Lose weight, eat healthy, save money, read more books, spend more time with family. Sound familiar?
Most of us have had these New Year resolutions; many can attest to how difficult it is to follow through. So how do we stick the course?
Research has shown how bad we are at resisting temptation, especially if we are busy, tired or stressed. It’s no surprise then that about 90% of New Year’s resolutions have fallen by the wayside by year-end. So how do we affect longer-lasting changes in our lives?
Will power and self-control
Have you ever thought that if you simply had more self-control or will power you would finally stop procrastinating, stop that bad habit or save more for your retirement? Seems like a lot of expectation riding on self-control and sheer will! It’s not surprising though, as studies have linked self-control to positive results such as better academic and professional success, real, lasting changes, fewer mental health problems and better overall physical health.
So, what is self-control, exactly?
On a basic level, self-control is delayed gratification; putting off what you want at the present moment for achieving a long-term goal later on. It requires conscious effort and a significant investment of emotional and cognitive resources, resisting urges, fighting temptations and using different strategies to maintain control.
Given that we may sometimes rely too much on our self-control or will power, experts have discovered that it is a limited resource. If used too much it can be depleted. Therefore, if it is used on less important things, there is a greater likelihood that when it is really needed for something important, there might be nothing left.
To prolong and develop your self-control or will power, apply it carefully and thoughtfully to suit different situations and use distraction for less important tasks. Most importantly, research has shown that using will power or self-control to achieve a goal, like sticking to a healthy eating plan, results in increased will power in other areas as well.
If self-control starts to feel like a headache, we can turn to Social Emotions – things like authentic pride, gratitude and compassion – which support the positive aspects of social life. The effects of these emotions on decision making and behavior naturally incline people to be patient and persevere. When you are in this emotional state, will power ceases to be a battle because you are no longer trying to deny yourself pleasure in the present moment but rather increasing how much you value the future.
Imagine the authentic pride of having a special skill that you possess, which you are particularly good at. If you personally benefit from this skill or other people benefit from it, you are likely to be someone other people would like to cooperate with. If you then feel proud of this, it makes you more willing to work hard and persevere to have self-control in developing those skills.
At times we have to make sacrifices for the benefit of others and put the needs of others before our own. We also do things for others to show appreciation because of the gratitude we feel – even though we may not be particularly fond of the activity. This is exercising self-control and it probably does not feel like a struggle. For most, they would do it over and over again. For some, emotion may be a stronger motivation than reason, driving us to achieve great results.
So, whatever your preferred style is, will power/self-control or social emotion, just stay on track and let us know what works for you.
Silindokuhle is an Industrial/Organisational Psychologist registered with the HPCSA. She holds a Master’s degree from UKZN and runs an independent practice specialising in psychological assessments, training and wellbeing.