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You already know that sleep deprivation makes you cranky and can even change your personality, so it’s probably no surprise that a lack of sleep also has an effect on your self-control.
According to a study from Clemson University, people who aren’t getting enough sleep are more susceptible to impulsive decisions and distractions. Sleep deprivation, the researchers said, has a negative effect on your brain’s levels of glucose — a key component to the strength of your willpower. Translation: A loss of sleep drains the fuel and energy that your brain needs in order to exert self-control.
Just reminding yourself you have a choice in a tempting situation can be helpful. A September 2012 study conducted at the University of Provence in Marseille, France showed that when participants’ belief in free will was undermined, they performed worse on a task requiring self-control. Researchers divided the study participants into two groups: One group was exposed to anti-autonomy messages and one was exposed to neutral messages. Then they investigated whether undermining the participants' perception mattered by asking them to complete an action that required self-control. Those who had been exposed to the no-free-will messages were less able to inhibit themselves and performed worse than the group who had only received neutral messages. The first group also perceived that they had less self-control than the second.
So, simply reminding yourself that you do have a choice makes it more likely that you’ll be able to control yourself when you want to. Anybody want to request “Free Bird"?
Self-talk — that nagging internal chatter you have with yourself — really does matter. And, the specific words you use while mentally conversing with yourself can keep you from derailing your plans to work out or to eat healthier. In a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, participants who told themselves “I don’t” were better able to resist the urge to skip the gym or eat junk food than those who said “I can’t.”
For example, saying something along the lines of “I don’t eat candy bars” worked better than framing that choice as, “I can’t eat a candy bar.” Study author Vanessa Patrick says the former makes people feel empowered, while “I can’t” implies deprivation, and research has shown that feeling deprived isn’t sustainable for long-term, positive change. Choose your words carefully — even when talking to yourself.
When adopting a healthy habit (or quitting a bad one, such as smoking) it’s important to have a plan of action. Researchers found that focusing on why you’re making the change — instead of how you'll do it — may help you stick with it. The study, published in the journal Addiction, looked at daily smokers. They asked participants to focus either on the reasons they wanted to stay healthy (such as having more energy and a better quality of life) or on how they would reach their goal (such as avoiding triggers). The former group displayed more self-control and smoked half as many cigarettes.
So, when you need a boost, take a step back and think of your big-picture goals; they might just make you feel more in control.
The physical strength cue taps mental strength, thanks to a concept called embodied cognition. Scientists have found that a lot of mental concepts are rooted in our physical experience – which is why we often say things like “shaking it off” and “carrying a heavy load” for situations that don’t actually involve movement; body cues can spark shifts in our thoughts and emotions. Five related studies published in April 2011 in the Journal of Consumer Research found that firming one's muscles — specifically, clenching a fist or contracting the biceps or calf — can strengthen willpower and increase the ability to deal with pain, beat temptations, and take unpleasant medication. So, flex away when you’re fighting the urge to splurge.