I first learned about the wisdom of working out but not over working your self control in Social Entrepreneurship 101. We were discussing how to facilitate change in a community and the professor referenced a study conducted by Dikla Shmueli and Judith J. Prochaska where smokers were asked to actively resist eating a treat in front of them for 15 minutes. Every 15 seconds, they had to pick up the plate, smell the treat, and then put it back down without eating it. For some, that treat came in the form of freshly baked brownies while the other group of smokers had radishes.
After the 15 minutes, the participants were given a 10 minute break. The results? Participants who resisted sweets were more likely to smoke during the break (53.2%) than those who resisted vegetables (34.0%).1
So if you’ve got some bad habits to kick, experts recommend that you beat them one at a time. Giving up sugar, Netflix, and taking up running all in the same week might just pull your self-control muscle, making it too sore to even get you up with your alarm the next morning.
Instead, focus on one goal at a time and eliminate the everyday temptations. Pick a different route to work if yours sends you right by the donut shop. Put fruit instead of sweets out on the counter.
In 1 Corinthians 10: 13b, we are encouraged by the fact that, “ God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” We can trust Him to give us the strength we need to resist the temptations we inevitably will face. But when possible, it is wise try to avoid temptations rather than continually facing and fighting them. Some sins, like pride and anger–are hard to avoid entirely. When Jesus instructed his disciples (and us) on how to pray in Matthew 6, He didn’t say “help us to resist temptation” but rather “lead us not into temptation.”
But if we’re constantly slapping our own wrists as we reach for the forbidden chocolate that’s hiding in plain sight in the pantry, we’ve destroyed our own defenses. It’s far easier to snap back at our spouses, respond in anger to our bosses, or lose our patience with the kids when our self-control has been worn down by resisting small temptations all day long.
Research indicates that the average person spends three to four hours a day resisting desires. Plus, self-control is used for other things as well, such as controlling thoughts and emotions, regulating task performance and making decisions. So most people use their willpower many times a day, all day.
The good news? Like our biceps, there are ways to strengthen our self-control and increase endurance for when life hands us marathons of temptation. Eliminating the temptations and daily annoyances we can avoid is the first step as it reserves our willpower for the things that really matter. After that, Dr. Roy F. Baumeister, a social psychologist at Florida State University, suggests, “practice overriding habitual ways of doing things and exerting deliberate control over your actions. Over time, that practice improves self-control.”
Trying to supercharge your self-control workout by making dramatic lifestyle changes in a short period of time will have the same result as starting weight-lifting by benching 200 pounds. You’ll probably hurt yourself and give up entirely. The key here is consistency, not intensity. That could be as simple as using your left hand to brush your teeth or saving an extra $5 a week!
As we strive to become more like Christ, eliminating the small temptations throughout our days and working out our self-control muscle can help us grow in the virtues of patience, kindness, and selflessness–character traits that could surely use some toning up in my life.
- Study cited: Shmueli, D. & Prochaska, J.J. (2009). Resisting tempting foods and smoking behavior: Implications from a self-control theory perspective. Health Psychology, 28(3), 300-306.