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Improve Self-Control with 5 Science-Based Tricks

Sticking to a goal is difficult. As I write this, 2016 is just getting started, and plenty of people have made tough New Year’s resolutions. Just a few weeks in, and most people have already given up. If you’ve ever made such a resolution, you know how difficult they can be to maintain. This year, though, try to improve self-control success with some insights from psychological science.

If these five tips intrigue you, be sure to check out the complete online video course, full of science-based self-control techniques tailored to dieting and weight loss. Whether you’re trying to stick to a diet or accomplish some other goal like saving money, being more generous, or consuming less alcohol, the fundamentals of self-control psychology remain influential.

Chocolates background. Chocolate. Assortment of fine chocolates in white, dark, and milk chocolate. Praline Chocolate sweets

1. Say “I Don’t”

When faced with a temptation that brings out your need for self-control, you could either respond to that temptation by saying, “I don’t do this” or “I can’t do this.” Although it might seem like a subtle difference, it can affect how well you’ll be able to resist the temptation.

Some psychologists have argued that saying “I don’t” signals greater commitment to a goal than “I can’t.” For example, if the waiter wheels the fancy dessert tray to the table after a big meal, I could say to myself, “I don’t get dessert,” which means that I have personally committed to avoiding dessert at restaurants. Alternatively, if I say to myself, “I can’t get dessert,” then I’m effectively blaming something other than myself for my avoidance.

Inspired by this hypothesis, researchers conducted a series of studies to see if it made a real difference. In one study, they simply trained people to respond to a temptation with “I don’t do it” or “I can’t do it.” At the end of the study, all of the participants were given a small gift for their participation; they could choose between a chocolate candy bar or a healthy granola bar. The people who were trained to say “I don’t” were more likely to make the healthy snack choice, compared to the people who were trained to say “I can’t.”

2. Don’t Block Your Inner Voice

Studies have shown that it can be harder to control your impulses when your mind is occupied with other activities, but why? One possibility is that when we’re distracted, we block our “inner voices.” Your inner voice is a way of talking to yourself and consciously controlling your actions. If you’ve ever said “I talked myself out of it,” then you’re familiar with the concept.

Recent research has shown that blocking your inner voice can have negative consequences for self-control. In the experiment, participants played a simple game that required them to control their impulses in order to make the correct decisions. While they played this game, though, they also did one of two distracting activities. Some participants had to repeat the word “computer” over an over, which used up their verbal abilities, effectively blocking their inner voice. Other participants had to repeatedly draw circles with their non-dominant hands–an activity that was distracting but didn’t block their inner voices. In the end, the participants who blocked their inner voices did worse on the task because they had more trouble controlling their impulses.

The lesson? Allow your inner voice to be free! Be aware of times when you might mindlessly break your goals because you’re too consumed with other activities that block your ability to stop yourself.

3. Stay Humble

As I’ve written in another post, humility can be a helpful way to stick to your goals. In some recently published studies, researchers had some participants think about a time when they felt humble. Compared to people who recalled a neutral experience, those who re-thought a time of humility were better able to control their eating.

By simply focusing away from yourself and onto other people’s needs through the simple act of humility, you might find that you’re better able to resist alluring temptations. The idea is that you can gain inner strength by thinking about others.

exercise-841167_6404. Be Optimistic

 We all know that self-control is difficult; we know that there will be obstacles in the way. If we’re trying to abstain from alcohol, we know there will be social pressures to drink. If we’re trying to stick to a strict exercising regimen, we know that there will be days when we just can’t find the strength to hit the gym.

So what do you do when you know that the road to reaching your goals will be hard? Stay optimistic. Research has shown that when we’re motivated to do well, we make more optimistic predictions about our abilities to reach those goals. In turn, these optimistic predictions fuel our diligent pursuit of those goals.

By contrast, when people are motivated to be really rational and accurate about their likelihood of overcoming future obstacles, they make less optimistic predictions, which ultimately produce less effort when it comes to pursuing the goal. The lesson is pretty simple, then. When you’re considering the difficult road ahead, be optimistic about your ability to meet those challenges. You might find that you become especially motivated to reach that goal.

5. Think Abstractly

I’ve covered this on the blog before, too. Getting into a more “abstract” frame of mind has been shown to boost self-control success. More specifically, thinking about the “big picture,” instead of concrete, specific details, is associated with improved ability to avoid temptations.

Studies have shown that people improved their self-control by changing their mindset. In these experiments, researchers subtly nudged people to think in more abstract or concrete ways and found that a simple nudge to think more abstractly produced increased self-control success, compared to the concrete nudges. In one study specifically, they looked at students and the self-control it can take to hunker down and keep studying. When it comes to studying, there are a ton of possible temptations: playing video games, reading Buzzfeed articles, watching TV, etc. Thinking in a more high-level, abstract way led people to rate temptations less positively than thinking in a more low-level, concrete way.

Start to Improve Self-Control Now!

Our brains can seem pretty happy to jump on temptations and make choices that are good in the short term but bad in the long term. By understanding the mental processes that help and hurt self-control, however, you can develop effective strategies to boost your likelihood of success.

As I mentioned earlier, there’s plenty more to know about self-control psychology and tricks to improve self-control success. For one resource, check out this full online video course I produced in collaboration with Udemy. You can see that it’s already getting really positive responses from people who’ve taken it.

Have a happy 2016![1]  …or whatever year you’re reading this in.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1.  …or whatever year you’re reading this in.

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