Take Control

Even if you don’t feel you have the power to succeed, you do. MF explains how you can take charge of your life.

No matter who you are and how hard you train, the chances are that bad habits are holding you back. The good news is there’s nothing to stop you taking control and heading down the road to success. Research shows that the biggest single factor that determines achievement in anything, from education and pay to relationships and happiness, is willpower. And best of all, it’s not as hard to develop as you might think. Here’s how to make your life better.

By Joel Snape,  Photography by Danny Bird

Step One: Know Your Enemy

The first step to mastering your habits is to understand the mechanisms that cause them. Get to grips with this and you’ll lay the foundations for change.

Habits Rule Your Life

Habitual behaviour is a huge part of life, so don’t try to resist habits — try to improve them. A 2006 study published by Duke University in the US found that 40 percent of participants’ daily actions were the result not of conscious decisions but of ingrained habits. The message here is that you don’t have the brain-space to make decisions about everything, so make your ingrained habits good ones and you’ll conserve your energy for further change.

Willpower is a Muscle

Multiple studies have shown that, in the short term, using your willpower on one task makes less available for another. If you have to force yourself to go to the gym, for example, you’ll have less willpower in reserve to turn down a post-work beer. Crucially, though, exercising your willpower every day increases the amount you have available. So while you’re working on one new habit, you’re ensuring that the process will be easier in future.

6 is the Magic Number

It’s not quite the number of the beast, but 66 is the average number of days it takes to make a new habit automatic, according to research from University College London. The minimum was a more manageable 18 days, however. Missing a day had no effect on behaviour — in fact, researchers theorise that believing it makes a difference was a key reason for falling off the wagon.

295x198 take control AStep Two: Make Your Plan

Forming new habits is like anything else — preparation helps. Here’s what to do.

Choose One Thing

Pick one habit that will have the biggest impact on your life if changed and focus on it. Planning to hit the gym, give up Facebook and eat better all at once is too much, according to research psychologist BJ Fogg, author of Persuasive Technology. Do the first thing for a month, then add more changes.

Make It Easy

Don’t start by planning to train for an hour every day or eat nothing but meat and vegies if that’s a huge change in your habits. “If you’re working out, aim for five to 10 minutes a day,” says Leo Babauta, author of The Power Of Less. “If you’re planning to de-clutter your home, start with one drawer rather than your whole house.” The positive feedback from these tiny goals will help you tackle bigger tasks later.

Ignore the Negatives

Focusing on what you’re not going to do can lead to a “behavioural ironic rebound” — or, more simply, if you resolve to stop eating cake, you’ll eat more cake. According to research from Utrecht University in the Netherlands, you should focus on positives rather than negatives, such as resolving to eat more vegies and protein.

Use If/Then Patterns

Program your brain as you would a computer and you won’t need to wrestle with temptation all the time, says Professor Mark Conner of the University of Leeds in the UK. “Set up cues that prompt your planned behaviour,” he suggests. For instance, “If I feel hungry before lunch, I will eat an apple, not a chocolate bar”. Conserving willpower in this way also means you’ll have more left over for other things.

Get Help

Joining forces with a partner boosts your chances of sticking to your resolutions, according to Conner’s research. When groups were told to make if/then plans with and without the help of friends, those who used a support group saw increased success. And besides, you’ll need someone to spot you on the bench.

Step Three: Pull the Trigger

Your worst habits are ingrained and unconscious — so stopping them means removing the psychological triggers that cause them. Here’s how to do it.

Disrupt the Pattern

Our activities can be triggered by our environment, according to Duke University psychologist David Neal. For example, sitting on the couch might trigger a bout of snacking. Try to break the pattern by disrupting it: change your route to work, or watch TV from a different chair.

Switch Hands

Can’t resist popcorn? Eat it using your other hand is the tip from a study at the University of Southern California. Habitual movie snackers were more likely to keep eating even stale popcorn as long as they could do it with their dominant hand, reinforcing automatic behaviour. If you’re hungry enough, you’ll still eat despite the awkwardness.

Get Lost

To tackle difficult habits, such as smoking, do it from your natural environment. “For a smoker, the view of the entrance to their office building — a place they go to smoke — becomes a mental cue to perform that behaviour,” says Neal. Work on your major habits when you’re outside your natural environment — at a conference, say — and it’s more likely to stick.

Avoid Weak Temptations

Weak temptations are more likely to lead dieters astray than strong ones, says a study in the European Journal Of Social Psychology. In other words, while you know a trip to Vegas would be a bad idea, it’s the quick beer after work that’s more likely to derail your weight-loss plans. Stand firm.

295x198 take control BStep Four: Start Your Regimen

You’ve done the preliminary work and are ready for your first day of habit change. Here’s how to tackle it.

Don’t Focus on Shame

Try your best not to think about how ashamed you’ll be if you cave in to your bad habits. Focus instead on the pride you’ll feel if you stick to your guns. In studies at the USC Marshall School of Business, subjects who focused on how they’d feel if they stuck to their resolutions reported much less desire to eat slabs of cake.

Outsource Control

A paper published in Social Psychological And Personality Science showed that the more self-control there is across both partners in a relationship, the stronger it’s likely to be. Participants found they could “outsource” self-control to a partner. So if your girlfriend is more disciplined than you, let her decide where you’re going for dinner.

Divide and Conquer

Studies on everything from Pringles to telephone cards have shown that when consumables are split into smaller units, you’re likely to ration them better. The theory is that any small interruption, even opening a new packet of chips, can put your brain into “decision” mode.

So change your cash into $5 notes and avoid jugs of beer.

Commit Yourself

Use what psychologists call “precommitment” — telling friends your intentions and getting them to help you. When economist Dean Karlan committed to losing 17kg, he told a colleague that he’d give up half his yearly earnings if he failed. He’s now founded stickk.com, which lets you donate money to charity automatically if you don’t (or do) stick to your plans.

Step Five: Keep Going

You’re well on the way to success. Use these instant willpower fixes to avoid undoing your hard work.

Think About Gandhi

Volunteers who watched — or even thought about — someone with very good self-control were better able to control their own behaviour, according to research from the University of Georgia.

The study also showed that flashing up the name of a person with quite poor self-control for as little as 10 milliseconds had the opposite effect. The lesson? Surround yourself with positive, inspiring role models, and ditch the Charlie Sheen screensaver.

Cross Your Arms

Experiments published in the European Journal Of Social Psychology suggest that doing something as simple as crossing your arms can make you more persistent at difficult tasks — as seen in volunteers working on unsolvable anagrams. Other studies have shown similar results with fist-clenching and even calf-flexing, which is helpful if you don’t want to look defensive.

Exaggerate the Threat

People who overestimated the number of calories in biscuits or the likely length of a party were more likely to stick to their new biscuit-and-party-avoiding regimens, according to studies from the University of Texas. In fact, they were more likely to exaggerate the threat in the first place if they had prompts on hand that reminded them of their goals.

Reimagine Your Snacks

In a study published in the European Journal Of Social Psychology, volunteers who imagined odd or novel uses for chocolate were less likely to want to consume it afterwards. In other words, if you think of your Doritos as substitute wood-chip flooring, you’ll never eat them again.

Think About Money

People who are forced through a series of willpower-sapping hoops will do better if they are reminded about financial matters, according to a study from Bates College in the US. Researchers theorise that thinking about cold, hard cash reduces the perceived difficulty of the tasks at hand.

Focus on the Long Term

Indulgence is often a result of people trying to improve their mood, says a report from the University of Chicago, and people who act on impulses often believe that it’s the only way to cheer up. They’re wrong. “If you are feeling unhappy, focus on reasons why those feelings will pass,” says Aparna A Labroo, co-author of the study. Or simply hold out — after all, a drinking binge isn’t really going to make anything better.

“Not Now, But Later”

This is the ultimate four-word motto to stop you obsessing over food, according to psychologist Nicole Mead. The Postponement Strategy temporarily helps you get over temptation, and you’re unlikely to cave at some unspecified future time once the craving has gone. Promise yourself a pizza “at some point” and the chances are you’ll never eat it.

Step Six: Make it Permanent

You’re almost there. Now use what you’ve done to keep moving in the right direction.

Don’t Flatter Yourself

If you think of yourself as an iron-willed titan, you’re more likely to end up reaching for the doughnuts. Multiple studies have found that people with an inflated sense of their own self-control often expose themselves to unnecessary temptation and end up backsliding. Don’t kid yourself: steer clear of the confectionary aisle.

Don’t Say “I Can’t”

Say “I don’t” instead, advises the Journal Of Consumer Research. In tests, consumers who responded to offers with the D-word were more likely to be able to resist temptation — probably because it symbolises determination, not deprivation.

And Remember: You’ve Changed

You can’t refrain from doing something you like. You can, however, change into the kind of person who likes different things. Condemning things, banning them or using your willpower won’t work forever. Eventually you’ll go back to your default activities, so just make sure those activities are virtuous.

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