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Did you know – self-control is like a muscle that can be strengthened with the right kind of exercise?
Researchers have found that challenging the self-control “muscle” by asking people to control one small choice or action that they were not accustomed to controlling can make it stronger! You can do this for any little chore that you’ve been procrastinating on, like cleaning out your kitchen “junk” drawer. For example, you can create a little program for yourself that looks something like this:
Week 1 – open the drawer and look at the messy contents
Week 2 – tackle anything that is broken or has parts missing
Week 3 – throw out anything that you haven’t used in the last 5 years
Week 4 – find out if there’s a place where you can donate used batteries
Week 5 – find out if there’s somewhere that will accept donations of solo buttons
And so on…
When the research subjects followed this kind of program for a couple of months, not only did drawers get cleaned out but they also began to eat in a healthier way, they exercised more consistently, and they cut back on smoking, alcohol, and caffeinated beverages. They had not been asked to address these areas – these changes were completely spontaneous. They truly seemed to have strengthened their “self-control muscle”!
Other studies have found that making a commitment to any small but consistent action that requires self-control – like standing up straighter, using your non-dominant hand to open doors, or not saying “uh-huh” – can increase your overall self-control. Even although some of the self-control tasks that the subjects were assigned to may have seemed trivial or even somewhat irrelevant, they nonetheless seemed to have a positive impact on behaviors that people really care about, like improved health care practices, better ability to manage emotions, and stronger ability to resist temptations.
In all of these little challenges that people set up for themselves, the habit that was being formed was noticing what they were about to do, stopping to make a choice, and choosing a course of action that required self-control – rather than an easier or more automatic course of action. By taking on little challenges like this, we get our brain used to stopping before acting. The fact that the little tasks are somewhat inconsequential may even help because they are not overwhelming and they probably don’t lead to feeling deprived in any way.
Try it out for yourself! Pick a small task like using your non-dominant hand for some everyday task, not saying “yeah”, or making a daily habit of donating or otherwise disposing of something you no longer need, want or like. Notice the impact on your more major self-control challenges like eating more produce or getting to the gym regularly. You can even set yourself up with a small challenge that’s somehow related to your bigger challenge. For example, if your goal is to complete a 5K, you might start with a half-hour walk each day. If your goal is to give up processed foods, you might start by having two meals each week that contain no processed foods. Look for something small that strengthens your “self-control muscle” but doesn’t overwhelm it.
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With your continued health in mind,
Doreen Lerner, Ph.D.
Director, Institute for Lifelong Weight Management
Creator, The Full Mind Weigh® to Lifelong Weight Management
The Institute for Lifelong Weight Management provides education and training. The Full Mind Weigh® is strictly an educational program and is not a substitute for medical or psychological evaluation or treatment. If you think you may be suffering from an eating disorder, please consult with a qualified mental health professional who is trained to evaluate and treat eating disorders.