improving your willpower

Put Down That Cookie and Consider the Big Picture

Focusing on long-term rewards makes it easier to stick to healthy behaviors.

By Emily Main

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—So it’s 5 o’clock and time to go to the gym, but you’re tired and tell yourself you’ll work out tomorrow. Sound familiar? According to a new study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, if you simply remind yourself of the benefits of sticking to your exercise plan, you may have better luck talking yourself into putting on those running shoes.

THE DETAILS: Researchers put their volunteers through a series of challenging activities, like reading complex articles about health, playing word games, and doing writing assignments. In a subsequent test, they were then asked to floss their teeth, not knowing they were being monitored by the researchers to see how long they actually flossed. In another test, the subjects performed a second task while a tempting plate of cookies lay within reach, and the scientists observed how many cookies they couldn’t resist eating.

The researchers found that activities that make people feel tired or stressed-out can prevent them from engaging in healthier behaviors later on. Study participants who had been exhausted by reading a complex article about hepatitis were less inclined to floss at the end of the experiment. “If you’ve just read something that’s unpleasant and it’s stressing you out, you’re already feeling tired and when approaching another task, you think, ‘Oh, I want to skip this,” says lead author Nidhi Agrawal, Ph.D., assistant professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “People are overruled by immediate feelings,” she explains. People who’d been mentally fatigued also tended to eat more cookies, showing how self-control can plunge when the going gets tough.

But here’s the good news: The study also suggests a way to fight back. In both scenarios, people who were able to find in the articles they read information that was beneficial to their long-term health were then able to overcome their feelings of stress and exhaustion. They were more likely to floss for longer periods of time or to eat fewer cookies. Keeping the long-term goal of better health in mind seems to help motivate people to make healthy choices even when their energy level is low and temptation is high.

WHAT IT MEANS: When tempted to skip your trip to the gym or reach for “just one cookie,” remind yourself of the benefits of sticking to a healthy program. Better yet, set some long-term goals for yourself that you can call to mind when you feel like giving up. “The more we keep the focus on general goals and how we’re going to go about achieving them, we’ll be healthier in the long run,” Agrawal says.

Setting goals is easy; sticking to them is the hard part. Here are a few suggestions for staying on track.

• It’s okay to be vague. You can focus on losing a certain number of pounds, but as Agrawal says, general goals aimed at improvements in overall well-being and health are just as effective. Other research backs her up: A study at the University of Michigan found that 40- to 60-year-old women who exercised with a goal of improving their overall well-being were 34 percent more likely to stick with their plan than women focused only on losing weight.

• Keep it simple. Agrawal’s study and others like it show that you can’t make too many demands on your brain’s capacity for self-control in a given day. If you set too many goals for yourself, you weaken your willpower and are more likely to cheat.

• Get between 7 and 8 hours of sleep. The participants in this experiment quickly lost their ability to care about health messages after they’d been put through the ringer by difficult tasks. Other research has shown that getting less than 6 hours of sleep can hamper people’s ability to make smart decisions.