Yesterday I wrote about self-esteem and self-control. In the last thirty years of the 20th century, we thought that self-esteem might be the key to success. Now we think of self-esteem as the result of success rather than the cause of it. What counts is self-control or, as some writers phrase it, the building of character.
So how do we improve self-control? The short answer is that we need to practice it just as we practice any other skill. Here are eight suggestions from the research literature.
Use your non-dominant hand more frequently – researchers asked people to use their non-dominant hand for routine activities, like drinking coffee, for two weeks. Because these tasks restrained “natural inclinations” they required constant self-control. At the end of two weeks, the participants had better self-control and also “controlled their aggression better than others” who had not participated. You may well get similar results by improving your posture or policing your language.
Think about God – Kevin Rounding and his colleagues conducted experiments in which participants completed a variety of self-control exercises. Prior to the exercises, half the group played word puzzles that contained religious or divine themes. The other half played similar word puzzles with non-religious themes. Those who were exposed to religious themes had better self-control.
Laughter – laughter apparently interrupts your thought processes in useful ways. Rather than focusing on self-regulation, you can gain a brief reprieve. You let your “willpower muscle” relax and replenish.
Don’t use social media – consumer researchers, Keith Wilcox and Andrew Stephen, studied the effects of browsing social media on post-browsing behavior. They found that browsing social media increases self-esteem, which has negative behavioral effects. “This momentary increase in self-esteem reduces self-control, leading those [who browse] to display less self-control after browsing a social network compared to not browsing a social network.”
Focus on long-term goals – researchers Nidhi Agrawal and Echo Wen Wan found that health-related communications have more impact on ego-depleted people when the message focuses on long-term goals. “[W]hen [the participants] looked to the future and linked the health task to important long-term goals, they exerted self- control and were not affected by being tired or depleted. “
Clench your muscles – perhaps your physical muscles and your willpower muscles are related. Consumer researchers Iris Hung and Laparna Labroo found that embodied cognition plays a role in self-control. Participants who clenched a muscle – a fist, the calves, whatever – showed better self-control than those who didn’t.
Don’t banish the treat – researchers at Catholic University in Leuven, Belgium found that the presence of an actual treat – like M&Ms – improved participants’ self-control. The treats are actionable – you can grab a handful and eat them or decide not to. Deciding not to is an action that improves self-control in ways that avoidance doesn’t. Actionability proved to be a “pivotal variable” in self-control strategies.
Say “I don’t” rather than “I can’t” – perhaps the importance of actionability comes from emphasis on choice. A study by Vanessa Patrick, a marketing professor at the University of Houston, examined the wording of self-talk on self-control. “When participants framed a refusal as ‘I don’t’ (for instance, ‘I don’t eat sugar’) instead of ‘I can’t,’ they were more successful at resisting the desire to eat unhealthy foods or skip the gym.” Patrick comments, ““Saying ‘I can’t’ connotes deprivation, while saying ‘I don’t’ makes us feel empowered and better able to resist temptation.”
There’s plenty more research on self-control that I expect to write about in the near future. Interestingly, some of the best articles come from consumer researchers and marketers. They apparently want to understand how our self-control works so they can manipulate it. Stay tuned.
The way we think about the world comes from our body, not from our mind. If I like somebody, I might say, “I have warm feelings for her.” Why would my feelings be warm? Why wouldn’t I say, “I have orange feelings for her”? It’s probably because, when my mother held me as an infant, I was nice and toasty warm. I didn’t feel orange. I express my thoughts through metaphors that come from my body.
We all know that our minds affect our bodies. If I’m in a good mood mentally, my body may feel better as well. As I’ve noted before, the reverse is also true. It’s hard to stay mad if I force myself to smile.
The general field is referred to as metaphor theory or, more generally, as embodied cognition. Simply put, our bodies affect our thinking. Our brains are not digital computers, after all. They’re analog computers, using bodily metaphors to express our thoughts.
As it happens, I’ve used embodied cognition for years without realizing it. Before giving a big speech, I stand up straighter, flex my muscles, stretch out and up, and force myself to smile for 30 seconds. Then I’m ready. I didn’t realize it but I was practicing my bodily metaphors. I can speak more clearly (stand up straight), more powerfully (muscle flexing), and more cheerfully (smile), because of my warm-up routine.
My warm-up routine actually changes my hormones. As Amy Cuddy points out in her popular TED talk, practicing “power poses” for two minutes increases testosterone and reduces cortisol. The result is more dominance (testosterone) and less stress (cortisol). My body is priming me to give an exceptionally good speech. As Cuddy notes, it could also make me much more successful in a job interview.
I’m growing accustomed to the thought that the way I hold or move my body directly affects my thinking and mood. But what about my internal monologue? I talk to myself all the time. Is that a good thing? Do the words that I use in my monologue affect my thinking and behavior?
The answer is yes – for better and for worse. My “self-talk” affects how I perceive myself and that, in turn, affects how I behave. It’s also important how I address myself. Do I speak to myself in the first person – “I can do better than that.” Or do I speak to myself as someone else would speak to me – “Travis, you can do better than that.”
According to a recent article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the way I address myself makes a world of difference. If I speak as another person would address me, I gain more self-distance and perspective. I also reduce stress and make a better first impression. I can also give a better speech and will engage in “less maladaptive postevent processing”. (Whew!) In other words, I can perform better and feel better simply by choosing the right words in my internal monologue.
So, what’s it all mean? Take better care of your body to take better care of your mind. As my father used to say: “Look sharp, be sharp”. Oh… and watch your language.
(For an excellent article on how the field of embodied cognition has evolved, click here).