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Guest Article: The Psychology of Habits by Henry Moore

Have you ever been told you have the patience of a two year-old? Have you been told that a toddler has more self-control than you? If you’re the type of person who “accidentally” finishes a box of Girl Scout cookies in one sitting, don’t lose faith. There is still hope for you to learn to practice self-control and break bad habits.

Our impulse response starts at an early age, and it begins with trust. Dr. Laura Markham, a clinical psychologist who specializes in parenting, says that trust is a building block of self-control. When children are soothed and their needs are met, they begin to build pathways in the brain that allow them to soothe themselves. The method in which parents provide for needs is also important. If a parent screams or gets emotional often, children learn to live in a “state of emergency.”

How does this affect our ability to resist temptation? If our brain gets in the habit of expecting shortage and emergency, it also gets in the habit of taking the first option that comes its way – even if that option isn’t our best choice. We lose the ability to hold out for better because we fear better will never come.

If this sounds like you, take heart. While researchers have found that self-control, or willpower, is a finite resource – it functions like a muscle. If you work on it, you can gain strength. If you feed the brain, you develop stamina for self-control. One proven method to improve willpower is meditation. Meditation actually physically changes the brain. In a very short time, it can increase grey matter in the prefrontal cortex, or the part of the brain that manages self-control. The same study also found that physical exercise supports the “willpower muscle.” Scientists believe that’s because exercise improves the body’s resistance to stress – which allows the brain to use its resources elsewhere – like on self-discipline. These techniques can be potentially beneficial in conjunction with other treatments for addictions such as drug, alcohol, or gambling.

Don’t forget – when we build muscle, we must also prevent it from becoming exhausted. Scientists have found that the thousands of decisions we make every day deplete our power to make decisions. In one study, a group of students had to resist a plate of cookies, then complete a difficult puzzle. A second set of students were also asked to solve the puzzle, but they were allowed to eat the cookies. The first set of students, who had already exerted considerable effort to resist the cookies gave up on the puzzle after 8 minutes. The second set, who had not expended resources on resisting cookies, lasted more than double the time of the first group. The study led researchers to recommend implementing routines to save mental energy. Routines eliminate some of the less important decisions in a day, leaving you with more mental resources to make positive decisions. If you eat the same oatmeal every morning, your brain has more resources to calmly handle your kids’ request to eat chocolate cake for breakfast.

Life coach and author Caroline Adams Miller gives another tool for saving our resources. Use an if/then strategy to streamline decision making for the better. Miller says that “The idea is to make as many behaviors as possible automatic, so you don’t exhaust yourself trying to make new habits every day.” An example of this strategy could be “If my friends take a smoke break, I will take a short walk.” By choosing the outcome ahead of time, you make it much easier to resist the temptation to join the unhealthy activity.

Sharon Oakes, a life coach and blogger, recommends breaking tasks into “chunks” and rewarding yourself when they are completed. She describes how she approached an issue most of us are familiar with – the bane of filing taxes. To make her insurmountable task achievable, she broke the task into one hour blocks which she completed over four days. After each block, she gave herself a little reward, like a nap or a small treat. Jason Demers agrees. The founder of AudienceBloom also likes the strategy of “chunking” but suggests that as you break a bad habit, you pick up a good one. This affords you double the result!

Self discipline can be a challenge, but with the right strategies, it is certainly a tool you can develop. By feeding your brain, working the muscle, and using techniques to make good choices easier, you can approach any temptation or habit with assurance you will beat it.

Author Henry is the co-creator of FitWellTraveler. The site blends two of his favorite subjects (travel and health) to provide readers with information about how to get the most out of both.

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