Supersize Your Self-Control
"No mimosa for me. I have to go running after brunch."
"Dessert? I'm too full from dinner."
"Sorry, can't make happy hour; I'm off to Spinning class."
We all know a friend who seems immune to the siren song of cocktails, cupcakes, and canapes. Wouldn't you like to know her secret? Shh...She's found a new muscle to flex: her willpower. That's right. Researchers have found that you can chisel your self-control just as you do your quads or biceps. "With practice your self-control muscle becomes less flabby, so you have the strength you need to stick with a weight-loss or exercise program," says Nathan DeWall, PhD, assistant professor of social psychology at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. We asked leaders in the field of self-regulation (that's scientist-speak for self-control) to share simple exercises that will bolster your resolve. Soon you'll be the one trading daiquiris for Diet Cokes and rising with the sun to do your morning run.1. Boost Your Brain Power
"Meditation requires you to tap all the self-regulation systems in your brain as well as the self-monitoring mechanism," says Kelly McGonigal, PhD, a health psychologist at Stanford University and author of the forthcoming The Willpower Instinct. Every time you meditate, you use two important parts of your brain: the prefrontal cortex, which helps you make smart choices, and the anterior cingulate cortex, which helps you be aware of when you make such choices and when you don't. The more you activate these systems, the more powerful they become, so in the future it will feel easier to do the right thing. "Eventually you will start to notice whenever you are doing something that is inconsistent with your goals," McGonigal says.
Work Your Will
Meditate for just one minute every day this week. Here's how to get started: Sit quietly with your eyes closed and count your breaths. When you reach 10, begin again. Whenever your mind wanders from your breath, start again at one. Work up to five minutes a day.2. Be a Skeptical Dreamer
When it comes to goal setting, are you: (a) a wishful thinker (you fantasize about wearing your skinny jeans again) or (b) a complainer (you focus on how hard it is to resist food at parties and worry that people will think you are no fun)? Either of these attitudes can derail you on your way to your goal, but oddly enough, adopting both at once may have the opposite effect. People who imagine succeeding and then reflect on the obstacles facing them are more inspired to reach a goal than those who do solely one or the other, researchers from New York University in New York City and the University of Hamburg in Germany discovered.
Work Your Will
Have a weight-loss goal? Imagine how good you'll feel when you fit into your old jeans. Feel them sliding effortlessly over your hips; hear your friend telling you how great you look. Now think about what stands in the way: the office vending machine at 2 p.m.; skipping your morning run because you stayed out too late the night before; or, you know, just cheese. Now you're ready for the next self-control sculptor: Create an if-then game plan.3. Play the "What if?" Game
Devising a plan B helps you cope with situations that may undo you (cocktails on Friday night) because it shifts the decision-making moment from the danger zone (when the bartender asks if you would like one more mojito) to a point in time when you're in touch with what you want to achieve (before you even set foot in the bar). That's what New York University researchers discovered in their study of students who wanted to eat less junk food. When the students thought through tempting scenarios in advance and made if-then plans specifying how to overcome these temptations, it was easier for them to stick to their healthy choices later.
Work Your Will
Jot down the obstacles on the road to your skinny jeans, then write down an if-then plan for sidestepping each one. Check out the chart below to see how your cheat sheet might look.
|Office vending machine at 2 p.m.||If I get the urge to buy chips out of the vending machine, then I'll eat the apple I have at my desk|
|Skipping my morning run because I stayed out too late||If I stay out too late, then I'll do a quick workout DVD in the morning instead of running|
|Cheese||If I'm craving cheese, then I'll have one low-fat string cheese from the fridge instead of a wheel of Brie|
Practice reframing the choices you give yourself. When faced with a doughnut, don't ask yourself "Do I want that chocolate-frosted or not?" The only reward in that equation is the doughnut, and our bodies have been hard-wired over years of evolution to seek rewards such as food and sex to keep us alive. "When the brain identifies a reward, it shifts into a state of intense focus and drive," says McGonigal. You can use that drive to your advantage simply by changing the reward in any given situation. Make the choice "Do I want to be one step closer to my dream body or not?" "It's easier to go after something you want than something you don't want," McGonigal says.
Work Your Will
When temptation strikes, ID a positive reward that will help you sidestep it. If a friend invites you to happy hour but you're trying to cut back on empty calories, change the focus from food to friendship. There's no law that says you must drink three martinis so that you can hang with your pals. Order a seltzer and start slinging the gossip; that's really what you wanted anyway!5. See Temptation in a New Light
In the 1960s, self-control researchers at Stanford University made a groundbreaking discovery: You can keep four-year-olds from gobbling sweets by giving them a new perspective. Walter Mischel, PhD, now professor of psychology at Columbia University, left kids alone in a room with a marshmallow that they were told not to eat in order to get two marshmallows later. Most kids found it almost impossible to wait. If before leaving the room the researcher suggested that the children focus on qualities the treat possessed that didn't make their mouths water -- that it was puffy and white, like a cloud or a cotton ball, for example -- they were able to hold off twice as long before chowing down. Adults can reframe temptations, too.
Work Your Will
Squash cravings by steering your thoughts away from how yummy a food is. When you see a cupcake, focus on its gorgeous decoration instead of how delicious that frosting must be. At a friend's party, think about how much work she put into that guacamole, not how awesome it would be on a tortilla chip. What if you're at a restaurant and your companions want to share dessert? When the apple tart arrives, taking time to appreciate the presentation will defeat the impulse to dig in immediately.6. Be Your Own Best Friend
If you learn to treat yourself with kindness when you experience a setback, it will be easier to get back on track after a moment of weakness. "People who blow their diet and then beat themselves up about it actually eat more, because they feel so bad about themselves," says Kristin Neff, PhD, associate professor in human development and culture at the University of Texas at Austin.
Work Your Will
"We know how to encourage other people and build up their confidence," Neff says. What would you do if a friend were upset that she had skipped her workouts for a week? You'd give her a hug, tell her a week isn't so bad, and encourage her to go to the gym the next day. Chances are you're not nearly as supportive of yourself when it comes to slip-ups. "A lot of people don't realize how critical their self-talk is," Neff says. Learn to be your own cheerleader: Write down the things you say to yourself when you fall short of your goals, then rewrite them as if you were talking to a pal. And while you're at it, figure out what you're going to say when your friends ask you the secret of your rock-solid willpower.
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, September 2011.
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