"Self control means not doing what we want to do, which is why so many of us fail," says Dr. Janet Polivy, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto Mississauga. "A lack of self-regulation is more evident with dieting because eating is something that we all have to do, and the question of controlling how much we eat becomes a very delicate one."
So, how do you acquire self-control in your quest for healthier living? Unfortunately, you can't flip a switch that will magically turn you from a loose cannon to a tightly run ship, but you can build a tolerance for temptation. Here are six ways to strengthen your resolve.
1. Set the right goals
It's a bit of a no-brainer, but if you don't like running, don't choose a half-marathon as a fitness goal. Forcing yourself to do something you hate is a one-way ticket to failure, so you should tailor your diet and fitness regimes to suit your tastes. If you really like yoga, join a studio, socialize with your fellow yogis, or even study to become an instructor. The more you love your healthy lifestyle, the less inner strength you'll require to maintain it.
2. Lower your expectations
Sad, but true: most of us will never be able to pull off skinny jeans. Everyone has a standard, an ideal physical self to which they aspire, and more often than not, they've set the bar too high to be reached. So, if you're a short, curvy brunette, don't strive to be a Heidi Klum doppelganger.
3. Find your motivation
Several studies on self-control have shown that when subjects knew there would be social or monetary benefits from completing a task, they were more likely to succeed. Establish what is motivating you to change – be it a person, place or thing – and remind yourself of it every time you're thinking of trading in your personal-training session for watching Dancing with the Stars with your good friends Ben & Jerry.
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4. Do what works for you
"It's different for every person," Dr. Polivy says. "Some people need to reduce the amount of temptation they're faced with, while others find it's healthier to acknowledge that they're going to be tempted and let themselves indulge occasionally." Once you've established your temptation threshold, use it to identify potential diet-sabotaging situations and strategize accordingly.
5. Pay attention
The diet started Monday, but by Tuesday morning's coffee break you're on auto-pilot, grabbing for that blueberry scone. It sounds tiring, but thinking twice about each action is a great way to maintain self-control in a moment of weakness. Can't drag yourself out of bed to get to that Pilates class you were so keen on last night? Stop and think of why you wanted to go in the first place, and why it's an important step in the direction of your goal.
6. Baby steps
You wouldn't plan your wedding after a first date, so don't pick out your size-two bikini after your first spin class. This is what Dr. Polivy refers to as "false hope syndrome," when a person expects fast results and inevitably is disappointed, the what-the-hell effect takes over.
"Disappointment leads to a loss of control, and when you give in to temptation there's a feeling of release," Polivy says. "You'll say, 'I've blown it, and I'll get back on the wagon tomorrow, but meanwhile, I might as well go overboard.'"
In truth, big change happens in small steps, and it's important to focus on the things you are doing right in order to keep control when the occasional slip-up occurs. "Because you thought that you could change tremendously, and that it would be fast and easy, you're disappointed in yourself. But you are actually making a change."
Exercising self-control will help you achieve weight-loss, or an ideal level of fitness, but don't expect any of it to be a cake walk. "There are no easy answers. Changing is hard work," Dr. Polivy warns. "The good news is if you’re willing to work, then you'll get results."
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