The New Year is a time many of us decide to work on personal self-improvement projects. This usually means we are trying to do something that involves self- control. We tend to think that self-control requires that we summon up sufficient willpower to resist temptation and forge ahead in our newly chosen direction. But the truth is that willpower alone rarely is enough to engage in self-control. In fact, people who seem to “have willpower” actually don’t rely on “willpower” alone – they perform actions that make it more likely they can resist urges and temptations and redirect their actions toward their self-improvement goals.
The basic problem in any self-control plan such as New Year’s resolutions is that the behavior we want to decrease or eliminate is supported by powerful positive consequences, which includes the avoidance of negative experiences like anxiety, exertion, even pain that are (a) immediate and (b) close to a certainty - while the behavior we want to increase as a substitute typically has positive consequences that are (a) in the future and (b) possible but by no means a certainty. The upshot is that the short term consequences, being immediate and totally predictable, are far more powerful than the delayed benefits, For example, if I want to exercise more, I must grapple with not avoiding the immediate and predictable negative consequences of working-out (e.g., time expended, effort involved, equipment to purchase), as well as with the positive consequences of avoiding exercising (e.g., free time, watch TV, do pressing tasks) while knowing that the benefits of a regular exercise routine may be achieved at some point in the future in the form of weight loss, cardiovascular health, and social approval. The key here is that the long term benefits are likely to follow behavior change but are not guaranteed to do so, and therefore behavior has to be changed and maintained in an aura of uncertainty – which is a big change from the predictable short term consequences that are experienced with unchanged behavior. Thus, the primary task in self-control plans is to figure out how to decrease the power of the short term consequences and increase the power of the long term consequences.
Here are some tips to help make these changes in the consequences so that a self-control plan has a much better chance of succeeding:
- Identify a clear behavioral goal. Goals can be achieved best when they are formulated as specific behaviors. It is almost impossible to achieve the goal of being a “better person” or to “improve my personality” but you can change how you eat, exercise, study, control aggression or express affection.
- Develop a realistic plan. This means you will be more successful selecting a goal that is doable now given where you are now, as opposed to setting a goal that is an idealistic end state. How does one do that? First, accept that sustainable change almost always occurs gradually. So we must break down our end goal into achievable components that we call sub-goals. And we need to start with our first sub-goal at what we call the baseline: where are you now? The first sub-goal should be only slightly beyond where you are today. For example, if you do not work out at all now, it will be an enormous challenge to begin a self-control plan with the goal of working out twice a week for 90 minutes each time. That almost assuredly is too ambitious for your baseline level. A more appropriate initial sub-goal might be to work out once a week for 30 or even just 15 minutes. Second, focus on changing your behaviors that need to be changed to achieve your sub-goal – you have much more control over your behavior than you do over the outcome of the behaviors, which is usually a product of some sort (e.g., weight loss, promotion at work, better grades). Sometimes you study really well, and the test is just very difficult, and you don’t do as well as you wanted to. But you still behaved as you wanted to, and if you continue to do that, eventually the desired product is likely to be realized.
- Build in encouragement. You can alert others to your self-control plan and ask them to provide praise or approval for your successful achievement of sub-goals or just for your efforts to change. You also can give yourself verbal “pats on the back” for exerting appropriate effort and/or attaining your sub-goals, A third strategy to build in encouragement is to play a “game” with yourself and establish both shorter term and longer term rewards that you will only allow yourself to enjoy after achieving a certain sub-goal.
- Implant structure. Provide prompts that will remind you to “stay the course” and resist succumbing to the power of the short term consequences.These can be post-it notes, smart phone alerts and reminders from friends and family. You can pre-arrange prompts as well – psychologists call this “pre-commitment.” For example, you can arrange ahead of time to study or exercise with a friend, bring foods into the home that are lower in calories or are packaged in smaller units, or purchase a membership in a gym or a subscription to a theatre group. A third way to add structure is to self-record your behavior, which provides feedback as to how you are doing and can suggest ways to improve the plan.
- Know yourself. If your self-control plan seeks to decrease enjoyment of highly desired goodies (e.g., high calorie desserts, reality TV shows), allow yourself to “earn” the goodie you are trying to decrease. This may sound counterproductive, but a key to successful self-control is to minimize the sensation of deprivation. For example, you can reward yourself with the “forbidden fruit” you are avoiding in your plan (e.g., an ice cream sundae) for eating appropriately as defined by your self-control plan for 6 ½ days of the week. This will reduce a feeling of being deprived of a goodie that you value highly – and a feeling of deprivation is a strong cue that can lead you to abandon a self-control plan. In essence, earning the forbidden reward demonstrates you are in control of it, rather than the reward being in control of you and your behavior.
- Understand and manage the change process. Virtually all self-control plans, including highly successful ones, can’t avoid glitches. That is, change rarely is always in the desired direction, but rather, it includes “slips” backward. Slips are handled most effectively by recognizing that the key element in a change program is that overall you are heading in the right direction, even with the inevitable steps back at various points in the process – two steps forward, one step back is still good progress! In fact, inevitable slips offer excellent opportunities to learn about yourself and how you can improve your change program in light of who you are! Mistakes and failures are part of the human condition, and since you are a human being with flaws, your self-control plan cannot breeze along without some hiccups along the way. It is essential that you accept your inevitable slips without guilt, learn from them, regroup, and continue forward. If you do not accept slips as guilt-free learning opportunities, you are more likely to abandon your plan and relapse back to your baseline level (e.g., regain all weight, discontinue exercising).
- Look at the bigger picture. Although it is very important to focus on specific behavioral sub-goals that will “add up” to your actual “final” goal, it helps to conceptualize the whole self-control change process as one of “lifestyle modification” rather than as an intense focus on isolated behavior changes (e.g., decreasing carbs or calories). This is because to sustain the changes instilled by any self-control plan one must, in truth, change one’s lifestyle to a certain extent!
Changing behaviors through self-control strategies is rarely easy. But your “willpower” can be marshalled powerfully in service of self-control when it gets some help from you!!