In general, people have an overly positive vision of themselves and their abilities. What flaw are they most honest about? Self control.
Of the two dozen “character strengths” listed in the researchers’ questionnaire, self-control was the one that people were least likely to recognize in themselves. Conversely, when people were asked about their failings, a lack of self-control was at the top of the list.
So if this is something most people can agree on, what can you do to increase willpower?
1) Don’t resist, just postpone
Telling yourself “Not now, but later” is far more powerful than “No, you can’t have that.”
…people who had told themselves Not now, but later were less troubled with visions of chocolate cake than the other two groups… Those in the postponement condition actually ate significantly less than those in the self-denial condition…The result suggests that telling yourself I can have this later operates in the mind a bit like having it now. It satisfies the craving to some degree—and can be even more effective at suppressing the appetite than actually eating the treat.
2) Take it out of your hands
Daniel Akst, author of We Have Met the Enemy: Self-Control in an Age of Excess, explains how we can use “precommitment devices” to rein in desire:
How can you use precommitment to keep yourself from giving in to unwanted desires? You’re probably already doing so—for example, by asking your significant other, on the way to a restaurant, not to let you order dessert when you get there. Dan Ariely, that tireless student of human irrationality, has collected several interesting precommitment anecdotes from regular people, including one who placed her credit card in a container of water in the freezer, thereby requiring a cooling off—er, that is, warming up—period before use, and another who, before a date with a guy she knew she shouldn’t sleep with, wore her “granniest” underwear—presumably to deter herself from disrobing…
3) Increase willpower by not relying on it
Manipulate your environment so you don’t have to exert self-control. Throw out the donuts. Hide the booze. This has been shown to be surprisingly powerful.
Manipulate your environment so as to make what you should do easy and what you shouldn’t do hard.
Lower the activation energy for habits you want to adopt, and raise it for habits you want to avoid. The more we can lower or even eliminate the activation energy for our desired actions, the more we enhance our ability to jump-start positive change.
4) “If-Then” Plans
That’s a fancy way of setting a standard response to a situation so you don’t have to think. When someone asks you to vote for that “other” political party, to inject heroin or consider murder you probably don’t actually consider it. You have a knee jerk script in your head that says “I don’t do that.”
If everything you did required a thoughtful decision, you’d never get out of bed in the morning. Too much of this and you’re a computer. But used deliberately it can be quite powerful.
It’s called if-then planning, and it is a really powerful way to help you achieve any goal. Well over a hundred studies, on everything from diet and exercise to negotiation and time management, have shown that deciding in advance when and where you will take specific actions to reach your goal (e.g., “If it is 4 p.m., then I will return any phone calls I should return today”) can double or triple your chances for success.
5) Make sure your goal has an emotional component
If you’re really going to be motivated to control yourself, you need to feel something. Having an abstract goal in mind isn’t enough.
Chip and Dan Heath say that the emotional mind is key in their book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard:
Focus on emotions. Knowing something isn’t enough to cause change. Make people (or yourself) feel something.
When we don’t feel meaning, when what we’re doing doesn’t have a purpose, motivation goes out the window. Noah Goldstein, author of Yes!: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive, reviews a study:
Adam Grant, a scholar in the field of organizational behavior, realized that workers often fail to live up to their potential because they’ve lost track of the significance and meaningfulness of their own jobs. He figured that if he could remind employees of why their jobs are important, they might become more highly motivated, and therefore, more productive individuals.
The feelings associated with something are far more powerful than the ideas. Make sure they’re on your side.
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