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Strengthening Self-Control

Being a good consumer may be detrimental to your health.

We live in a society where we are expected to eat, drink and buy things, many of which we don’t need. I'm sure we can all remember George W. Bush encouraging us to go shopping in the middle of a recession. It is our patriotic duty to be good consumers. Right Unfortunately, being a good consumer may devastate our health and result in financial disaster.

So what are we to do to look out for ourselves in a society that is clearly not looking out for us? The first strategy is a relatively simple one to describe, but a difficult one to implement in this society. It involves avoiding temptation. We know from research, both with children and adults, that this is one of the best ways of maintaining self-control. For example, children who stare directly at a treat that they would like, such as a marshmallow, are less likely to resist it than kids who close their eyes, turn away, or otherwise distract themselves. Likewise, adults who keep candy in a desk drawer indulge less than those who keep candy in plain sight. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) understands this principle well when they encourage people in recovery to avoid people, places and things associated with alcohol and substance abuse.

Another helpful technique that psychologists have used for years is called “implementation intention.” This psychobabble phrase refers to helping people plan for situations that may occur that will deplete their willpower. For example, if you are in recovery making a plan for Friday afternoon when your friends will want to go to happy hour, may help you to stay sober without drawing on your willpower.

But what are we to do as human beings if we possess only a limited reserve of self-control and willpower? There are so many temptations in our society. Will we always fail? The good news is that many researchers believe that willpower is never completely exhausted, that people may, indeed, hold some willpower in reserve for future temptations. Motivation appears to be the answer. Being motivated to persevere, even when our self-control has been run down.

Many of those who do research on self-control describe self-control as being like a muscle that gets fatigued with heavy use. But like a muscle, it can be made stronger with regular exercise. Australian scientists studying willpower found that research participants who were able to stick with an exercise program over a 2-month period allowed participants to show more self-control in other areas, such as smoking and drinking, eating healthier food, monitoring their spending more carefully and improving their study habits. The conclusion was that regularly exercising willpower with physical exercise led to stronger willpower in other areas of their lives.

The findings that we have discussed regarding willpower depletion and its tie to glucose levels also suggests that eating regularly to maintain blood sugar levels in the brain may help refuel rundown willpower stores. This suggests, as many experts on dieting recommend, that dieters who aim to maintain willpower and cut calories should eat frequent small meals, rather than skipping meals.

And last of all, the research on willpower depletion studies suggests that making a long list of New Year’s resolutions is not a good approach. Focusing on one goal at a time may be best. Once a good habit is in place, you no longer need to draw on your willpower to maintain the behavior. This gives you the opportunity to move on to the second goal on your list. Healthy habits can thus be established, become routine and will not require as much difficult decision-making.

For more information on willpower, go to the American Psychological Association's website and look for the publication by Kirsten Weir, “What You Need to Know about Willpower, the Psychological Science of Self-control.”

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