You want to say no to a second helping of ice cream or that extra drink. You want to be more productive and organized, and exercise more. You'd like to watch less television, reduce your screen time, and save more money.
So why do you struggle to achieve these things? Because they're not easy. Changing old habits is difficult for many of us.
Self-control is difficult, but it doesn’t have to be—with the right approach. A recent scientific review article (Duckworth, Gendler, and Gross, 2016) suggests that deliberately changing your environment to reduce temptation or promote healthy behavior is more likely to be effective than trying to exert willpower once you're in a tempting situation:
“Because impulses tend to grow stronger over time, situational self-control strategies—which can nip a tempting impulse in the bud—may be especially effective in preventing undesirable action. Ironically, we may underappreciate situational self-control for the same reason it is so effective.”
In other words, we may be less likely to think of or use strategies that involve changing our environment to avoid temptation because we think of self-control as an internal struggle, in which we have to fight and be strong. We equate self-control with mental strength and good character, but this doesn’t have to be the case. It is much easier to choose a healthy path when we are not faced with strong cravings or when cues to do the negative behavior are not right in our face.
Below are five ways to exert self-control, based on James Gross’s Process Model.
Choose to hang out with people or in environments that will enhance your self-control. Choose to spend time with friends who live healthy or lead busy lives, rather than those who encourage you to go out and party (or spend money, slack off, overeat, etc.). Go hiking rather than to the shopping mall.
Modify the situation to make self-control easier. If you have trouble getting out of bed, put your alarm clock across the room so you have to get out of bed to switch it off. If you struggle with alcohol, lock the hard liquor in a cupboard and give someone else the key.
If you can’t change the situation, change what you pay attention to. Find a distracting activity to do until a craving subsides. Or think about how good you will feel after you workout, save money, or eat healthy.
You can change what you think about or how you perceive a tempting object. For example, think deliberately about the way you behaved the last time you drank too much, in order to avoid drinking now. Or think about that designer bag as a rip-off, rather than something that might enhance your appearance.
You can stay in the situation and use mental strength to avoid temptation. This strategy is the most difficult because at this point, dopamine (the motivation and reward chemical) is already flowing in your brain, making it very easy to believe that the unhealthy behavior is not so bad.
The authors argue (and it seems intuitive) that making a decision to choose or change your environment earlier in the game is most likely to be effective in nipping impulsive behavior in the bud. If you find yourself in a tempting situation, you can still change your focus of attention, or remind yourself of the negative aspects of the unhealthy behavior...or just sit on your hands and grit your teeth!
Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D., is a practicing psychologist in Mill Valley, California, and former Professor of Psychology at the California School of Professional Psychology. She is an expert on relationships, stress, and mindfulness. She provides workshops, speaking engagements, and psychotherapy for individuals and couples. She regularly appears on radio shows and as an expert in national media. She also does long-distance coaching via the internet. She is the author of The Stress-Proof Brain (New Harbinger, 2017).