What I'm about to tell you can change your life. And it's surprisingly simple.
Self-control (also called self-regulation) is your ability to stop yourself from doing what that immediate, dominant voice in your head wants you to do. When you delay immediate gratification, you exert self-control.
That immediate, dominant voice can also be expressed as desire, urge, temptation, or that "I'd rather go out with my friends than do homework tonight" feeling. Remember that one?
A lot of us feel like we don't have much self-control. That's a draining feeling, not an energizing one. We sit on the couch instead of exercising, even though we know exercising would make us feel better. We let dishes pile up in the sink, hoping the dish fairy will clean them. We let mail pile up on the counter instead of putting it away -- which only takes seconds. Or we eat too much junk food, daydream instead of work, spend money impulsively, over-spend, lose our tempers and miss appointments.
Giving into temptations in the short term puts a lot of stress on our future selves. They have a lot of cleaning up to do.
Have you ever sat on the couch when you know you should be working out? You're trying to enjoy yourself but it's like there's a little guilt cloud hovering over you. You're not even enjoying the thing you supposedly want to do!
Here's the secret: Self-control is like a muscle. And the more you use it, the more self-control you'll have, and the easier it will be to exert it.
How can you build that muscle? It's much easier than you think. All you have to do is pick one thing you know is good for you but you'd rather put off, and do it consistently. Doing that one thing consistently will make it easier for you to do other healthy things consistently. Isn't that amazing?
Here are seven behaviors you could choose:
Go to the gym or an exercise class three times a week
Take a 30-minute walk five times a week.
Drink at least five glasses of water each day (pick a realistic goal amount for yourself)
Start a happiness journal where you write down three things that made you happy every day before you go to bed
Put the mail away instead of on the counter
Let's say you haven't been going to the gym and you start lifting. At first, your biceps will be pretty weak and fatigue easily. You'll do a bicep exercise and deplete your muscle strength. You won't be able to do another heavy bicep exercise that day. But, if you keep doing bicep exercises and strengthen the muscle, it will take a lot more effort to deplete your muscle strength, and you'll be able to do a lot more bicep work.
Self-control works in the same way, according to a 2000 study in Psychological Bulletin, the journal of the American Psychological Association.
In 2006, researchers at Macquarie University in Sydney Australia had 24 undergraduates participate in a regular exercise program and do lab tests that tested their self-control. Over the course of the four month experiment, the students who consistently exercised did better on the self-control tests than when they started (and better than the control group that didn't exercise), and started reporting healthy changes in other parts of their life.
The researchers hadn't asked them to do anything but exercise -- this was not a lifestyle intervention. But the benefits of the small act of consistently exercising trickled into their other behaviors.
They found a statistically significant decrease in cigarette smoking, alcohol consumption, caffeine consumption, junk food consumption, impulse spending, over-spending, going out with friends instead of studying, watching TV instead of studying, putting things off until later, and leaving dishes in the sink. They also reported a decrease in perceived stress and emotional stress. The researchers said the data suggested it wasn't the exercise specifically, but just regularly exerting self-control.
In other words, they became happier and healthier just because they started exerting self-control in one area.
Who knew doing the dishes could be such a powerful act?
What healthy habit will you start with?