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How to Improve Self-control

I tend to avoid using the term self-control, never mind blogging about it. It smacks of rigidity, restriction, and holding yourself on a too-tight leash. But, one day I happened upon a review of the book The Marshmallow Test—Mastering Self-Control by Columbia University psychologist Walter Mischel (“Mastering the art of self control,” Science News, 11/15/14, p. 28) and couldn’t help but wonder what it had to say.

It’s important to understand where the book’s title comes from. The Marshmallow Test is famous in psychology. Basically, it’s Mischel’s study of children faced with marshmallow temptation and their consumption based on being told that if they didn’t eat the marshmallows right away, they’d get two later. The upshot was that “Kids who waited for double the goodies grew up to do better in school, get better jobs, maintain better physical health and felt better about themselves than their grab-and-go peers.”

Says Mischel, “No matter how bad you are at resisting temptations, there are ways to enhance self-control if you’re motivated to use them. Research has shown that self-control involves a set of cognitive skills that are quite teachable… We don’t have to be victims of our biology, genes or circumstances. People can learn self-control strategies and become active agents in determining how their lives play out.” These strategies include developing frustration tolerance and delaying gratification which I discuss in my new book, Outsmarting Overeating: Boost Your Life Skills, End Your Food Problems.

He goes on to observe that “a person’s potential for self-control becomes limited as stress levels and fatigue go up.” That’s why folks have such a hard time not noshing when there’s outside pressure, deadlines, or a great deal is expected of them—or when they’re bushed at the end of a long, full day. Think about it, who binges in the morning? Bingeing or mindless eating most often occur when you’re worn down and wiped out.

Mischel’s secrets to self-control: 1) “Distract yourself.” Do whatever engages your mind and body; 2) “Make if-then plans and stick to them.” Assertively, tell yourself what you will or will not do. 3) “Shift your time perspective from immediate desires to future negative consequences.” Focus on the rewards you’ll get if you do something healthy or don’t do something unhealthy. Visualize taking or refraining from action.

Self-control won’t come overnight, but it will be yours with practice. It sounds simplistic to say self-control will improve your life, but scientific studies prove it.