Dear Tacit,

Last week, you talked about needing to develop self-control before motivation can be experienced.  Do you have any tips for how to help me strengthen my fortitude?

Signed: Growing Self Control

Dear Growing Self Control,

Absolutely!  None of us are born with the ability to have self-control – it is very much a learned skill.  I am going to borrow from the works of my esteemed colleagues to explain how this works (especially using the terms used from the “Between The Sessions Resources” because they make it so simple to understand).

There are 2 main circuits in one specific part of our brain (the basal ganglia) that can help (or hinder) the process of self control.  There is a “go-function” which propels us into action.  And there is a “no-go function” which is where we grow our self-control. This no-go function allows us to stay on task and get something completed without distraction; or to say no to a temptation that we know is not best for our end goals.

As we get older, we focus more and more on the things that are important to us.  We do the things we want to do or that we know are best for us, by intrinsic desire.  So, we do not actually need to use this no-go function as often.  Unfortunately, the less we use it, the weaker it gets.  It becomes important to exercise this function as often as possible (10 to 20 times) on a daily basis.

We can do this by consciously stopping an impulse that is trying to compel us to use the go-function in our brain.  This doesn’t always mean we have to stop the particular action completely.  We can just delay it, for a little while. By allowing the no-go function to be in control, even briefly, we are strengthening the functionality of the skill.

So how do we do this?  Here are some easy to apply suggestions:

Put down your phone or stop looking at your smart watch!  Every time you get the urge to check your device or to scroll through social media, apply the no-go function and stop (or at least delay) your response.  Not only does this strengthen your self-control, but by decreasing the time you allow yourself to be mindlessly distracted, you are allowing yourself the opportunity to improve your day in other ways, as well.

Work or stay focused on a task for set blocks of time.  Research tells us that 25 minutes of focus (with a 5 min break in between) or a 90 minute stretch of concentration (with a 20 min break afterward) are optimal productivity windows for the brain.  Find a rhythm that works best for you, and stick with it.  Stay on task, and resist the urge to distract yourself if you get restless or bored, until you hit your scheduled break period.

When you get those unhealthy snack cravings, delay the urge to respond, by even just a few minutes.  Allow yourself to notice the feeling of hunger, and sit in it for 5 or 10 minutes longer (and then extend that even more), before you allow yourself to be satiated.

Create a realistic exercise or meditation regime and stick with it.  Don’t let yourself give up part way through or improvise with a short-cut. Celebrate the fact that you overcame that urge to quit early or shorten the process because by pushing through, you are growing your no-go function even more.

Use strategies like “out of sight, out of mind” to help you be successful with the suggestions I have mentioned.  If your phone is in another room, or the snacks are put away in the pantry, you may find it easier to fight or delay the urges that are trying to needlessly activate your go-function.

Don’t stack no-go challenges up, one right after another.  Take breaks between the periods that you are exerting self control, so you are not so drained or worn down.  Remember to celebrate your accomplishments when you are successful with your no-go functioning.  Being proud of your achievement is a terrific way to release dopamine, which helps recharge your energy and fortify that pattern of your no-go function for the next time that you need the willpower.

Remind yourself of the benefits of the no-go outcomes, and try to anchor into the desired or wanted aspects of the decision rather than focusing on the immediate gratification outcomes of the alternative option (the go-function).  This lessens the amount of “self control fatigue” you will experience.

Plan your no-go moments.  The more you have rehearsed the self control you plan to exert, and the more you have considered the solutions to the challenges that might arise, the easier it will be to achieve a successful outcome when you are ready to take action.

Researchers have found that people with poor self-control are at higher risk for poor health outcomes, like obesity and drug dependency. They are also less resilient and are more likely to commit crimes (even minor ones) or live in poverty.  Now, I am not saying anyone reading this is going to end up with these kinds of results. But unless we make the intentional effort to strengthen our no-go skills, we will likely push ourselves less, and miss out more on achieving our full potential.  Our self-control guides us towards real happiness and fulfillment.  With practice, it is a nice feeling to be strong and secure in the knowledge that our self control abilities are ready for action, anytime we need them.

Take care!

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