Exercising Self-Control

It is hard to believe that the Holidays are upon us.  After all, for those of us in the United States, Thanksgiving is happening next week.  From there it is a mad dash for the New Year with barely enough time to come up for air.  So it’s  not surprising that this is not the time of year that people think of making great changes in their lives.  If you look at corporate wellness campaigns during this season, most focus on a message of maintaining, not gaining.    I think that holds true for many of us in our personal lives as well.  What with the added pressure of the Holidays, year-end projects, and annual deadlines at work,   finding the time and energy to focus on change or growth can be nearly impossible.

What we can do during this season, however, is to start an exercise program so we can jumpstart our New Year’s resolutions.  Before you click delete, (after all who wants to start an exercise program around Thanksgiving?) let me explain.

One of the basics concepts behind behavioral change deals with self-control, or self-regulation.  In order to achieve a goal, we usually need to modify something we are currently doing that is blocking us from reaching our desired outcome.   That requires self-control.  Or willpower.  As a wellness coach, one of the most common reasons I hear when clients discuss previous unsuccessful attempts to make or sustain a behavioral change is that they just didn’t have the willpower.

So here is the good news.  Self-control has the same characteristics as a muscle.  If you exercise it, it will grow stronger.  But here is the kicker.   Just like any muscle, strength training needs to be gradual.  You cannot spend 24/7 in a gym, exercising all the major muscle groups at the same time and expect to get anywhere except exhausted.  If you have a plan though, and exercise different muscles at different times, allowing rest periods in between sessions, you will see results.  The muscles will grow, get stronger, and be able to lift heavier burdens as the training continues.  The same can be said for developing self-control.   If you exercise it on a regular basis, it will get stronger.  If you exercise it continually, it will fatigue and let you down.  If you don’t exercise it at all, it will atrophy and you will lose it.

The Holidays can be a great time to strengthen self-control and put us in a position to kick butt when it comes to our New Year’s resolutions.  One way to do this is to target exercises for a given period of time.

For example:  we all know that this is the time of year that offices and workplaces are filled with special holiday treats.  Co-workers bring in cookies, vendors send gifts of candy, or  popcorn, or nuts.  All of it is enough to drive us nuts if we are trying to maintain our weight during the season.  This is a prime scenario for trying to resist all temptation all the time.  Ultimately, self-control gives in and we end up grazing through whatever we can find.  Try this instead–avoid the treats during the day, but let yourself have a healthier snack once home.  Or chose one item per day to indulge in–but stop there.    You can still enjoy the holidays, not feel deprived, and still feel like you have some control over your behavior.    And you are building self-control at the same time.

If battling the office treats seems like too ambitious a start, try beginning with something smaller.  Maybe increasing the amount of water you drink during the day.  Dehydration is a major problem during the winter months,  so increasing water consumption for a period of time can be a great exercise in self-regulation.   Possibly you just may want to carve out a half an hour per evening just to focus on downtime for you.  Can you lose one sitcom a night to give yourself quiet time or a self-care period?  Maybe read a book, meditate, write in a journal, or take a bath.

Do this for a week and see how you feel.  Usually when people target a self-regulatory behavior, they notice improvement in self-efficacy.  The control they develop in one situation spills over into other aspects of the their lives, and suddenly there is more confidence in their own self-control as a whole.    The changes they would like to make in other areas suddenly  don’t seem so impossible or out of reach.

If you practice some form of self-control exercise during this season, chances are that you will feel less stressed and more in control during this most hectic time of year.  That is one great side benefit.  Another will be a very solid foundation for the coming year, when you are ready to focus on your own personal development.

And that is a great thing.  After all, when it comes to keeping those resolutions,  most of us can use all the help we can get.





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