Six Self-Control Tips From Experts

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Over the past four months, I gained a little weight. About 20 pounds to be exact. My beautiful runner’s abs have slowly softened into a jelly belly, my butt has become a pants-busting behemoth. In short, it’s time to hit the gym. But like every journalist, I’m an expert procrastinator. What better way to stave off actually doing something about my new love handles than to conduct “research”? Over the holidays, I read Daniel Akst‘s new hardcover, We Have Met the Enemy: Self-Control in an Age of Excess, which relies on scientific studies to help explain why it’s so hard to resist fatty foods and tobacco and other indulgences, even when we know the consequences. To help us all in our New Year’s resolutions, I’ve summarized below a few self-control tips from Akst, some from his book and others from this interview I did with him. Now excuse me while I go hop on a treadmill. Or at least think about it.

1) Be humble. Know that your willpower is limited, evolutionarily disadvantaged, and will fade under stress. Acknowledge that you don’t have total control of yourself, as willpower is strongly correlated with genetics.

2) Pre-commit. Knowing your weaknesses, take steps to “pre-commit” to your goals, meaning you change your environment to include or exclude desired presences. Don’t want to eat cookies? Don’t buy them at the grocery store. Want to work out? Take a new route to the office that forces you go past the gym, or pack a work-out bag and put it in your car. 

3) Document. If you mark on the calendar that you’ve resisted the donut shop’s siren call for X number of days, give yourself a reward. But don’t overdo it. Instead, strive to make your next number of days even longer. 

4) Enlist others to help you. Knowing we traditionally used others to help ensure harmony (e.g. having people witness your wedding so you’re less likely to break its vows), do the same with your resolutions. Make a bet with a friend for a significant amount of money or a donation to a cause you hate. E.g. if your weight goes above 200, you must donate $500 to the NRA or give your friend $1000. The higher the price you set on failure, the likelier you are to succeed. 

5) When faced with temptation, you can deal with it with resistance techniques such as thinking of something else, reading a book, keeping the desired object out of your sightline, or listing unattractive attributes of the object of desire rather than focusing on attractive ones.

6) Go outdoors. Studies have shown that spending time in nature strengthens self-resolve, even among the weak-willed. Time spent among green, living things will not only up your willpower, it’s an easy way to work in some endorphin-boosting exercise or meditation. 

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