Last night we had pizza for dinner and I wanted to eat the whole thing. This is no exaggeration. I wanted to power down every single slice.
But, I exercised a little self-control, settled on a second slice and a big serving of salad and felt filled up rather than guilty.
It doesn’t always go like this. Sometimes I do reach for the extra slice and end up feeling too full and sick. Or, I say the thing I shouldn’t say: buy the notebook (I’m a writer—office supplies are the ultimate indulgence), though I have two new ones in the drawer.
But instead of following every whim—every time—I’m working on building my self-control. Turns out you can actually do this, and the more self-control you have, the less edgy and reactive you’ll be.
Daily Dramas Tax Self-Control
We all know people who tend to react impulsively. Those who buy too much, drink too much, eat too much or fly into a fit of rage over the smallest annoyances. Who hasn’t wanted to haul off and smack someone who’s acting like a jerk? Yet, most of us have enough self-control NOT to do that. Those who don’t end up in deep trouble for doing things they can’t take back.
Still, the rest of us struggle with self-control issues all the time. It is part of the human experience, and it’s exhausting. That is why it can be so hard to resist the family-sized bag of M&M’s at the end of a stressful day.
Whether you gobble every last one up or not depends on how depleted your reserves of self-control are, according to science bigwigs like Thomas Denson, a psychologist at the University of New South Wales.
Denson’s studies show that people who were under duress for a period of time have less self-control. In one experiment participants sat in front of a plate of cookies but were told not to eat any. Later, these same people demonstrated more aggressive behavior after receiving negative feedback from a loved one than those whose self-control hadn’t been tested.
When Self-Control Takes a Hit
Think about how this phenomena shows up in daily life then. A nit-picking boss drives you all day to make ridiculous changes to a report you authored. You nod your head, put up with his remarks, and do what you’re told without making trouble. In the end though, you might indulge in the extra cookie at lunch time or snipe at your husband over a stupid comment he makes at dinner, or sit on Facebook rather than finishing the work you need to get done. You’ve worked to keep your self-control in check all day and you’ve had ENOUGH already.
This can happen with food or shopping or anything. While I’m disciplined and eating healthy for weeks at a time, I may overindulge when somebody brings in a bag of potato chips. Sound familiar?
With a bit more self-control, though, we can feel calmer and less reactive even when stress levels do rise or temptations appear—which they always do.
Three ways to strengthen your self-control
1. Think about the why. In several experiments led by Kentaro Fujita participants who thought about “why” they did something were able to exert greater self-control and persist longer at a task then those who thought about “how” to do something. For example, if you think about why you are not going to eat an entire pizza—because you want to be healthy—you’re bound to strengthen your self-control and resist better than if you think about how you are going to avoid eating the pizza by just filling up on salad. When we know what the end result is—the goal we are going for—rather than the means of getting there, we’re more likely to put down the slice of pie, and build up our personal power.
2. Take a time out. We are constantly facing things that test our self-control. Make sure that each day you have a little breather from the bombardment and simplify your choices. If you’re buying toothpaste, for example, get the kind you always get to take some of the stress out of the kind of decision making that can tax your self-control on bigger things. Be sure too, to find a few minutes for restorative quiet each day. Take deep breaths, allow thoughts to flutter in and out, but don’t act on them. When your reserves of self-control are depleted, you need some time and space to refill.
3. Change the way you operate. Use your non-dominant hand to operate the mouse, pour the cereal, brush your teeth, or do anything else (that is safe to do) for two weeks. This takes self-control. As you practice this and persist, you become more disciplined and more able to handle all the other irritations in your day, according to research by Thomas Denson. Even changing your posture can help do this. So, if you are a shoulder slumper, practice sitting up straight. This could help strengthen your self-control and remain calm and controlled even under pressure.
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