Picture yourself at a table, and on the plate in front of you sits your very favorite kind of home-baked cookie. Maybe even two of them. And oh man, they're still warm.
But you had made a firm resolution not to eat any sweets for two weeks. You want the cookies (who wouldn't want the cookies?) but you push back from the table and leave, cookieless.
Now, go get a cookie—really—and put it in front of you. Can you keep your resolution and actually resist?
Or could you only imagine resisting ahead of time?
This is the essence of self-control, the ability to bring one's will to bear on behavior. We humans are far enough along the evolutionary path to make beneficial decisions in the abstract, yet not so far from our animal selves that we reliably act on that decision when the time arrives to make a choice. With due respect to cookies everywhere, in our scenario they represent the challenges to our will—the distractions that can crumble self-control.
We have better self-control when there is a buffer of time between decision-making and action-taking. A recent study has taken the novel approach of investigating what happens in that interim, and sets an ambitious goal: Tweaking our psychology so that we can exert will as effectively in the moment of action as when we imagine a goal.
Feel good about yourself
"When you visualize a goal in your mind's eye, which we call abstraction, it generally reveals who you are and what you want for yourself," says Kentaro Fujita, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at The Ohio State University and leader of the study.
Abstraction appeals to our higher cognitive functions (empathy, judgment, ethics) and helps us establish a psychologically healthy way of interacting with the world. When we keep those abstract ideas active rather than letting them get subsumed by temptation or dogged by failure, we're exercising self-control.
Resisting temptation makes you feel good about yourself. Previous research has shown that good self-control is associated with higher self-esteem, superior coping skills, and better interpersonal skills.
Power struggles inside your brain
If you feel that, despite your best judgment, there's a part of you that still wants that cookie, you would be correct.
The ancient limbic system and its surrounding areas are the ones that keep us reaching for the cookie; the pre-frontal cortex, which evolved later, judges whether we should or shouldn't.
"If you look at the size and development of certain areas of the brain, the more primitive areas process responsive elements like vision, taste and touch," says Fujita. "Research suggests that the 'newer' areas are involved in higher functions like decision-making."
Join the resistance
Our surroundings are full of obstacles that threaten to derail self-control, and for an intelligent species, we've constructed a shocking number of them ourselves. We've created a living environment that seduces us to smoke, over-achieve, eat unhealthy food, and buy-buy-buy everything we can get our hands on.
Says Fujita, "We live in the concrete but we would like to live in the abstract. It's bridging the two that's so difficult."
Difficult, yes, but not impossible. Fujita recommends the following strategies:
Get the information you need. Self-control is about making good decisions, so make sure you have all the information you need to make a good decision. We wouldn't buy a Blu-ray television without first doing some research, but we'll stuff ourselves with food without knowing its caloric content.
Make decisions ahead of time. Pre-commitment strategies—whether it's deciding you won't have a smoke tonight, or that you'll practice your backswing twice a week to improve your tennis game—will help you lock into self-control.
Reward your own successes and don't overrate your failures. For example, if you committed to reading a book every week, take the weekend off and go to a ballgame. If you find yourself in a situation where you didn't anticipate a challenge to your resolve (say, it was an unusually good week for television and you didn't hit your chapters), recognize that a single slip does not mean your self-control has fallen away. Rather, consider how you might be more consistent over time. Adapting and adjusting will tell you more about yourself and help shorten the distance between abstract thinking and decision-making.
Engaging in these actions and decisions allows us to impose who we are on our everyday lives. Self-control is not about changing who we are, but precisely the opposite: It's about exerting our own will so that we can become, in the real world, who we see in our mind's eye. Wouldn't such a victory be much sweeter than a cookie?
More on MSN Health & Fitness:
- Search for Temptation
- Chocolate and Acts of Kindness: No Difference to Your Brain
- Stimulating Confidence
- Does Weather Really Affect Our Mood?
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