“Exercise” Your Way To Better Self-Control! Part 2

Printed with permission from the Cooper Institute.

Last week in Resisting Temptations: Part 1, we discussed the Strength Model of Self-Control, or comparing self-control to a muscle that can be fatigued with overuse.  For example, you use your self-control muscle all day, resisting some chocolate chip cookies, and when you go home, you have no strength left to resist the chocolate cake on the counter.  This helps explain why people who are faced with situations that require a lot of self-control (resisting tempting sweets) or several situations that require a little to medium amount of self-control (getting through a day full of errands) eventually lose their self-control.

If this sounds like you have no control over how much self-control you have, Muraven and colleagues say don’t worry.  Just like a muscle, you can “exercise” your self-control to make it stronger.  In their research they asked people to participate in a task where they need to use their self-control to stop themselves from thinking about a white bear or to sit quietly for 5 minutes.  The authors then asked participants to squeeze a device that measures strength for as long as they could.  Like in the previous blog, people who were asked to use their self-control to stop thinking about the white bear gave up squeezing the device faster than people who were just asked to sit quietly.

Participants were then asked to do 1 of 3 activities that require some amount of self-control over a 2 week period; 1) remember to sit up straight, 2) stay in a good mood, or 3) pay attention to and write down everything they ate.  They also had a group that was told to do nothing so they could compare “exercisers” to “non-exercisers”.

After the 2 weeks was up, Muraven and colleagues asked all the participants to squeeze the strength device again for as long as they could.  What Muraven and colleagues found was that people who were asked to exercise their self-control were able to squeeze the device longer compared to people who did not spend the two weeks exercising their self-control.  This means that if you try to engage in self-control over a long period of time, you’re more likely to be able to resist those temptations that come up, say, after a hard day at work.

The great thing about exercising yourself control is you can do it in a lot of ways.  For example, staying on the treadmill for an extra 5 minutes each time can help you resist the urge to put off that big project.  So if you find yourself giving in sooner than you’d like, consider trying to strengthen your self-control muscle to help you get through those temptations.  Next week, we will talk about how you may be able to improve yourself control by changing the way you eat.

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