may sound like a contradiction from above. Let me explain. You want to have an emotionless approach to whatever is challenging your goals (candy in the case above), but you want to create strong emotional ties to the goals you’ve set. These emotions can help you stay the course. Think about how good it will be/feel when you reach your goal. Or how proud you will be of yourself. Or what others will say. What will you be able to do/accomplish with this newly achieved goal? The more vivid and the more emotions you can associate with reaching your goals the stronger the reason to achieve them will be.

Commit already…maybe later

Don’t just commit, pre-commit. If you wait until the last minute what your course of action will be you will find yourself constantly vacillating and relapsing into those behaviors you want so desperately to change. Often when you’re on a diet or trying to change behavior the phrase that is often used is, “I can’t”. I can’t eat those pastries. I can’t stay out that late. I can’t do this, or that. McGonigal also says, “Every time you tell yourself “I can’t”, you’re creating a feedback loop that is a reminder of your limitations. This terminology indicates that you’re forcing yourself to do something you don’t want to do.” If you simply change “I can’t” into “I don’t” all of a sudden you have a powerful tool to create change. You still aren’t doing something, but on a subconscious level you know that it’s a choice that you’ve made, and that you had a say in the decision. Psychologically there is a strong buy-in and adherence that happens when one feels included in the decision-making process.

Ask our Experts for FREE!Pre-committing is more than just more self-talk. Once you commit to something your actions should be in concert. If you’ve committed to eating healthy dinners the next action is to buy healthy ingredients for the week for those dinners. This also implies that you know what you’ll be cooking for the week. Now when you get home, you don’t have to guess at what to eat or if it’s a fast food kind of night. You’ve pre-committed to a behavior—changing your environment to reduce the amount of self-control you’ll need in that given moment. If you walk into a store without any form of payment (card, check or cash) there is an almost 100% chance you will leave that store without spending money.

You can also pre-commit to cheat, or in other words postpone. For example, you can allow yourself one day/week to indulge in candy or sweets. If you know that you’ve got a birthday party on Friday night and you’ll have cake and ice cream, then you know that Monday-Thursday are no sweets. You’ve postponed the rewards until a pre-committed time/day. You’ve changed the conversation from, “No” to “Not right now”. No one likes being told ‘no’. So when you postpone something-there’s less resistance in sticking to your guns. Postponing is also very effective at stress management. High stress levels leads to decreased self-control. In Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, Roy F. Baumeister explains that people who tell themselves “not now, but later,” are generally less tormented by the temptation of something they are trying to avoid (his example is eating chocolate cake).

Have a wing-man (or woman)

 If you can’t avoid the place, have someone with you that can help you stay strong. It will greatly help if said wing-man or woman has the same goals as you do otherwise it’s very deflating. You’re abstaining while they are partaking—resentment is bound to build up. The idea here is to help each other. Your wing-person doesn’t even have to be physically present when you need them. Just telling them your goals and where you are typically confronted beforehand will allow them to follow-up with you or you can report to them afterwards on how it went.

Breathe

“You won’t get very far in life without breathing.” -Ryan Carver

Taking some deep belly/diaphragm breaths can help you calm down, manage stress and regain some control over emotions. Breathing will cause you to stop and think instead of reacting impulsively. This simple act can help you act with a clear mind needed to make the best decision in that moment.

The basics breed more basics

Adequate sleep (on average 6+ hours each night), consistent exercise, and making good food choices are the basics. I know this sounds counterproductive especially if these are some of the areas you are trying to address. But by doing them it will help you be able to do them more and do them again and again (in the case of a positive habit you’re trying to create). It’s quite common to start exercising frequently and all of a sudden eating junk food doesn’t seem as appealing (let’s be honest—it always sounds appealing to some degree) and you find yourself reaching for the fruits and veggies instead of the ho-ho’s and Twinkies. It works, try it for yourself.

Reward yourself or else…

Having self-imposed rewards/penalties has been proven to help. We are wired to seek pleasure and avoid pain/discomfort. If you create rewards and/or penalties associated with your goals you are struggling to acquire you will have better focus and more drive to achieve them. Make sure your rewards don’t ruin your goal, for example you are trying to lose 5 lbs and your reward for reaching that is treating yourself to the nearest buffet.

Use the force

Darth Vader

Your subconscious/unconscious is a very powerful force, either for good or evil. So often we are concerned with trying to fight your subconscious, which proves very challenging because it’s rather covert. Instead of fighting it, what about joining it or using it? Unconsciously if we’re tempted-we’re more susceptible to give in. However, if we’re unconsciously/subconsciously reminded of our higher goals we go towards those instead. This is why having your goals visible several times each and every day is such a powerful force for reaching them-because you’re subconsciously reaffirming what you really want long-term, not just in the short-term.

Photo credits:

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