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Avoid This Mistake When Trying to Be More Disciplined

Self-regulation strategies will fail you if you rely solely on willpower.

A new study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology investigates common beliefs about self-control and how they might impact people’s willingness to employ self-control strategies in their lives.

Psychologist Anamarie Gennara of Carleton University in Ottawa, the lead author of the paper, reported, "My colleague, Dr. Johanna Peetz, came up with this project idea following a conversation with a friend who dismissed the use of strategies for self-control—they said one should be able to do it without having to resort to such ‘tricks.'"

The study defined self-control strategies as “actions and thoughts people take to design their environments in a way that make goal-directed choices easier and more likely.” For instance, if an individual who is trying to lose weight struggles with cookie cravings, they can either put the cookies out of their reach or remind themselves of their weight-loss goals or the many demerits of processed foods and sugars when they feel vulnerable.

In recent years, we have seen a proliferation of such strategies in the name of productivity or focus hacks (like dopamine detoxes, task stacking and chucking, the Pomodoro method, etc.). While the strategies have been widely circulated, they have also received criticism, with many people writing them off as superficial tricks that are a poor substitute for strong "willpower."

To better understand the beliefs people hold about self-control and how they influence behavior, the researchers conducted five experiments in which participants were presented with fictional characters described as having high self-control and asked to assess whether these individuals were more likely to rely on willpower or strategies to resist temptations.

The initial findings showed that individuals perceived people with high self-control as more likely to use willpower over self-control strategies. Also, in subsequent experiments, targets described as using strategies consistently received lower self-control ratings compared to those who employed willpower.

Remarkably, this perception gap disappeared for participants who strongly believed in the efficacy of strategies for self-control. When individuals read an article emphasizing the importance of self-control strategies instead of willpower, the difference in perception between strategy users and willpower users was notably reduced. Moreover, participants who firmly believed in the effectiveness of strategies expressed higher intentions to use these techniques themselves.

The results thus indicated that:

  1. "Strategy users” were consistently perceived as having less self-control than “willpower users.”
  2. Those who read about the importance of strategies rated fictional persons using strategies as higher in self-control and expressed greater willingness to use those strategies themselves.

“Our research shows that people's beliefs about the importance of strategies for self-control significantly shape their perceptions of others who employ these strategies, as well as their own willingness to use them,” Gennara reported.

The findings have important implications, as they highlight the impact of beliefs on perceptions and behavior. By understanding the link between self-control and our theories about it, interventions can be designed to promote the use of effective self-control strategies. The authors suggest that educating individuals about the value of strategies can shift their beliefs and lead to an increased willingness to employ these techniques. Such efforts could pave the way for easier and more effective self-control in various real-world contexts.

In practical terms, individuals seeking to improve their self-control and resist temptations more effectively should be open to experimenting with different strategies. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, as different strategies may work better for different people. Instead of solely relying on will, people should be encouraged to discover and implement strategies that align with their unique goals and preferences.

Believing that willpower is more central to self-control than strategies might be a disservice to your untapped potential. However, Gennara states, merely informing people about the benefits of strategies may not lead to lasting change. Instead, she suggests linking the use of strategies to positive traits, such as discipline. Tapping into individuals' inherent desire to perceive themselves positively can encourage them to find greater motivation to adopt self-control strategies in their daily lives.

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