Every year, you celebrate special occasions like birthdays, anniversaries, weddings and festivals. It is also at these occasions where you eat and eat. And you tend to put on weight.

Is there any help out there that can prevent you from bingeing at these occasions? Can you improve your self-control so that you don’t overeat?

What is self-control?

Self-control is the ability to regulate your emotions, thoughts, and behavior in the face of temptations and impulses. As an executive function, self-control is a cognitive process that is necessary for regulating your behavior in order to achieve specific goals (Wikipedia).

This executive function skill has an enormous impact on your life. People with higher self-control tend to be sick less often, earn more money, have better quality relationships, get more schooling, and are happier. In short, self-control has a strong correlation with quality of life (Casey et al.).

Is self-control teachable? Can you improve your self-control? For the surprising news, keep reading.

What we know about self-control

We know that self-control has a genetic component (as do many of the executive function skills). But that only speaks about a small likelihood of its strength, not certainty.

Here is what we know that is relevant to you and what the research tells us:

First, the effects of low self-control tend to be persistent. People who were less able to delay gratification in school and consistently showed low self-control abilities in their twenties and thirties performed more poorly than those who were high delayers (Eigsti et al.).

Second, self-control can be taught. I’ll tell you how a bit later on how you can improve your self-control.

Third, the sensitivity to environmental “hot” cues plays a significant role in your ability to suppress actions toward such stimuli. For example, a crying baby may trigger and activate the brain’s “hot” cue in one person, but not in another. Thus, resistance to temptation is partly predicted by environmental cue sensitivity (Metcalfe).

How we lose self-control

The ability to exert self-control is often referred to as willpower. 

We tend to lose our willpower the more we use it. For example, we have to work hard to pay attention during boring meetings. After a while, our brain “runs out of” willpower and we no longer pay attention.

The same applies to those who are dieters. The longer dieters are tempted, the harder it is to stay away from “sinful” foodstuff.

The same thing happens in the office. If a husband and wife have to exert willpower all day at their jobs, when they get home, they may not have the energy left to be “nice” to each other, much less to the children. They have used up all their willpower!

This explains why competent people can do stupid things if you catch them at the wrong time. The scientific term is called “decision fatigue.”

We have learned that willpower can be used for control of our thoughts, emotions, work performance or just about anything. It can be taught and it can be learned, but the key is to give the person a reason to do things.

A huge component of willpower is that the fuel for it is glucose. Having enough glucose in your blood and brain means you can exert better self-control.

How to Improve Your Self-Control

Here is what the scientists have learned about willpower. While there are many strategies, we’ll focus on just three of the big ones.

1. Focus on one task at a time.

You have a limited supply of willpower, so narrow your goals or tasks to one or two that matter most. Build confidence with small-time amounts. Then, over time, continue to build up the length of time for the task.

So, start with “Can you do this for just 30 seconds, please?” After some successes, move on to “We have already tried and succeeded for 30 seconds, let’s try for one full minute this time.” Then, over time, continue to build up the length of time for the task.

Limit the brain and get small things accomplished first. Keep the task short, compelling and over time, you can extend it.

2. More glucose, more willpower and self-control.

The relationship between willpower and glucose is well studied. A single act of self-control causes glucose to drop below optimal levels, thereby impairing subsequent attempts at self-control. (Gailliot et al.).

In short, when your blood sugar is low, you run out of willpower and you get to the “Oh, whatever” stage, where anything will do.

Your low levels of blood glucose after an initial self-control task will likely result in your poor performance on a subsequent self-control task.

When you consume a glucose drink, it reduces your self-control impairments.

To raise blood sugar, there are 3 options: (1) consume food or drink, (2) make movements which releases glucose stored as glycogen in your liver, or (3) get strong emotions which trigger the release of glucose. No glucose means no willpower.

3. Make tasks actionable for your brain.

Avoid putting anything down on your “to-do” list that you cannot at least take some immediate action on. When you write out your goals and plans, write them so that each can be done as soon as possible.

In other words, a task like “send Christmas cards” cannot be done unless you have already decided which card website to use and you have the email addresses to which you want to send cards, or you already have the physical addresses, the envelopes, cards and stamps.

Only put on a “to-do list” that which can or must be done next, not a vague project like “paint the bathroom” or “improve marketing strategy.”

Try this and improve your self-control

This post started off by asking how to improve your self-control when it comes to food. Here’s something you can try based on what is discussed above:

1. Try to focus on one thing at a time. Eat only when you finished talking or thinking, and avoid talking or thinking when you are eating. If you focus only on eating, you tend not to overeat because you are fully aware of what you are eating and whether it is good for you. This is mindful eating.

2. Ensure that you have sufficient glucose to maintain your self-control. Try eating an apple or any fruit that is sweet to improve your self-control before sitting down for the feast.

3. And finally, eat one item at a time, enjoy it, instead of trying to eat your money’s worth!


References

  • Eigsti, I. M., Zayas V., et al. “Predicting Cognitive Control from Preschool to Late Adolescence and Young Adulthood.” Psychology Science, 2006.
  • Gailliot, M..T., Baumeister, R. F., et al. “Self-Control Relies on Glucose as a Limited Energy Source.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Feb 2007.
  • Jensen, E. “Self-Control Made Easy.” Adapted with permission.
  • Metcalfe J., Mischel W. “A Hot/Cool-System Analysis of Delay of Gratification: Dynamics of Willpower.” Psychological Review, 1999.
  • Posne M. I., Rothbart M. K. “Developing Mechanisms of Self-Regulation.” Development and Psychopathology, 2000.
  • Somerville L. H., Casey B. J. “Developmental Neurobiology of Cognitive Control and Motivational Systems.” Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 2010.