Research shows that self control, or willpower, is an essential tool for success in any long-term endeavor that involves the accumulation and execution of particular habits. Improving one’s health and fitness is no exception. So how can we harness more of it? How can we leverage and grow the willpower necessary to overcome the urges and impulses that threaten to derail us off the track to our goals?
1) Wait: I can’t stress how powerful this trick is. The next time a derailing urge hits you, instead of gritting your teeth and immediately fighting back, try simply giving yourself 15 minutes before acting on the urge. Commit to nothing more than waiting that long. You’d be amazed how many urges completely subside with a little time.
2) Snack: Eating frequently actually helps you eat better. When we go too long between meals, our blood sugar drops, our brains fatigue, and the signal to eat a little something grows into a craving to consume everything. So snack early and often on healthy, natural foods and watch your ability to turn down large unhealthy meals improve considerably.
3) Forgive: It may sound strange, but this is a big one. You must realize that nobody has perfect self control. No one is even close. So don’t expect it of yourself. You are going to mess up and give into some temptation along the way. Failing to forgive yourself will only develop anger that will ruin your relationship with food and start a vicious cycle of self destruction. Just like failing to forgive someone else only hurts you, failing to forgive yourself can hurt you even more.
4) Sleep: Ever notice how efficient and productive a day is after a great night’s sleep? It’s in part due to a higher level of self control. Our ability to overcome distractions and temptations is escalated with sleep. Going to bed is step number one in eating clean
5) Practice: Self control is a muscle that must be trained. Leverage any small situation where you find an urge is present, and use it to intentionally restrict yourself to some degree. Conversely, when you would rather not do something, even if skipping it would be rather inconsequential, try forcing yourself to go through with the action anyway. You’ll be glad you trained your self control when the moment of real need arises.
6) Exercise: Research shows that exercise’ improvement in blood flow, oxygenation of the brain, elevation of electrical activity, and secretion of hormones all contribute to heightened self control. The sense of achievement provides a winning mentality that can flow into our diets. Yes, exercise can increase hunger, but it’s easier to reach for the right stuff because we’ve done it.
7) Reflect: This strategy can take a variety of forms. Meditation and/or daily devotion has been proven to increase self control. So has church. Spending a moment at least each week, or better yet – each day – on your spiritual side, can give you the power you need act in congruence with your long-term goals, rather than short-term impulses. Even reading a book that provides a new perspective can cause you to step back long enough to re-evaluate your current habits, and act intentionally to change them for the better.
8) Drink: Your body is about 70% water, but your brain nears 90% water. Just like a lack of food and sleep can cloud decision-making abilities and self control, so too does a lack of water. If you know your lean body mass, aim for 70% of that number in ounces of water per day. If you don’t know your lean body mass, aim for 1/2 your body weight in ounces per day. A well-watered brain is a well-tempered brain.
9) Replace: This is a cornerstone of self control. The ability to avoid doing something you really don’t want to do often hinges on your ability to find something else to do in its place. For example, if you always find yourself overeating from 9-10pm, try scheduling game time with a friend or spouse during that period instead. Try to pre-determine alternate courses of action for particular urges. Ones that give you a similar feeling of reward are best.
10) Talk: It may sound weak or corny, but reaching out to an appointed accountability partner at the “time of temptation,” whether it be a friend or coach, is a great way to keep yourself on track. Sometimes we just need someone to either talk us away from a particular anti-goal action, or talk us into taking a particular pro-goal action. Ironically, making yourself this vulnerable is often the key to making yourself that strong.