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Six Principles to Best Manage Impulses to Maximize Life Satisfaction and Success

It's easy to encourage impulse control but how do you actually do it?

Some thoughtful readers of my recent blog post last week about the importance of controlling impulses to maximize life satisfaction and success asked about particular methods to better control impulses.

This is an excellent and important question that clearly needs to be addressed. While it is easy to say that impulse control is a good thing, it is harder to actually do it. Here are six principles to help you better manage your impulses.

  1. Know your risks. Assess what areas of your life have caused trouble for you as it relates to impulse control. Some people have trouble with procrastination. Some have problems with drinking too much or eating too much. Others are "hot-tempered" and have trouble controlling their anger. Still, others find it challenging to manage their spending impulses, often getting themselves into financial or debt troubles. Can you identify the areas of your life where impulse control gets you into trouble? Better yet, ask someone who knows you well to answer this question. They may have a better perspective on your issues with impulse control than you do. In fact, they likely do.
  2. Plan for your risks. Once you have identified your particular impulse control risks, you can better plan for them and develop a productive problem-solving action plan. Let social engineering help you. For example, if eating too much is a problem for you, then consider ways to keep problematic foods out of your environment. If drinking too much is a problem, perhaps keep alcohol out of the home. If shopping is a problem, consider avoiding the malls or getting rid of your credit cards. If friends, family, or associates encourage you in a negative way (e.g., having "drinking buddies"), consider altering who you spend time with or how you spend time with these individuals or groups. Social engineering is very helpful if you take it seriously. Alter your environment to help you cope better with impulse control. Please note that I am not encouraging you to merely repress impulses or to deny them. Rather, I'm suggesting that you learn to better manage them in a productive and healthy way by managing your environment better.
  3. Count to 10... a lot! If you can delay action on your impulses you can often overcome them. There really is something to be said for counting to 10 (of course, count slowly). Or if counting slowly is unlikely, then count to 10 in another language. For some people, they may want to count to 100 in another language!
  4. Be mindful. Being attentive to your feelings, impulses, and desires in a nonjudgmental way by noticing them without attaching to them in a mindful manner can be very helpful. Remember, just because you have an impulse doesn't mean you have to act on it!
  5. Get corrective feedback. It's hard to change behavior without ongoing corrective feedback. Can those who are close to you assist by giving you corrective feedback when you are acting on impulses in a problematic manner? Of course, you don't want friends and family to be nagging you but if they can helpfully and without judgment point out behaviors that you might not notice then you may make progress on your goal to better control impulses.
  6. Rome wasn't built in a day. Don't give up. Behavior change is hard. It's very hard! The odds are high that you'll need to work on it over time and that you'll make progress sometimes with several steps forward and several steps backward. Don't give up. Any progress in the right direction is indeed progress and you might try to be gentle with yourself knowing that Rome wasn't built in a day.

There are no magic or simple answers when it comes to controlling and managing your impulses (and behavior change in general). But there are principles for success. Try these out and see how they work for you.

More from Thomas G. Plante Ph.D., ABPP
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