When we opt for the elevator over the stairs, swear we’ll start eating healthier on Monday, or skip that morning workout, we tend to blame our lack of self-control and willpower.
But what if this lack of self-control is just a cop out? After all, any time you engage in self-sabotaging behavior, it’s easy to convince yourself that it’s because you’re weak or lazy to allow yourself to continue doing what you’re doing.
But maybe the underlying reason why you “can’t” just pass the elevator, “can’t” say no to the cookie, or “can’t” get off the couch to go to the gym is that you haven’t recognized your priorities and what you truly value: your why. Without knowing your why, it’s much harder to align your actions—no matter how big or small—with what you want to work toward.
Self-Control Still Matters
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying self-control is dumb and unnecessary. We still need self-control to beat our impulsive nature into submission and help us toward what’s good for us instead of what just feels good in the moment (think: going to the gym instead of Netflix and chilling).
Rather, I merely think blaming the problem on a lack of self-control is like putting the cart before the horse. That is: No amount of self-control is going to keep you from consistently turning down donuts or saying yes to yoga if you don’t know why you need self-control in the first place.
Why do you need to restrain yourself from eating that cake? Because you know it’s “bad” just doesn’t cut it. Why should you get up off the couch and do something active? Because you want to “have a better body” isn’t much more illuminating either.
Think of your why as a sort of GPS and your self-control as the car to help get you there.
Find Your Deepest Why
What you really want and value aren’t always immediately obvious. So to find your why, bust out a pen and paper—we’re going old-school with this. The purpose of this writing exercise (borrowed from fitness coach JC Deen) is to help you dig up your deepest motivation for why you want to do something.
Start by thinking about your current goal. Let’s say you want to lose weight. Write it down and then ask yourself, “Why?” Maybe it’s because you want fit into your jeans from college again. Okay. Why? Because you think it will make you look hot. Why? And out comes your real why: You want to feel confident in yourself.
You could even do this exercise for smaller habit changes like “drink more water every day” or “go to bed earlier.” Once you’ve discovered your true why, write it down and keep it somewhere you can see (maybe you post it on your bathroom mirror, at your desk at work, or set it as the background on your phone). This way, when you’re sidetracked by temptations or start to wonder what the right choice is, it’ll serve as a powerful reminder.
Use Your Why to Guide Decisions
Once you’ve figured out your why, you can now go forth and use your powers for good! Develop better self-control by doing the following:
Understand the “risks versus rewards.”
The idea of risk versus reward is often used in finance, but it’s applicable in various areas of your life, including fitness and weight loss-related decisions.
By weighing the risk of a decision against your goal, you are teaching yourself to take a step back rather than simply going with the “act now, think later” approach.
Let’s say your goal is weight loss. For a coworker’s birthday, someone kindly brought a store-bought, vanilla-flavored cake. Here, the potential reward is your enjoyment of the cake. Enjoyment might be lukewarm since —let’s say—vanilla is not exactly your favorite. The risk of your decision to eat the cake might be regret, or worse, setting off the idea that you might as well eat junk the rest of the day. You weigh the risks and decide that the reward is not worth it and that you might as well save it for something else that’ll totally be worth the risk and make you say “F@#K yes!”
Just do things now.
When you say something like “I’ll start my diet on Monday,” or “I’ll work out more when things slow down at the office,” you’re offloading the responsibility of making decisions to change to the “future you.”
You hope that “future you” will miraculously take up responsibility for making the better and healthier decisions. Except in reality, “future you” is equally as foolish and probably just as likely to make similar excuses. And on and on the cycle goes.
So rather than just hoping for “future you” to be a hero, take action now. As Kelly McGonigal, psychology professor at Stanford University wrote in her book, The Willpower Instinct, “A short practice that you do every day is better than a long practice you keep putting off to tomorrow.” This way, “future you” actually does have a chance to continue making the choices that enrich your life. And really, the more you do it, the easier it’ll be to continue making the right choices.
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Once you truly know why you want something, it becomes easier to prioritize your goals, to develop skills like better willpower and self-control, and to keep your values front-of-mind in everything you do.
“We need to separate the real rewards that give our lives meaning from the false rewards that keep us distracted and addicted. Learning to make this distinction may be the best we can do,” writes McGonigal. In other words, you do things because you want to, not because you feel like you should. Plus, if your priorities, values, and actions all align, then you’re less likely to feel stressed, guilty, or overwhelmed (all of which could contribute to a greater loss of self-control).
So if you have a goal to reach—whether it’s to get fit, lose weight, or simply be more active—you can attempt (and likely fail) to bulldoze your way through it with willpower and self-control. But if you don’t know what you value or your priorities, throwing your hands up and walking away will be all too easy.